Daring storytelling that integrates song and dance is rare. But a few auteurs strive for the elusive formula. Broadway has always prized director-choreographers who could deliver hit musicals with an individual stamp on them — masters such as Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Michael Bennett and Tommy Tune. Even when an individual project failed, they brought a special excitement to the Great White Way: that Broadway rhythm long celebrated on stage and screen.
Building on the achievements of their predecessors, these theater artists explored subjects that musicals had always avoided and found ways to make dance integral to a show's narrative thrust rather than just a diversion. Moreover, nearly all of them addressed show business itself as a metaphor for the superficial values and obsession with celebrity that plague American society.
Of this distinguished company, Tune is the last man standing, someone who won nine Tony Awards and pretty much owned Broadway in the 1980s. He remains active at age 67 but now thinks of himself, he says, "as an anachronism," dismayed by the conditions under which musicals must currently be created.
"You used to have one driving force behind you," he said between performances of "Doctor Dolittle," which plays two final times today at the Pantages Theatre before moving to the San Diego Civic Auditorium and then the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
"But there aren't any individual producers anymore — they're all committees. Or corporations. When you sit down with them, sometimes you have as many as 12 people at the table and they each voice an opinion. And you watch your work dissolving into shreds, with so many people pecking at it."
Tune finds that the musicals surviving this kind of creative process don't really need the kind of star director-choreographer that used to dominate musicals. Instead, they require people adept at what he calls "that environmental theme-park-ride kind of thing."
"Do you notice that in those shows the audiences lean back in their seats while in the shows that I have always admired they sit on the edge of their seats and lean forward? Audiences don't have to listen now because it's cranked up. They don't have to imagine anything because the staging shows it all. It's a different time.
"I used to call what I did a theater of nuance, and that is like saying 'kindness.' People shrug and say, 'Huh?' "
Although Tune hasn't given up hope, he doesn't believe that Broadway is currently the right place for an innovative name-above-the-title director-choreographer: "That time has passed." But some of the highest-profile inheritors of the great tradition he speaks about refuse to apologize for staging musicals.
Susan Stroman describes a contemporary audience hungry for connection. Graciela Daniele says that the word "musical" no longer suggests light entertainment but a whole range of performance experiences. Kathleen Marshall suggests that America has produced musical theater classics that ought to be brought to the stage as often as plays by Shakespeare. And Matthew Bourne declares that whatever the musical can or can't do in the millennium, the real action for him is in dance.
Dropping in on them in London and New York, you find them eager to take musical theater beyond anybody's expectations, while respecting the artifacts of the past — whether a beloved movie, an unforgettable piece of choreography, a daring play or a body of work ripe for revival. Watch them fly — as long as the daunting conditions for staging musicals don't clip their wings.
Kathleen Marshall The audience at the American Airlines Theatre in New York can't get enough of Harry Connick Jr. in Kathleen Marshall's revival of the 1954 Richard Adler and Jerry Ross musical "The Pajama Game." Making his musical theater debut as Sid Sorokin, the show's lovelorn factory supervisor, Connick sounds like the young Sinatra, adding exciting jazz riffs to such standards as "Hey There" as well as "The World Around Us," a song cut before the original Broadway opening but now restored just for him. However, director-choreographer Marshall must confront the ghost of Bob Fosse in her staging — specifically, his treatment of "Steam Heat," which she calls "probably the most famous piece of musical theater choreography ever created." It's familiar not only from the original stage "Pajama Game" and the subsequent film but performances in the recent compilation-musical "Fosse" on stage and TV. So how do you erase, replace or supplant all that? Marshall starts by delivering exactly what you expect — the iconic Fosse image of two men and a woman slouching in black suits and bowler hats. But as soon as that image and tribute resonates in your consciousness, the men strip to shirt sleeves, the woman to a chorine costume, and Marshall takes the number in her own direction. Her showstopper is "Hernando's Hideaway," which pushes mock-seduction and the stalk-tango about as far as they can go, then switches gears entirely with Connick playing feelthy-piano variations on the tune, launching an invigorating jazz-dance ensemble utterly unlike anything in the original show. A Tony Award winner for choreographing the revival of "Wonderful Town" (which she also directed), Marshall says she rejects what she calls "this crazy expectation that a Broadway show must run for five years in order to be successful and have international companies and national tours that run forever." "Trying to create something like that can be a huge burden — and it also makes it hard to shape shows for individual personalities. When something is going to run for years and years and years, you have to create roles that many, many, many people can play." However, she's happy to be working at a time when the options of