The most important thing to say about Hal Prince, who died on July 31 at 91, is that he is responsible for West Side Story. Yes, Jerome Robbins had the idea, Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, Stephen Sondheim the lyrics, and Arthur Laurents the book. But if Prince had not gone out on a limb to produce it, dozens of shows we now consider classics would not exist, and today's Broadway would be a vastly different beast.
"Life can be so rich and wonderful when we step off the logical path and embark on eccentric adventures."
For a sentiment that sounds like it belongs in a fortune cookie, you'd never expect that Steve Young is actually referencing a subset of offbeat, secret musicals: Shows about toilets and tractors and dog food and cars. Shows with big names, like Bob Fosse attached, and even bigger Broadway-style budgets. Shows that were never seen by the public.
These musicals are the subject of Bathtubs Over Broadway, the Tribeca Film Festival–winning documentary that begins streaming on Netflix today.
Karen Azenberg, a past president of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, stumbled on something peculiar before the union's 2015 move to new offices: a 52-year-old sealed envelope with a handwritten note attached. It was from Agnes de Mille, the groundbreaking choreographer of Oklahoma! and Rodeo. De Mille, a founding member of SDC, had sealed the envelope with gold wax before mailing it to the union and asking, in a separate note, that it not be opened. The reason? "It is the outline for a play, and I have no means of copyrighting…The material is eminently stealable."
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
With his debonair charm and fluent feet, Tony Yazbeck seems built for ebullient men like Gabey in On the Town, who earned him a 2015 Tony nomination. But he's riding high at the moment dancing nervous breakdowns. First, there was his fierce, knife-edged tapping in Prince of Broadway, which just won him a Chita Rivera Award. (Full disclosure: I'm a juror.) Now he's giving a tour-de-force performance as a restless womanizer in The Beast in the Jungle, having its world premiere at the off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre through June 24. Both were choreographed for him by Susan Stroman.
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
Apart from having won the Tony Award for best choreography, the dances in Damn Yankees, West Side Story and the 1994 revival of Show Boat have little in common.
Not the choreographers—Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Susan Stroman—or the composers—Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Kern. Not the dancers, either—the standouts were Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Dorothy Stanley.
The name that repeats in all three Playbills belongs to Harold Prince—a producer of the first two and director of the third.
I first got hooked on Broadway musicals as a preteen at Gypsy, with its tapping moppets, gyrating burlesque queens and Tulsa, the dancing heartthrob. I've been going ever since, but Dance Magazine has been at it even longer.
The 1926-27 Broadway season was just ending when DM began publication, and of its 200-plus shows, dozens were new musicals. One, a Ziegfeld revue called No Foolin', listed more than 80 performers. Such huge ensembles of dancers and singers were common, whether in revues, operettas or musical comedies.
And why not? The '20s were roaring, and Broadway was flush. But that wasn't the only difference between then and now. Dance in the theater was only tangentially related to a show's content. It was window dressing—however extravagant, it remained mere entertainment.
Look up, Nashville: Bay Area vertical dance company BANDALOOP is taking over downtown buildings on Oct. 6. The special event will kick off the company’s performances of Harboring at the city’s new contemporary arts venue, OZ, where dancers will hang from three different spaces as audiences are guided from one room to another. Oct. 10–11. oznashville.com.
Above: BANDALOOP at the New World Center in Miami Beach. Photo by Atossa Soltani, Courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates.
Giordano Returns to Its Roots
Giordano Dance Chicago has expunged the word “jazz” from its name. But judging from its next premiere, the company could put that word back in. Commercial artist Ray Leeper, who has choreographed for Cher and Snoop Dogg and on “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” is cooking up a piece with touches of Broadway flavor. Oct. 24–25, Harris Theater in Millennium Park. harristheaterchicago.org.
Right: GDC’s Martin Ortiz Tapia and Maeghan McHale. Photo by Gorman Cook Photography, Courtesy GDC.
