Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Choreographer's Got Broadway Rhythm

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Choreographer's Got Broadway Rhythm

Article excerpt

When Susan Stroman's choreography first appeared on Broadway eight years ago in "Crazy for You," dance had virtually disappeared from the Great White Way. By the time she accepted her third Tony Award in early June this year for "Contact," she had managed to return dance to a position equal to that of singing.

The "British invasion" of shows such as "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Misrables," where all dialogue is sung and there is virtually no dancing, created a climate that all but eliminated dance from new musicals.

After choreographing two successful Off-Broadway shows in the early 1990s, Stroman burst onto the Broadway scene with "Crazy for You," a Gershwin pastiche with rousing tap routines, romantic duets, and stage-filling numbers where cowboys tossed around buckets and brooms.

Audiences clamored for more. Two years later, she repeated the success with "Showboat." Producers brought out other dance-oriented shows by other choreographers, including "Chicago."

In "Contact," which Stroman also directed and co-wrote with John Weidman, "the dialogue and the dance go together," she says, as we talk while seated on the floor of the downstairs lobby in the Neil Simon Theatre. Ignoring cries that "Contact" was not a traditional musical, Tony Award voters chose the unconventional piece, with three vignettes set to recorded music, as Best Musical. No one sings, so its award sets a precedent: a show with dance but no singing that qualifies in that prestigious category. Stroman's choreography is also represented on Broadway this season in the revival of Meredith Willson's classic musical "The Music Man," which she also directs.

Stroman's method of working receives as much acclaim within the theater community as her results do with award committees. She spends time with each dancer to create a "history" for his or her character. The result is a performance in which the dancers fully become individual characters in the show.

In "The Music Man," she says, "they all have a back story, they all have a journey. For example, I found out that [the painter] Grant Wood was from Iowa, so one of the little boys who paints the white picket fences is Grant Wood."

For "Contact," she began the rehearsal process "by doing nothing but partnering up [the dancers] and making contact. It allowed me to see how people dealt with one another. In that way, I was able to finalize who was alone in the club [in the second act], and who was with who."

She cast Boyd Gaines, a two-time Tony winner for "The Heidi Chronicles" and "She Loves Me," as a despairing young ad executive contemplating suicide (the male lead) despite Gaines's lack of formal dance training.

"He's a wonderful actor, which is what I needed. I didn't need a dancer," she says. "The character takes a chance, tossing himself into a room filled with those thoroughbred dancers, and Boyd brought that vulnerability to the role. …

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