The Beat of Dancing Feet

April 25, 2011

“Times have changed,” the nightclub singer Reno Sweeney belts to an ocean-liner packed with lovelorn socialites, bumbling gangsters, and tap-dancing sailors in “Anything Goes,” the title song of Cole Porter’s 1934 musical about shipboard shenanigans. The lyric rings especially true for Kathleen Marshall, the director/choreographer of the revival currently at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.


When Marshall won her most recent Tony—for choreographing the 2006 production of another revival, The Pajama Game—she was what used to be known as a “career girl”: busy, unattached, wedded to her work. These days, she is the wife of Scott Landis, one of the Pajama Game producers, and the mother of one-year-old twins, Ella and Nathaniel. Their photos—adorable!—adorn the cover of Marshall’s Anything Goes script.


Rehearsals are in full swing in an available Broadway theater, and the babies are out of mind, if not entirely out of sight. “Whatever room you’re in is the room you’re in,” she says, explaining that her new home life has made her more focused at work. “It makes me hone in on whatever needs attention, because I know that at night, my time has to be devoted to my family. I won’t have that leisurely time just to mull over the show.”


What needs attention right now is putting her Reno, triple threat Sutton Foster, and the shipboard ensemble through the rigorous tap sequences of the title number. Marshall, in black slacks and sweater, is wearing a demure pair of flat tap shoes. Foster’s are glittery green pumps that look like a good match for the spangled gown she wore as Princess Fiona in Shrek: The Musical. It’s been a while since Foster got to lead a big production number with serious dance in it. “Anything Goes,” she says, “is everything about musical theater that I love.” But at this point in the process, maintaining her stamina is a challenge: “I just have to learn how to pace myself so I can hit the big note at the end.”


Marshall isn’t concerned about her star. “There’s nothing she can’t do,” she says. And what’s more, “She can tap up a storm.”


The choreographer herself is in a position to know. Her first dance teacher, Mario Melodia, included both tap and ballet—“one right after the other,” she notes—at his Pittsburgh school. That training enabled her to get summer stock jobs in tap-heavy shows like George M!, 42nd Street, and, yes, Anything Goes.


But times have changed for tap, too. The dance form that dominated Broadway musicals in the first four decades of the 20th century, with stars like Fred and Adele Astaire, George M. Cohan, Marilyn Miller, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, became an endangered species in the 1950s, when musicals began using dance to further their plots rather than provide diversion for audiences. Tap dance made a big comeback in 1971, when No, No, Nanette ignited a nostalgia craze that brought shows like Irene and 42nd Street to Broadway.


When Lincoln Center Theater brought back Anything Goes in 1987, tap numbers were again a regular feature in Broadway shows, if only because so many of them were revivals. Marshall’s first Broadway gig, in 1993, was assisting her older brother Rob on the Chita Rivera vehicle Kiss of the Spider Woman. But she quickly established herself as a talented choreographer in her own right, and vintage musicals became her bread and butter.


In 1999, she helped Michael Mulheren and Lee Wilkof win Tony nominations with a comic soft-shoe for the Kiss Me, Kate highlight “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” And her humor-filled, high-spirited take on “Too Darn Hot” helped her clinch a nomination for herself as well. The 2001 revival of Follies saw her choreographing in soft-shoe style for Marge Champion and Donald Saddler, who played the musical’s married hoofers. And in The Pajama Game, which Marshall directed as well as choreographed, Roz Ryan and Michael McKean did yet another soft shoe, to “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again.”


Pajama Game
was presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, where Marshall is an associate artist. Anything Goes is also a Roundabout production, and the company is treating her to new dance music for “It’s De-Lovely,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and the rest of the canonical score. “That’s really fun,” Marshall says, “because you get to tell your own story. I love creating to existing dance music, but then you’re listening to find the story the music is telling. This way, the music follows you.”


The frothy script for this version of the musical is essentially the same as the one used in the 1987 revival, which starred Patti LuPone as Reno. Marshall saw that production, because her friend (and future assistant) Rob Ashford was in the ensemble. But she hasn’t looked at a video, preferring to let movie musicals from the ’30s inform her vision.


The romantic ballroom numbers in the Astaire-Rogers movies Top Hat and Gay Divorcee and the Busby Berkeley tap blowouts in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1935 provided particular inspiration. But don’t expect the same experience at Anything Goes. “Tap dancing in movies is dubbed, so it’s always perfectly clean and in synch,” she says. “In live tap dancing, your ear has to get used to something different.”


While some productions sweeten the sound of tap shoes striking the stage or equip performers with “click tracks” to keep them together, Marshall thinks “live theater should live and breathe. It should not be exactly the same every night.”


That doesn’t mean she’ll settle for sloppy, and she finds that tap numbers require extra time to create and teach. “I can’t improv tap the way I can other dance,” she says. “Normally we have the rehearsal pianist play and we sort of jump around; I make it up. We still do that with the tap, but then you have to break it down very specifically. You have to create tap in layers, because you’re creating the percussion with your feet, and you still have to do everything else you do in choreography—create what the upper body is doing, where the focus is, what the arms are doing, what the angles are, and all the patterns and formations. And on top of all that, you’re doing all these constant rhythms with your feet.”


The complexity also means that it takes the cast longer to learn. But four weeks before the show’s first performance, the trenches, time steps, Maxie Fords, and back essences already look and sound good. “Now we’ve got to get all the rest of it in place,” Marshall says. She’s explaining to the dancers where their shoulders should relax and where they should tighten. She’s demonstrating the energy she wants to see in their arm movements. She’s telling them where they should be looking and when they should be smiling. “In tap, you’re having a conversation with your feet, and you have to make sure you know what you’re saying.”


It’s always a challenge, says Marshall, having “20 pairs of feet all trying to sound like one person.” Audiences love the “brightness and sunniness” of group tap numbers, and Marshall loves delivering what they want. Working with “old-school” performers like Rivera, Champion, and Saddler has taught her to trust her instinct for pleasing the crowd. “Part of your job is to tell a story,” she says, “and part of your job is to entertain and not apologize for that.”


She’s somewhat old-school herself, and even the two new musicals she’s developing—one on Toulouse-Lautrec and one, Nice Work If You Can Get It, incorporating Gershwin tunes—have a vintage flavor. “I just grew up on old musicals, listening to cast albums, going to see shows, watching movie musicals. I sometimes feel I was born in the wrong era.”


Others might disagree. The Broadway star Joel Grey has a lead role in Anything Goes, and he has no words for his director—only a supremely expressive gesture. He puts the fingertips of his left hand together, brings them to his lips, and sends a long, lingering kiss off in her direction. ’Nuf said.



Sylviane Gold writes
Dance Magazine’s “On Broadway” column. 


Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney, center, rehearsing
Anything Goes. Ensemble member Adam Perry is in sailor cap. Photo by Matthew Murphy.