Eiko’s New Body Art
After four decades as a duo, Eiko & Koma are taking on separate ventures. While Koma delves into visual arts, Eiko is working on a long-term project that places her body in different environments. This month, she performs Eiko: A Body in Station in three-hour stints at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. It may be rush hour for others, but it’s the opposite for Eiko. Select dates, Oct. 3–25. pafa.org.
Left: Eiko; Photo by William Johnston, Courtesy Johnston.
Dance and Degas in DC
Edgar Degas’ sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is one of the most famous works of impressionist art in the world. But very few know of its seedy back story. The girl who modeled for Degas, Marie van Goethem, was a poor dancer at the bottom of Paris Opéra Ballet’s ranks, whose father died when she was young, leaving her mother to raise three girls on a laundress’ meek income. In Little Dancer, Susan Stroman’s new half-fact, half-fiction coming-of-age musical, Marie is caught stealing from Degas to pay for pointe shoes. The punishment: She must pose for the artist to pay off her debts.
New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck, who first worked with Stroman in The Music Man at age 11, will dance (and act and sing) her way through the role of Young Marie. “It’s a lighthearted story, but it’s also dark,” says Peck. “I think everyone, especially dancers, can relate to it. Ballet is such a difficult career. We all have to have a little fight in us to get to where we are.” Catch its premiere at The Kennedy Center, Oct. 25–Nov. 30, and stop by the National Gallery of Art, where the original sculpture will be the centerpiece of a Degas exhibition. Oct. 5–Jan. 11. kennedy-center.org.
Right: Tiler Peck as Young Marie. Photo by Matthew Karas, Courtesy The Kennedy Center.
A Choreographer On the Rise
NEW YORK CITY
New York City Ballet dancer Troy Schumacher has quickly made a name for himself for his fresh perspective on the neoclassical vocabulary. He had his choreographic debut with NYCB in September and this month, his pickup company of NYCB dancers, BalletCollective, will premiere two works. Oct. 29–30. nyuskirball.org.
Left: BalletCollective’s Harrison Coll and Ashley Laracey. Photo by Whitney Browne, Courtesy Dancers Responding to AIDS.
Dracula Takes Over
Bram Stoker’s vampire tale is becoming the Nutcracker of All Hallows’ Eve. Here’s where you can catch it this month.
The Alabama Ballet
By Wes Chapman and Roger Van Fleteren
Oct. 30–Nov. 2
Ballet San Antonio
By Gabriel Zertuche
Ballet Quad Cities
By Deanna Carter
Select dates, Oct. 17–25
By Nancy Page
By Lynne Taylor-Corbett
By Michael Pink
Oct. 31–Nov. 2
Mark Bruce Company
By Mark Bruce
Touring Sept. 26–Dec. 4
Right: Colorado Ballet’s Dracula. Photo by Terry Shapiro, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.
What makes choreography compelling? Whether you consider a work’s musicality or steps, formations or narrative, it often comes down to one thing: the element of surprise. Justin Peck is a master of this. He’ll bring two partners together for what seems like the beginning of a sumptuous lift—and then have them take off in opposite directions. Or he’ll ask the corps to hit an elegant classical position—while lying on the floor. This ability to counter expectations has skyrocketed Peck from a dancer dabbling in dancemaking to a national force in choreography in just two short years. Now New York City Ballet’s official resident choreographer, Peck will be creating or setting work on five major companies this season, and a documentary about his creative process, Ballet 422, is about to be released nationwide. The ballet world has been waiting anxiously for the next Christopher Wheeldon, the next Alexei Ratmansky. I think we’ve found him.
Right: “With Justin, it wasn’t difficult to see the raw gifts that he possessed right away.”—NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins on his company’s new resident choreographer. Photo by Jayme Thornton.
