The 20-somethings doing Broadway Dance Lab's first-ever Choreography Summer Intensive ended their recent tour of Lincoln Center's New York Public Library for the Performing Arts with something special. In the seminar room, Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli awaited them with a conference table laden with Broadway treasures from the library's collection. Decades-old original sketches and black-and-white production photos from My Fair Lady, The King and I and South Pacific served as visual aids for Gattelli's discussion of these shows' Lincoln Center Theater revivals, as well as My Fair Lady's 2016 60th-anniversary production at the Sydney Opera House, directed by the original Eliza, Julie Andrews.
Prodded by BDL founder Josh Prince, Gattelli talked about tackling those three musical theater classics and the art of Broadway choreography in general. Here are some highlights, edited and annotated for clarity.
A couple weeks ago, I went to see New York City Ballet's Tribute To Robbins, which featured Warren Carlyle's lovely restaging of Jerome Robbins' Broadway choreography. But as the number from The King and I began, I felt a familiar discomfort.
I rolled my eyes at the faux-Thai headdresses and the "exotic" musical motifs—irritations transferred from the musical, whose Orientalist tendencies are well-documented. But my disappointment doubled as I realized that I have never seen a ballet choreographed by an Asian American on that stage.
I left frustrated and confused. As a young dancer and Filipino American, I look up to performers and choreographers who share my Asian-American heritage. Where are they?
Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe in The King and I’s pivotal “Shall We Dance?” number. Paul Kolnik, Courtesy The King and I
What makes a musical magical?
Anyone who’s ever been cast in a new musical will attest to the fact that there’s virtually no guarantee that it’s going to be any good. You may love the songs, the story may seem strong and the choreography first-rate. But there’s no way to know if they all add up to a pleasing, satisfying work of musical theater.
Now theater veteran Jack Viertel has written a terrific new book, The Secret Life of the American Musical, that can serve as a kind of blueprint against which a new show can be compared. And having worked as a critic, a dramaturg, a consultant, a producer and a teacher, and currently the artistic director of the invaluable Encores! series of musical restorations at New York City Center, Viertel knows his musicals, and how they succeed.
The good ones, he writes in Secret Life, have an opening number that brings to life a specific time and place, like “Runyonland” in Guys and Dolls and “The Carousel Waltz” in Carousel. They introduce a clearly defined hero or heroine with an “I want” song that lays out the aspirations that will drive the action, like Tony’s “Something’s Coming” in West Side Story or Rose’s “Some People” in Gypsy. They have a vivid, action-packed production number to rev up the audience in Act II, like “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” in The King and I and “Luck Be a Lady” in Guys and Dolls. They have an unmistakable crowning moment in which performers take over the stage and either lay claim to stardom or reassert their star power, as Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur did when they sang “Bosom Buddies” in Mame, and as Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence did with “Shall We Dance?” in The King and I. Viertel makes a persuasive case that a show that includes these elements has a shot at greatness, not because it adheres to a tried-and-true formula but because decades of theater audiences have succumbed to such moments.
Viertel’s subtitle, “How Broadway Shows Are Built,” proclaims the intentions of The Secret Life of the American Musical as descriptive rather than prescriptive. “I’ve reached an age where I’ve seen the theater change significantly over my lifetime,” Viertel, 67, says. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to write the book, because as much as it’s changed, it still seems to be living by unwritten patterns. There seem to be certain truths that are inalienable; yet the theater looks and sounds completely different than it did when I was young.” Like him, and others, I’ve loved both The Book of Mormon and The King and I, created nearly 60 years apart; but until I read Viertel’s analysis, I never noticed the parallels between them.
There will no doubt be other classic echoes in musicals to come. Viertel has been teaching the musical theater artists of the future at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, sharing his behind-the-scenes know-how with would-be writers, composers, directors and choreographers. Viertel notes that “directing and choreographing require a lot of practical tools, and a choreographer doesn’t necessarily have the same set that someone trained as a director has. A choreographer may have a spectacular visual imagination, but be challenged in speaking to actors about how to play a scene. And directors tend to have the opposite problem—they know how to talk to actors, but they don’t actually understand how dance works.”
