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So You Want to Produce a Musical (4): The Role of the Choreographer

Oct, 2004

Ever since Agnes de Mille integrated the dance with the other aspects of the musical in “Oklahoma,” it has become too old fashioned to follow the format of a song, a motivationless dance, and then a reprise of the song. Will is back from Kansas City and the outlanders are naturally curious about the latest dance craze in the big city. So Will sings a song about Kansas City and this leads naturally into a dance that he demonstrates and that the others pick up with surprising ease. (Harold Hill gets to do the same thing in River City.)

And what musical could expect to succeed without a Dream Ballet such as Laurie’s that all but ends the first act of “Oklahoma!”? Less integrated shows like “Promises, Promises” are sure to throw in an office party. Similarly “Damn Yankees” includes a show given solely, it seems, to give Lola a Mambo number. And how is it possible to sing the praises of Mame or Dolly without a big production number that leans heavily on dance?

Now as one barely able to walk and chew gum at the same time, I had a long discussion with a talented choreographer here in Keene, NH named Barbara Andrews, who has long been acquainted with the task of getting local adults and high schoolers to hoof it convincingly during major musical productions in this area.

The first thing to do (she explained) is to familiarize yourself thoroughly with the music, picturing in the mind how it will translate into dance movements. Refine your ideas into simple steps, not forgetting facial expressions, and keeping in mind the space available on the stage, the costumes that might hamper complex movement, and even the makeup.

Then do some research. Barbara spoke to a rabbi before choreographing “Fiddler on the Roof.” She learned about why the sexes never touch while dancing, the Russian version of Jewish folk dances, and the movements during the Sabbath prayer. I can vouch for how vividly it all paid off during the Lions Club performance several years ago.

Some dances are supposed to be badly done, such as those in “Cabaret” and “Guys and Dolls.”  Here the audience must realize that it is the characters that are terrible, not the performers. (If you know how good a singer Patricia Rutledge really is, you can appreciate how terrible she sounds as Hyacinth Bucket! It takes a great actor to play a bad actor.)

During rehearsals, to build up muscle memory, demonstrate (say) a 32-bar phrase and have them repeat it until the body learns it (much like learning to touch-type or play a beginner’s piano piece). The most difficult thing is getting people to focus on what they are doing. Barbara finds men, especially athletes, somewhat more willing to learn. The two sexes learn in different ways — but those without a sense of rhythm can never be taught to dance well.

The better dancers should be used as section leaders, some up front, some in the back, so the others can follow them. Do not hide the poorer dancers; try to showcase whatever strengths they might have. And do not be too proud to collaborate with the better ones. Even more so, work closely with the music director so that the tempi are just right for dancing. This becomes a special problem when the dancers have to sing at the same time. There was a case in England in which a conductor who insisted on a certain slow tempo was told by a singer-dancer that the law of gravity made it impossible for him to remain in the air long enough to coordinate with the music. When the conductor insisted that the words be heard at that point, the performer reminded him that the words were Tra-la-la-la. The tempo quickened.

Each play presents its own problems to a choreographer. The dances in “Oklahoma!” and “Paint Your Wagon” can be patterned after modern square dancing with a shot of modern ballet; but when Harold Hill is asked to show the crowd the latest step from the big cities, the dance should be as authentic as possible.

Now and then, the choreographer is called upon to direct crowd scenes when the director feels inadequate or pressed for time. The restaurant scene in “Hello, Dolly” is a good example, with its complex mixture of dancing, pantomime, waiting on tables in the period manner, and dialogue. Many a choreographer, in fact, has done more of the directing than has the director. It happened in my experience when the over-committed director, who also had a lead in the show (never advisable), decided that any stage movement during a song or chorus counted as choreography. The results were marvelous, but the director got the credit.

What next? Rehearsals, of course.

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