Peck’s not the only reason to be excited about the fall performance season. As budgets seem to have (mostly) recovered from the recession, it feels like the pent-up artistic energy finally has the resources to be let out. We’ve got the scoop on the 10 most intriguing premieres and tours going on around the country. These are the productions that everyone will be talking about. And yes, one of our picks is NYCB’s fall season, which boasts world premieres by Ratmansky, Liam Scarlett—and Justin Peck.
In this issue we also offer a peek inside the life of a Broadway dancer while she is between gigs. Leah Hofmann is scheduled to start rehearsals of Susan Stroman’s The Merry Widow soon, but she let us follow her around for a day while she juggled side gigs, an audition, jazz class and a meeting with her agent, and she shared insight into how she makes it all work. She’s learned all too well the unpredictability of this career: Shows get cancelled, roles get assigned at last minute, choreographers ask for skills you didn’t know you had. She stays prepared for whatever opportunities might come her way. Because life isn’t all that different from dance: The surprises are often the best parts.
Editor in Chief
Stroman rehearses ensemble members. All photos by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Bullets.
Little old ladies cutting loose with their walkers in The Producers. A total klutz tangling his arms and legs around the fabulously lithe Girl in a Yellow Dress in Contact. A horde of brides, veils flying, tearing across the stage to catch a husband in New York City Ballet’s Double Feature. It’s hard to think of a big-time choreographer more closely identified with comedy than Susan Stroman.
Even before she directed and choreographed The Producers, Stroman’s wit had flashed through the dances in Crazy for You, Show Boat, The Music Man and Oklahoma!, not to mention pieces the five-time Tony winner made for the Martha Graham Dance Company and NYCB. When she teamed with funnyman Mel Brooks on The Producers, in 2001, it was a match made in farce—and box office—heaven. So for Woody Allen to ask anyone else to direct and choreograph a stage version of his 1994 movie Bullets Over Broadway, or for her to say no, would have been sheer folly.
“The first thing was taking the original screenplay and molding it into the structure for a musical,” Stroman recalls. “For example, in a movie you can go to 50 locations; in a musical, you can only go to about eight. So, taking his different scenes and putting them in new locations, Woody started to write even more scenes, and more jokes. It really allowed him to revisit it and rewrite. After we got the structure, we sat down with a lot of music books all around us, and talked and talked about different songs that could possibly push the plot forward. Because that’s the other thing—if you sing a song, it needs to move the plot forward.”
The Bullets Over Broadway plot, set in 1929, concerns a struggling young playwright, a gangster with a knack for drama and an actress girlfriend, and one of the most delicious divas ever to bite down on a cigarette holder. (Dianne Wiest won an Oscar for her film performance.) And Allen, a clarinetist whose fondness for early jazz is evident not just in his movies but in the Dixieland gigs he’s been playing in New York nightspots for decades, wanted to fill the musical with songs of the period.
“That was a challenge, and I think we cracked it,” Stroman says. When the playwright (played in the musical by Zach Braff) objects to an underhanded suggestion, the gangster explains his moral code with “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do”; a dangerous affair begins with “Let’s Misbehave”; and when the gangster’s girl asks him to muscle her into a lead role, he replies with “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You?”
Stroman has clearly had fun creating jazzy dance to go with this jazzy score. And she found Allen a willing collaborator. At one point, she told him that she wanted to use a Charleston to transition between a nightclub and an alleyway. “He immediately wrote a scene,” she says, and she got her Charleston cue. “It’s a joy to be around people whose minds are always filled with electricity and who are able to fire off jokes and funny thoughts,” she says. “I feel very fortunate that Mel Brooks and Woody Allen both called me.”
Dance captains: Synthia Link, who was a swing in Stroman’s Big Fish, and Eric Santagata, who assisted Stroman on The Scottsboro Boys.
Associate choreographer: James Gray, a dance captain on The Producers and Young Frankenstein.
Why they got the jobs: “I pick dance captains and associates who will not only be there for me with their talent, but who will be there for the company with gracious personalities. It’s important to me who has the authority when I’m not around.”
