For Broadway dance, high kicks and low comedy in a season of change

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For Broadway dance, high kicks and low comedy in a season of change
The cast of “A Beautiful Noise” at the Broadhurst Theater in Manhattan on Nov. 1, 2022. In the new Broadway show, Will Swenson plays the superstar, who seems perpetually dissatisfied, as if on a quest. Is theatrical choreography at a turning point? Or just leaping, lurching and shimmying as usual? Our critics weigh in. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Jesse Green, Elisabeth Vincentelli and Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- This year’s Tony nominees for best choreographer reflect a variety of theatrical dance styles. There’s the director-choreographer, exemplified by Susan Stroman (“New York, New York”) and Casey Nicholaw (“Some Like It Hot”). But also the choreographers who reflect other backgrounds, like Steven Hoggett (“Sweeney Todd”) and Jennifer Weber (“& Juliet,” “KPOP”).

Jesse Green, chief theater critic, was joined by dance critic Brian Seibert and contributor Elisabeth Vincentelli in a discussion about some of the choreographic shifts they’ve noticed in musical theater. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

JESSE GREEN: There was an almost bewildering variety of movement on Broadway this season. In “New York, New York,” Susan Stroman seemed to channel the great movie choreographers of the postwar era. In “Sweeney Todd,” Steven Hoggett set the huddled masses of Victorian London lurching and retching about the stage. In “Shucked,” Sarah O’Gleby devised a Rockettes-style kickline for corn cobs. And of course there was the revival of “Dancin’,” framed as a “pure dance” tribute to Bob Fosse.

ELISABETH VINCENTELLI: I would also add styles that come from the world of pop, music videos and TikTok, as displayed especially by Jennifer Weber — who scored two Tony nominations, for “& Juliet” and “KPOP.”

GREEN: And some powerful movement in plays as well, like the karaoke scenes in “Fat Ham,” choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie. Not to mention the cyclone of stage activity in “Life of Pi,” which at times seemed like a ballet with puppets. (The puppetry movement and direction are the work of Finn Caldwell and Scarlet Wilderink.) Is this much variety of theatrical dance unusual? And what is it telling us about the role of dance in storytelling and vice versa?

VINCENTELLI: It’s been a rare opportunity to watch representatives from various choreographic generations and their respective styles over the past couple of seasons.

BRIAN SEIBERT: And also the different kinds of influence that a choreographer can have over a production. The director-choreographer role still lives — in Stroman, and in Casey Nicholaw for “Some Like It Hot.”

GREEN: Stroman and Nicholaw led shows that were intentional throwbacks. Nicholaw gave us a five-minute high-speed chase ballet that was clearly a tribute to Jerome Robbins’ “Bathing Beauty” number in “High Button Shoes,” from 1947. And “New York, New York” seemed to be referencing Hermes Pan, who choreographed many of the Fred Astaire movies. That made sense because their shows were set in those periods — or even earlier.

VINCENTELLI: I think the director-choreographer style, which goes back to Robbins, Michael Bennett and of course Fosse, is so strongly identified with pre-1980s Broadway that it can feel frozen in that era. Even when the shows are set now. It’ll be interesting to see what Keone and Mari Madrid do with the Britney Spears musical, “Once Upon a One More Time,” which starts previews on May 13, because they come from music video, hip-hop and street dance, and definitely don’t do period.

SEIBERT: I agree. But there are two parts to it. One is control over the show. A director-choreographer show tends to flow like a dance and have dance transitions — sliding and gliding — between scenes. That’s true of these cases. But then there’s the question of style, a personal stamp, which of course Fosse had, and these choreographers don’t. They’re serving the show, and when the show is period, they use some version of period style.

VINCENTELLI: Brian, why do you think the current director-choreographers lack a personal stamp? I felt Stroman used to have more of an identity, especially with her use of props, but her recent work has been a little more pro forma. My favorite show of hers may well be “The Scottsboro Boys,” from 2010, where the storytelling and movement were superbly integrated. But it was not a success and she seems to have gone back to safer, flashier stuff.

SEIBERT: You may be right about that. “The Scottsboro Boys” was a high. But it’s also just very hard to have both jobs. For me, the period style in both “New York, New York” and “Some Like It Hot” feels perfunctory, a bit paint-by-numbers. It does the job, rather than standing out for its own brilliance and invention.

GREEN: I don’t know: The tap dance on the girders, inspired by the Margaret Bourke-White photograph, was pretty inventive! Not that invention is sufficient. Take “Dancin’”: all style, beautifully so. But the intention of the production, directed and restaged by Wayne Cilento, was explicitly to claim Fosse for the pantheon of pure dance geniuses like Robbins, as if storytelling were an impurity.

SEIBERT: That was so weird and false to Fosse’s gifts. Instead of pure dance, they substitute odd “scenarios,” which are just incomplete stories, excuses to insert classic Fosse bits and preoccupations. It becomes like a dance version of a jukebox musical, with many of the same problems. The best criticism of that show is the Fosse parody number “Do We Shock You?” in the current season of “Schmigadoon”: The dancers keep trying to shock us but the things they do aren’t shocking anymore, so all that’s left is the trying.

