On Broadway: The Lady In Black

February 23, 2010

The standard approach to creating the dance vocabulary for a leading role in a Broadway musical is to use the story, the book, and the songs to fill out the character, and then use that character to shape the steps. But getting Morticia Addams, the matriarch of the ghoulish clan at the center of The Addams Family, to kick up her heels involved constraints that just don’t crop up in most shows.


According to Bebe Neuwirth, the 2007 DM Award winner who would seem to have been born to play the slinky, seriously sexy ice queen (opposite Nathan Lane’s Gomez, another piece of apparently perfect casting), it was one of those good news/bad news propositions: “Oh, good—you get to dance. But, your knees are bound together.”


No, it’s not about some strange bondage ritual—although the characters in the musical, like those in The Addams Family movies, television series, and original cartoons, do take perverse pleasure in activities that most of us would consider outré, if not downright immoral. It’s about The Dress—the long, low-cut, skin-tight black sheath puddling into fishtails that the New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams designed for the lady of the house when he first began drawing the macabre family and their gothic manse back in the 1940s.


“We all know what Morticia wears, because we’ve all seen the cartoons,” Neuwirth says. “How do you move in that? What can you move in that?”  Her partner in finding the answers to those questions was Sergio Trujillo, who brought to the show both a grounding in Latin dance—Andrew Lippa’s score takes note of the family’s Spanish lineage—and his experience in dealing with deep-down weirdness in the musical Next to Normal. From a snippet of the opening number, “Clandango,” that found its way from the December tryout in Chicago to the Web, the strategy seemed to be about reversing the audience’s expectations. After all, people dancing in a graveyard are not likely to be doing kick-step, kick-step in quite the same way that your, well, normal chorus line would.


And Morticia, Neuwirth says, “is not going to be doing jump splits. It’s not in her character. It’s not in the way she lives her life.”


To get at what she would be doing when the show arrives on Broadway this month, Neuwirth says, her rehearsal outfit often consisted of leotard, tights, and a TheraBand around her knees. “Sergio would ask, ‘How much ground can you cover?’ When you put that thing around your knees, you can’t move all that quickly. And it was very smart of them to provide me with a rehearsal dress, so we could choreograph and get an idea. That was sort of the test: Can I do it in this dress?”


The train ended up posing more difficulties than the tightness. “You’re constantly stepping on it,” she says. “If you move backwards, if you turn. I have a lot of soutenus—where does it land? I have to find little places to kick it out of the way so Nathan doesn’t step on it.”


At first glance, the deeply plung­ing neckline also looks as though it has the potential for “wardrobe malfunction.” But, says Neuwirth with a laugh, “the bodice is built almost like a tutu. It’s not going anywhere. Nobody’s going anywhere.”


In the end, she says, Trujillo’s choreography only rarely had to be modified to account for the costume. “He was really smart, and there was not a lot where we said, ‘Uh, no, not gonna be able to do that.’As you can imagine, there’s a lot of port de bras, épaulement, and there are isolations that do show.”


The choreographer also borrowed from his leading lady’s way of creating her characters. “As an actress,” Neuwirth says, “and I think it’s because I’m a dancer, I tend to focus on a person’s physicality. So this is fantastic for me, to be working in a show where I am creating a character as an actress and as a dancer. I am finding the way Morticia moves within the book scenes, and then it continues seamlessly into when I have to dance. Sergio found certain things I was doing, like the way I held my hands in certain scenes, and he tried to incorporate them into the movement as a nod to the character, to who she is.”


So who Morticia is will always be partly Bebe Neuwirth—in much the way that Lola is always partly Gwen Verdon and Anita is always partly Chita Rivera—and, naturally, partly the dress.



Sylviane Gold writes on theater for
The New York Times.


Pictured: Bebe Neuwirth and Zachary Jones. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy
The Addams Family