Dance ensemble: 8 women and 8 men. “The girls play nightclub performers and flappers and a lot of other parts; the guys play gangsters and patrons in the club.”
Specialties: Tap, Charleston, acrobatics and ballet. “In what I refer to as ‘the gangster ballet,’ the flapper girls go flying through the air in jetés and tours jetés.”
Pre-show warm-up: “A lot of little variations on Charleston steps, to get them in the ‘20s and in the mood. We do the knock-knees and the windmill, and we do the breakaway Charleston, which is almost swing dancing. And then we do a couple of easy tap steps, like the shim sham.”
Above: Stroman with music supervisor Glen Kelly.
Susan Stroman isn't afraid to take risks -- like her new show, Big Fish
Big Fish blends fantasy numbers with family drama. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy Big Fish.
At this point in her brilliant career, Susan Stroman can pick her spots. And after the runaway success of The Producers, she could have kept coming back to Broadway every few seasons with a musical comedy full of her witty, high-gloss production numbers and loaded with built-in box office pull. But she’s chosen a riskier path, directing and choreographing challenging material with distinctly downbeat themes—a dark tale of adultery and murder adapted from French novelist Émile Zola (Thou Shalt Not), a meditation on life and death (Happiness), a shameful miscarriage of justice in 1930s Alabama (The Scottsboro Boys).
Now she’s returning to Broadway with Big Fish, another far-from-the-beaten-track musical, based on the 2003 movie by Tim Burton. The show revolves around Edward Bloom, an inveterate spinner of unlikely tall tales with an adoring wife, an alienated adult son, and a terminal illness. For Stroman, its appeal lies in its split personality. “It’s not only about a man who tells big-fish stories,” she says. “It allows us to create the tales onstage. So the show has opportunities for big fantastical elements. But it also has a lot of heart. Some musicals have either one or the other, but this has both.”
It also has the dynamic Tony and Astaire Award winner Norbert Leo Butz as Edward and the winsome Tony nominee Kate Baldwin as his wife. Yet in being neither fish nor fowl—that is, neither all colorful fish tale nor all emotional family yarn—the show takes a gamble. Stroman, speaking just before previews were to start, was confident. In Chicago, where Big Fish had its tryout, the reviews were enthusiastic and ticket buyers were moved to tears, she says. “The audience really can imagine themselves as our storyteller, or as the son trying to understand his father. The big-fish tales are entertaining, but in fact it’s the family story that draws the audience in.”
Whether she lands another hit or another also-ran, Stroman has been around enough to be philosophical. Despite critical acclaim, the Broadway production of Scottsboro Boys ran only 49 performances. But Stroman has since mounted the show in San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles, and is taking it to London. “Scottsboro Boys has had a wonderful life past Broadway,” she says. “And it was nominated for 12 Tony Awards. That was the theatrical community saying, ‘You did a good job, but you weren’t commercial.’”
She also takes heart from one of her upcoming projects. After she directs and choreographs the musical version of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, in spring, and before she collaborates with Harold Prince on the greatest-hits compilation Prince of Broadway, in 2016, she does a new musical inspired by the famous Edgar Degas sculpture of a girl in a tutu. Little Dancer opens next fall at the Kennedy Center with New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck in the title role. What strikes Stroman, she says, “is that when Degas created it he got the worst reviews of his entire life, and he was so upset he put it away for 40 years. Now it’s hailed as one of the greatest statues. So the whole show is about art not recognized in its time.”
As for art recognized as classic, Stroman has decided she’d rather try new things than revisit old ones. “I’m offered a lot of revivals,” she says, “but right now I need to create new art. It doesn’t mean I won’t do another revival some day.” And it’s not that she doesn’t enjoy them. “I loved doing Showboat, Oklahoma!, and then The Music Man. Those three helped me understand how to create a musical. I stand on the shoulders of those other shows.”
And there’s also her father, who was, she says, something of a storyteller, like Edward Bloom. “All of us in the theater, we are here because we knew someone who told us big stories.”
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.