director-choreographers and what's considered prime musical theater have changed and expanded. "It's hard to define an era when you're in the middle of it," she says. "But today we have a lot of musical theater auteurs who are initiating and conceptualizing pieces — like Matthew Bourne's 'Swan Lake,' like Susan Stroman's 'Contact,' like Twyla Tharp's 'Movin' Out.' "These pieces may not be in the traditional book-musical mode of Robbins, Fosse, Champion, Bennett or Tune. But they are big, exciting and successful."Twyla Tharp Songs were central to the choreography of Twyla Tharp three decades before she won a Tony for her dance-driven, Billy Joel catalog musical "Movin' Out." In pieces for her own modern dance companies as well as such classical ensembles as the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, she used suites of jazz and pop recordings to accompany idiosyncratic movement that seemed to fuse virtually every kind of dancing, from the academy to the street, in a holistic new style. Inevitably, some of those pieces sank without a trace, but others became instant classics: "Nine Sinatra Songs," for instance, to be performed by Miami City Ballet during its June 30-July 2 engagement at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Although Tharp's "Short Stories" inventively physicalized interpersonal conflict, her periodic flirtations with narrative and character comedy often proved crude ("The Catherine Wheel"), while her most luminous early abstractions ("Sue's Leg") seemed to wed a contemporary sensibility to energies and images drawn from the music. Tharp's latest catalog musical comes at a time when Broadway, the West End and the international touring circuit teem with full-evening pieces celebrating virtually every entertainer from Rod Stewart to Ray Charles — and when the Beatles have inspired the latest Cirque du Soleil extravaganza. In such a landscape, the inimitably cryptic songs of Bob Dylan must seem like the final frontier — and that's where Tharp has headed. On view through March 19 at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre (before Broadway), "The Times They Are A-Changin' " uses Dylan's songs for a Tharpian exploration of generational conflict within a traveling circus. The piece received mixed reviews, at best, and Tharp's Broadway production of "Singin' in the Rain" was never fixed until show doctors took it away from her. But don't count her out: She remains one of the most original choreographic voices on the planet. Tharp declined to be interviewed for this story.Matthew Bourne Onstage at London's Prince Edward Theatre, the entire cast of "Mary Poppins" is singing — and spelling out in some secret sign language — the ultimate Last Word from the 1964 Disney film. But this stage adaptation (now in its second year and opening on Broadway in November) isn't your nanny's "Mary Poppins." No, it manages to deliver the most beloved Sherman brothers songs from the film — creatively re-contextualized — while adding new ones by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe that help support episodes from P.L. Travers' original stories that Disney deemed too dark 42 years ago. The unlikely choreographer and co-director (with Richard Eyre) is none other than Matthew Bourne — the same Matthew Bourne who gave the world male swans in the decidedly provocative "Swan Lake" that won him two Tony Awards and returns to the Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday in its 10th-anniversary production. He also turned Bizet's "Carmen" into "The Car Man," the story of a bisexual drifter who shakes up a small American town, and adapted Joseph Losey's 1963 film "The Servant" for an experimental class-conscious dance-drama titled "Play Without Words." True, Bourne has choreographed major productions of "Oliver!," "South Pacific" and "My Fair Lady" in his native England. But his role as co-director of "Mary Poppins" allowed him to enrich the project with the same offbeat humor and edge found in his alternately witty and powerful dance dramas. For instance, a nightmarish new scene and song ("Temper, Temper") puts the child-protagonists of the musical on trial for cruelty to their toys — an episode as pointed and scary as the Act 1 transformation scene in Bourne's gloriously untraditional "Nutcracker!" "I find the responsibility of directing and choreographing a musical pretty enormous," Bourne comments. "And there's not usually enough time to do it before you get it on the stage. Approaching 'Poppins,' we all knew that it's one of Disney's most valuable titles. And getting it wrong was not an option." While "Mary Poppins" packs the Prince Edward Theatre, Bourne's New Adventures company is touring England with "Edward Scissorhands," his all-dance adaptation of the 1990 Tim Burton film, using music by Danny Elfman (who composed the film score) and Terry Davies ("Play Without Words"). The show comes to the Ahmanson Theatre in early December. It may be Bourne's most endearing creation, with another soulful no-hands love duet à la "Swan Lake," a charming, inventive topiary ballet inspired by Frederick Ashton and lots of satiric depictions of suburbia. In many ways, it tells the same story as "Mary Poppins": a family and community changed, for better or worse, by a strange, unpredictable outsider. Bourne says he thinks of doing musicals as "a sideline" and New Adventures as the focus of his career. He credits the great musical theater choreographer-directors of the past as inspirations but doesn't identify with them. Instead, like Mary P. and Edward S., he considers himself an outsider, someone who started in British alternative modernism — not show dancing or even ballet. "I came from an odd route, really," he says, "and I feel that's been my saving grace. That strange