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Susan Stroman is back, this time waltzing with ‘The Beast in the Jungle’

Five-time Tony-winning choreographer and director Susan Stroman ("The Producers," "Contact") is back with the new musical "The Beast in the Jungle."
Five-time Tony-winning choreographer and director Susan Stroman (“The Producers,” “Contact”) is back with the new musical “The Beast in the Jungle.”
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

For many mornings, five-time Tony-winning choreographer and director Susan Stroman would turn on her phone to find a musical message from legendary composer John Kander, her friend and frequent collaborator.

The content of the messages from Kander, of Kander & Ebb fame: waltzes.

“They were called such things as, ‘I Like My Eggs With Bacon Waltz’ or ‘The Monday Waltz,’” she says with a laugh. “When he lost his wallet, he sent me one called the ‘I Lost My Wallet Waltz.’”

Kander, she adds, was getting used to writing waltzes. Now, two years later, Kander’s waltzes, Stroman’s choreography and librettist David Thompson’s prose have fused to become “The Beast in the Jungle,” an original dance play inspired by Henry James’ 1903 novella of the same name and brought to life by the same team that created the critically acclaimed 2010 musical “The Scottsboro Boys.” “Beast” is opening Wednesday at the Vineyard Theatre, the same off-Broadway theater that launched “Scottsboro.”

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Stroman with her "Beast in the Jungle" colleagues, composing legend John Kander, front, and book writer David Thompson.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times )

In the play, as in the novella, “Beast in the Jungle” protagonist John Marcher is a man whose imaginary beast stops him again and again from commitment to the woman he longs for. Stroman directs a sensual and emotional tale expressed less through dialogue than through narration, dance and music.

“The three of us just wanted to work together,” Stroman says. “I had an idea of doing something in three-quarter time, which is waltz tempo, and we talked about people waltzing through life. We started batting around ideas about how people miss all the cues in life while they’re waiting for something else to happen. John Marcher certainly waltzes through life, and we put Henry James’ story in contemporary times, then stepped away from it to make our own story.”

As Stroman began to craft dances, Kander went to the piano to craft waltzes. The prolific, four-time Tony winner of such musicals as “Cabaret” and “Chicago” with his writing partner, the late Fred Ebb, says he was thrilled by the notion of writing waltzes. “The first thing I said was, ‘How much do I have to pay to do this?’” He laughs. “It was fun for me to find out how many things you could express in the waltz form.”

It was apparently also fun for Stroman, the recipient of his experimentation, who recalls her delight the mornings she’d find a new waltz on her phone.

“We had all those waltzes transcribed and started with them,” she says. “Then, as the story got honed down, he wrote waltzes that were very specific to our story. The idea of making it a dance play allowed us to swim in the music of the waltz.”

Librettist Thompson recalls a moment “when Stro said to Kander, ‘What I need in this moment is for the audience to know we’re walking through the sunlight in Naples, and for that world to come to life so we feel like we’re on the beach, with Mt. Vesuvius in the background and kites in the air.’” Then John walked over to the piano, put his hands on the keys and played music that did just that.”

Choreographer and director Stroman rehearses "Beast in the Jungle" with stars Irina Dvorovenko and Tony Yazbeck.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times )

It surely helps that they’ve been working together on and off since the 1987 revival of “Flora, the Red Menace,” also at the Vineyard. Their friend Scott Ellis, a major Broadway director, had acted earlier in Kander and Ebb’s “The Rink” and brought newcomers Stroman and Thompson to meet them.

“It was so natural,” recalls Kander. “Fred and I were both so happy to have another crack at the piece, because it wasn’t quite right. We just assumed they would be smarter than we were, and they were.”

They were actually pretty nervous, recalls Thompson.

“I remember sitting on a park bench in front of Fred’s apartment waiting for Scott and Stro and thinking we’d be thrown out fast,” he says. “I figured they would see through us in a heartbeat and ask us what we’d ever done before.”

Stroman, in turn, also recalls nervousness, adding “They could have just said no, but they said yes.”

Kander and Ebb said yes to them again a few years later, when they wanted to create a revue of Kander and Ebb songs. That became the 1991 off-Broadway hit “And the World Goes ’Round.”

Since then, they’ve continued collaborating with one another as well as with others. They worked together on “Scottsboro” but also the musical “Steel Pier,” and writer Thompson worked with director Stroman on such musicals as “Thou Shalt Not” and “Prince of Broadway” as well as with Kander and Ebb on the 1996 revival of “Chicago.”

Book writer David Thompson, left, and composer John Kander during a rehearsal for the production opening Wednesday.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times )

Now comes “Beast,” which took shape at the New 42nd Street Studios near Times Square. Talking over lunch during a rehearsal break, the three collaborators build on one another’s thoughts and finish one another’s sentences.

“There’s no ego that radiates out of them,” says Tony Yazbeck, a Tony nominee for “On the Town” who is set to costar in Stroman’s likely Broadway revival of the musical “Crazy for You” this fall or winter. “Nobody fights. They all listen. Everyone respects everyone else’s opinions.”

Yazbeck plays Marcher as a young man, and Peter Friedman, a Tony nominee for “Ragtime,” plays Marcher as an older man. Both young and older Marchers pursue the luminous May, brought to life by Irina Dvorovenko, who retired in 2013 after 13 years as a principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre and has since appeared onstage and on TV shows such as “Flesh and Bone” and “The Americans.”

“It is incredible to live the full life of a character in one hour and 45 minutes,” says Dvorovenko, who portrays May at ages 20, 40 and 65. “And this creative team listens to each of us and asks what we think. I’ve been cherishing every day.”

So, it appears, has the 135-seat Vineyard, now celebrating its 35th season.

“We love working with them,” says the Vineyard’s co-artistic director, Douglas Aibel, who notes that early ticket demand was so strong on “Beast,” they extended the show before it opened. “‘Scottsboro Boys’ was such a happy collaboration for us, we had hoped for another experience like that. On ‘Beast,’ they are creating almost a new theatrical form.”

Irina Dvorovenko and Tony Yazbeck rehease "Beast in the Jungle" at New 42nd Street Studios in New York.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times )

See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.

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