VINCENTELLI: As with scores, I don’t think choreography necessarily needs to move the story or the characters: I’m all in favor of gratuitous moments. So what if there is no justification for a number or a song, as long as it looks or sounds good? Some of my favorite numbers are little bubbles.

GREEN: Elisabeth, you and I often disagree on that point, but I grant you that in some kinds of musicals the bubble moment is all you can hope for. I didn’t think much of “Shucked,” but the moment in which O’Gleby had the cast create a chorus line with those cobs was sublime — and expressive of how the story intended to repurpose musical theater traditions. Otherwise its dancing seemed weakly decorative, unrelated to character. My problem with “New York, New York” was basically the opposite: The dance was strong and effective in advancing characters who were otherwise too peripheral to demand it. And the stories in “Dancin’,” however well danced, just seemed gross.

VINCENTELLI: I didn’t dislike the show as much as you did, but the entire time I felt the production was neutered aerobics with no Fosse sexiness. In fact, sensuality is lacking from much of the current choreography. It’s all so mechanical. Am I the only one to feel that?

SEIBERT: No, I agree.

GREEN: Me too. But was there any show in which the dance really succeeded at what Elisabeth says it doesn’t have to: moving the central story forward?

SEIBERT: I think Hoggett’s choreography — both in “Sweeney Todd” and the Neil Diamond bio-musical “A Beautiful Noise” — fits the bill. He comes out of physical theater and uses gesture, in a kind of style I might call gently expressionist. It probably wouldn’t work as well on its own, in bulk and central focus, but it serves these shows.

VINCENTELLI: I tend to enjoy Hoggett’s work, and his contribution to “A Beautiful Noise” was terrific in a very non-showy, organic way. It was as low-key as Diamond can be big, making for an interesting discrepancy in the show.

GREEN: You don’t expect such subtlety and emotional expressiveness in material like that. In the song “Forever in Blue Jeans” it also offered an incredibly sexy star turn — reminiscent of Bennett’s “The Music and the Mirror” from “A Chorus Line” — for Robyn Hurder as Diamond’s proud and angry second wife.

SEIBERT: Hoggett doesn’t come from a technical-dance background, which can be a limitation but here is a strength. Hurder just looks like her character dancing.

VINCENTELLI: Can we talk about the return of the ensemble? “A Chorus Line” was groundbreaking in changing the focus from the ensemble to the individual and thus better carry storytelling, and now there seems to be a renewed appreciation for plotless ensemble dancing. To me it’s directly linked to the rise of the music video as an influence.

SEIBERT: The music video, and also pop concerts. As we get more shows based on that music, we get more of the dancing that goes with it — in Weber’s work, but also with the Madrids. What I find particularly exciting is the dancers who are coming along, too. They have more street-dance percussiveness and freestyle verve. “Broadway style” dance can get stale, and as Elisabeth said, mechanical.

VINCENTELLI: I enjoyed Weber’s contribution to “KPOP” because it was like visual geometry being done in real time. K-pop bands are always in motion when they perform a song, so you need to move the individual members constantly to bring the next soloist to the front. She also had to integrate “point dance,” the part of the choreography that fans can do at home. I was fascinated to hear that Weber used an app called ChoreoRoom to help her devise those formations.

SEIBERT: New tools, same old challenges. Weber also told me that she was influenced by Hoggett and his emphasis on storytelling.

VINCENTELLI: A downside is that we might be missing out on a new generation of triple threats, especially among men. Quite a few leading women can move well, or at least interestingly, but I struggle to come up with a male one. I always enjoy Norbert Leo Butz, who’s not a trained dancer but is fully engaged in his character’s physicality. Otherwise it’s really slim pickings. Ensemble dancing is not going to deliver the next Sutton Foster, let alone the next Fred Astaire.

GREEN: Does all this suggest a new direction for dance as storytelling in shows? Fewer stars, more exalted ensembles, greater abstraction, wider points of reference? Among the first shows of the new season will be the Imelda Marcos disco-bio-musical “Here Lies Love,” choreographed by Annie-B Parson, whose work we recently saw in David Byrne’s “American Utopia.” I loved that show’s combination of dance “purity” and storytelling, neither condescending to the other.

VINCENTELLI: When I saw “Here Lies Love” at the Public, I felt that the movement was very effective, and brilliantly integrated into the immersive concept. I love that the bridges between the pop and Broadway worlds, often via “downtown” artists, are getting stronger.

SEIBERT: That back and forth is for the good. It makes dance on Broadway more flexible, as creators grapple with that perennial question of what a Broadway musical is — what it should sound like, how it should move.

GREEN: Also as their stories change. That’s why I loved Moultrie’s dance staging for “Fat Ham,” in which characters discovered their truth through what you might call diegetic movement. They were actually dancing in the story, while lip-syncing to karaoke at a party, but they were also tapping down into something much bigger about themselves and the world around them.

SEIBERT: Well, that’s one gold standard: dance that brings you deeper into the characters and emotions than the words or music might do on their own. But there’s still a place for truly showstopping excitement, too. Dance on Broadway can be many things.

GREEN: Even a kickline with corn.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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