beginning has helped me connect with more people." In a British dance scene where narrative works tend to be either backdated and balletic or politicized and aimed at a niche public, Bourne's dance dramas can seem unprecedented, especially their way of using well-known source materials (movies, ballet classics, opera) to draw people into a movement theater event so easily accessible and savvy about storytelling that they need no spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.Graciela Daniele Tucked behind the Metropolitan Opera House, on Lincoln Center's intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse stage, 10-time Tony nominee Graciela Daniele is directing and choreographing a musical adaptation of Federico García Lorca's classic study of maternal oppression, "The House of Bernarda Alba." The words and music by her longtime collaborator Michael John LaChiusa help restore the sense of poetry to Lorca's play, Daniele says. "In English, the beautiful poetry of Lorca goes out the window, it just doesn't translate very well. So the magnificent score and the lyrics brought the poetry back into the play. It allowed me to underscore what the characters felt inside, using the language of flamenco, the language of the place where Lorca wrote this play." As a director-choreographer, Daniele is best known for ambitious, unorthodox projects that try to expand the musical-theater idiom: the sprawling social history of "Ragtime," for example, and, most recently, the eventful personal-professional history of "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life." Her range is amazing, from the hidden psychosexual tensions in a tango trio to the epic of American immigration and the evolution of our national culture. In "Bernarda Alba" (still in previews), her source is a play as revered by Spanish-speaking audiences as "Hamlet" is by Anglos. Featuring Phylicia Rashad in the title role, Daniele's production places a 10-member, all-female cast inside a stark, colorless, claustrophobic set and aims for an unsparingly intense style. At first glance, you might not spot her choreographic skills in anything but the impressionistic dance interludes. But a pervasive and sophisticated sense of rhythm unites the spoken, sung and danced components of the work. "Dance is a vocabulary, a language to tell a story," she explains. "It has a rhythm, and therefore when director-choreographers do a piece, even if it doesn't have music, even if it's just a play, they bring an innate sense of rhythm that makes the play fluid and perhaps a little more interesting than people who don't have that music inside their body." Daniele's staging of the ballad "Love, Let Me Sing You" is especially fluid, expanding from a solo to a shared expression of yearning among Alba's daughters. "I'm 66, and I started dancing when I was 6 years old," she says. "I haven't done anything except theater for 60 years. I don't mind doing commercial, light musicals because frankly that's what gives me the money and allows me to do more experimental work. But I want to keep growing, challenging myself, trying things I haven't done before."Susan Stroman If anyone dominates musical theater direction and choreography in the new millennium, it's Susan Stroman, winner of five Tonys and distinctive for the inventive use of props in her dances as well as her ability to build up excitement within a number and then shift gears rhythmically or with the addition of new performers and build it up all over again. (Tommy Tune was a master of that structural ploy before her.) Stroman's 11-minute staging of "I Got Rhythm" in "Crazy for You" displays both talents as well as her love for vintage show music. She's done her share of major revivals and adaptations as well as shows created from the ground up and accompanied by pop recordings. Moreover, she's worked for commercial producers as well as nonprofits and even choreographed for the Martha Graham company and New York City Ballet. She believes that financial constraints on Broadway have led to an emphasis on revivals — "Most producers are unwilling to take a chance with 12 or 13 million dollars" — but they've also forced performers to become more versatile: "The people who do musicals today can sing and dance and act," she says. "They are true triple threats. And that has also something to do with money. Because in the old days you could hire a chorus that just sang and a chorus that just danced. But now you are asked by the producers to cut down the number of actors, say 22 in a big musical, and those people have to do it all. So that's the way people are being trained." She acknowledges that she and her musical theater contemporaries are "standing on the shoulders" of the great Broadway director-choreographers of the past but insists that "the people who are working right now really do have their own ideas, styles and ways of working. And perhaps this period will be thought of in another way. "Listen, it would have been great to have been born in the time of Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein and Berlin, to have worked with them, one on one. But no, I find that my generation is doing musicals for the audience that's out there now. "I think 'Contact' was a success because it had an accessibility about it; it was a contemporary piece that people identified with. 'The Producers' hit at a time when people needed to laugh. Sept. 11 happened shortly afterward, and 'The Producers' became a sort of sanctuary for people to go and forget their troubles as they did at the time of the Depression. "An audience wants something new. So I am working now as an artist inspired by the audience that's around me today." Who could ask for anything more?Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times