And both directors and choreographers need to deal with what’s commonly called “musical staging,” those moments in a show where people are singing but not doing dance steps. “How do you do a love duet, or the opening trio from Guys and Dolls?” asks Viertel. “How do you actually make it move from one side of the stage to the other while people are singing?” Dance-company choreographers are not likely to have had any experience solving such problems, he says. “They’re different worlds, and they don’t necessarily lock together.” But when they do, the results can dazzle, because, Viertel says, “everybody is making work for an audience, and that audience is the same group of human beings at a dance as at a musical theater event. People effective at creating work are dealing with a certain amount of universal truth.”
The 1977 production of "The King and I." © 1977 Jack Mitchell, Highberger Media, Inc.
A lot has changed on Broadway since 1951, when the now-classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I opened. Christopher Gattelli, who's in charge of the movement for the Lincoln Center Theater revival that begins this month, finds it “phenomenal" that “back then a show could just stop in the middle of the second act for a 16-minute ballet."
Equally phenomenal is the fact that the ballet's extensive choreography, from the master hand of Jerome Robbins, looked nothing like the kinds of dancing that Broadway audiences might be expected to recognize. Instead of classical pirouettes or ballroom sequences or jazz moves, Robbins used stylized techniques of Asian dance-drama to tell a story based on Uncle Tom's Cabin. And although the characters in “The Small House of Uncle Thomas" are all meant to be Thai, only a handful were played by Asians. These days, no one would dream of staging King and I with Europeans in the roles.
Gattelli, who won a Tony for Newsies, acknowledged that he was “a little nervous tackling such an iconic piece." He and director Bartlett Sher are reinterpreting the show, but they are retaining the Robbins choreography. They are also restoring some music that was cut from the original production, so Gattelli's new choreography will be interwoven with the old.
The original highlights included the charming “March of the Siamese Children," in which the princes, princesses, wives and concubines of King Mongkut are introduced to their new schoolmistress, and the pivotal “Shall We Dance?" in which she teaches the imperious monarch how to polka. But the number that most dazzled the critics in 1951 is, of course, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas," in which the ladies of the court turn Uncle Tom's Cabin into a Thai dance.
Except they don't, says Gattelli. With its splayed, upturned fingers, flattened tableaux and exaggerated leg positions, the “Uncle Thomas" choreography “looks very specific and authentic," he says. “But if you break it down, it's really true ballet. Robbins just took an attitude turn and tweaked and contorted it." Appropriating what he found in Thai painting and sculpture, as well as some elements of Cambodian dance, Robbins used the language he knew best and gave it a Southeast Asian accent. “It's so genius," Gattelli says. Genius it may be, but he's had to make changes. The Beaumont's thrust stage, with the audience on three sides, makes an exact reproduction unworkable. “I'm hoping to honor what Robbins did but also expand it," Gattelli says.
Christopher Gattelli. Photo by Heidi Gutman, Courtesy Disney Theatrical Productions.
He describes the embellishments as “a new coat of paint." And by sheer coincidence, Baayork Lee, who was a princess in the original King and I at the age of 5, uses the same expression when asked how she feels about efforts to refresh the show. “It's 60-something years old," she says. “It might need a new coat of paint to interest the current generation." Theater, she continues “is about change and growth."
She has worked to bring about some of that change and growth. Lee, who later went on to create the role of Connie in A Chorus Line, remembers that her Caucasian castmates in King and I moved easily into other shows. She went back to school. Some of the Asians took hula lessons to get work in Polynesian floorshows. Few of them managed to have theater careers. So in 2009, she founded the National Asian Artists Project with Steven Eng and Nina Zoie Lam, who had worked with her on a touring production of, naturally, The King and I. NAAP's educational programs culminated last year in yet another King and I tour, and one of the organization's alumni, Greg Zane, is Gattelli's associate on the new one.
The group must be doing something right, Gattelli says, given what he saw at auditions. “We had to make some really hard choices." So some talented 5-year-old playing one of King Mongkut's children today could have a bright future on Broadway. “This is a good time for us," Lee says.
Dance captains: Yuki Ozeki and Aaron Albano, who was last seen in Newsies, also choreographed by Christopher Gattelli
Associate choreographer: Greg Zane, who has staged several productions of The King and I, and danced in the 1996 revival
Asian dance consultant: Jamie H. J. Guan, who trained in China for the Peking Opera
Dance ensemble: 18—the full cast numbers more than 50.
Specialties: The dancers come from Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino backgrounds. Some brought training in Asian forms like Chinese dance or fan dancing, but all came with “heavy ballet training," notes Gattelli. “They have to have that foundation."