Drama Desk Pays Tribute to Dance
This Spring, the Drama Desk, which was founded in 1949, again hosted luncheon meetings which are a pleasant, informal way for critics to meet those whose work they critique and to give the writers an opportunity to get an inside feel for what the producing companies and performers face.
The April topic was “Dance on Broadway, The Art and The Staging”. The panel consisted of Sutton Foster, Kathleen Marshall, Casey Nicholaw, Kelli O’Hara, Jonathan Pryce, SergioTrujillo and John Lloyd Young, representing the productions of “Jersey Boys”, “Pajama Game”, “Drowsy Chaperone” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”. Richard Ridge of Broadway Beat moderated.
Most of these panelists were subsequently nominated for and received awards from the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Tony committees. Were the creators of this panel prescient or just theatre savvy?
Ridge began with a question to the choreographers, then one for dancers, and continued alternating between the two groups for most of the discussion. At the end, questions were thrown open to the floor of critics, journalists, and general public.
While answers didn't always adhere to topics, the discussion was lively, informative and fun, seventy five percent of the fun attributable to Jonathan Pryce’s witticisms. This distinguished British actor, who replaced John Lithgow in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, was missing, and missed, from Broadway for fifteen years.
There was a tempest when “Miss Saigon” was being brought over from England and American Equity attempted to prevent Pryce from coming with the show. British and American Equity were fighting out the fact that English actors were often welcomed here, but American actors did not get reciprocity; so Jonathan became a cause celebré. Having seen his remarkable performance in London, I was among many who felt it a travesty to bring the play without him. Pryce’s work in “Miss Saigon” still glitters in my memory, well deserving of his Tony award.
Eventually the matter was settled, along with a few new guidelines in the cross-Atlantic Equity agreements, and Pryce became a “Pryceless” addition to American theatre while remaining the same in Britain. People in the business have said he was fun to work with. He was certainly fun at the Drama Desk Luncheon.
One of the more surprising statements was Jonathan’s claim that he never thought of himself as a singer or dancer. Talking about going into “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” he said for four weeks in London he learned the songs, and then during his four weeks of rehearsal in NYC they added the choreography to the music. “It takes me a long time – I'm not a dancer”. He extolled the dance captain on the play: “Dance captains do the work to keep the show in shape.”
All the dancers spoke of the life regimen dancing demands. They agreed you needed lots of sleep and mustn't abuse your body: you must “live the life of an athlete”. Some detailed their stringent routines, even when not in a show, and their warm-up routines just before curtain time to limber up.
Kelli O’Hara of “Pajama Game” (later, Tony and Outer Critics Circle nominee for outstanding actress in a musical) said, “It’s a great way to live life. It makes you take care of yourself, eating right, keeping your body in shape”.
Pryce earned guffaws with, “I don't do anything pre show”. Then he added, “I'm naturally limber”. He confessed that in the second act of …”Scoundrels” he wears elastic kneepads…can't in first act, when his legs “are naked”.
Sutton Foster (Tony and Drama Desk nominee for best actress in a musical) said when she broke her wrist at final run through of “The Drowsy Chaperone”, “I could do 85% of routines. Things were altered for my physical limitations, but I tried a one handed cartwheel and found I could do it”. She said they kept it in the show. (I saw the show – they did.)
Talking about how dance has changed, or dance in specific shows has altered, Kelli O’Hara said “’Pajama Game’” is now a period piece. We're more fifties than the fifties were”.
Sergio Trujillo, (subsequently Drama Desk choreographer nominee) in talking of how he choreographs, said he puts a song on the CD player and waits till he sees things. For “Jersey Boys” he had a bit of an edge — “Coming from New Jersey it was in my head, but if what I see is not the performers’ strength, I reshape dance to them”.
Kathleen Marshall (ultimately winner of the Tony for choreography, OCC outstanding choreographer award and DD choreographer award and also nominee for direction of a musical) said she ponders on the character’s story. She also considers: What’s the set for the number? “In ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ number I used the piano - people dancing around it, the seduction of it. In ‘Light in the Piazza’ Clara took me to the place: - the struggle, painful and wonderful at the same time”.
John Lloyd Young (later winner of Tony, DD and OCC outstanding actor in a musical awards) confessed when he first auditioned for the Frankie Valli role a year ago, he had no idea who that was. He considered the era and thought, “I can do Doris Day”. He auditioned for the role cold. Later, he knew better.
Jonathan picked up on this by saying, “I also tried for Doris Day roles, but I didn't get any of them”.
John Lloyd Young was called in for another audition some time later, just before “Jersey Boys” came to Broadway. By then, he'd learned a bit about Valli, and knew the singer had not danced, so he thought, “I can do this”. This time he went ready for the audition. “It was a much sought after role, but I didn't seek it, it found me”. However, it took six auditions to land it. Later, he learned there was dancing in the show.
Pryce also had a role find him. John Lithgow was leaving “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and suggested Jonathan for his role. Since Pryce worked with understudies and the dance captain, “No one was saying ‘This is how I did it’…” so he was free to find his own way of playing it.
Sutton Foster remarked this was her first real dance role. “Except maybe for rocking back and forth as an Hassid in a version of ‘The Chosen’”. She had been planning to take a little break after “Little Women” and was hanging out with Casey Nicholaw who suggested she read “The Drowsy Chaperone” which he was set to direct. “I laughed out loud reading it”, she told us. Then she auditioned and got the part.
Richard Ridge presented the topic of what choreographers seek now.
Kathleen said since musicals have a lot smaller cast now than a few decades ago, you have to cast principles who can do everything. She looks for strong, vivid people.
Casey Nicholaw (OCC nominee for outstanding choreography, DD and Tony nominee for choreographer/director) who wanted “the show to move” looked for people who were “comfortable in their bodies”.
Sergio referred to how Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse were able to find dancers who were actors. “I like to have a dancer who is an actor, that extra encourages dancers to live it, find the movements true to the dance or step”.
John Lloyd Young is in his first Broadway show, “I'm new to the game and getting a lot of attention. It’s hard to know how to handle it”. He’s getting a big kick out of some of the celebrities who have come to “Jersey Boys” – Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis with his daughter, Calvin Klein “who has seen it two or three times”.
When one choreographer talked about seeking “chemistry between players before casting them”, Jonathan quipped, “Norbert and I should have had a chemistry test”. He was of course referring to his hyperactive co-star in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”.
“We have a sense of spontaneity in the show. Norbert licked my face on stage – the shock came when I licked his back”.
All agreed dance was in good shape on Broadway. I believe this year’s crop has reinstated dance’s significance to most musicals.
Kathleen said, “Book musical comedies lend themselves to dance – dance naturally follows the music”.
Sergio Trujillo, who danced in Robbins and Fosse shows, feels there is a “great new force of choreographers coming up. Dance is evolving a new genre of musicals as choreographers infuse dance with their own point of view”.
Casey said, “With a 1928 musical I researched vaudeville, old movies”. Then there was finding his “dancer’s talents and making dances funny”. Since principles also comprise the chorus, he needed people who were comfortable in their bodies, able and willing to move. He certainly got them!
A special award should be given to the Drama Desk for reminding critics and public alike of the importance of dance to Broadway musicals, and doing so with such a stellar group of performers and choreographers!