Several years ago in preparations for a new ballet using Motown hits that I was planning for The Joffrey Ballet (and because I was also thinking of the work as a possible workshop for a dance musical, a “dancical”, I wrote some thoughts down about the dance musical in general and Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out in particular. However, I never shared those thoughts with anyone – but I will later in this post.
With the recent opening of the new Tharp dancical, Come Fly Away (to the songs of Frank Sinatra), and the critical response to it, I started to think again about my own aspirations in this area and what I had written back then. Several other factors might have also gotten me thinking as well. Spectrum’s current collaboration with the 5th Avenue Theater on its revival of On The Town probably triggered some thoughts. But my being fired from the Broadway bound musical White Noise, which I was scheduled to direct and choreograph this spring in New York, (as of this posting, it still hasn’t gone into rehearsal) is the most likely instigator. I had co-directed and choreographed the out of town tryout in New Orleans this past summer and with two show stopping numbers in it and tremendous audience response, I was thrilled at the possibility of my theater dances being seen the way I wanted them to be seen as opposed to how a director (not me) thought they ought to be viewed. I was also excited that with Bill T Jones’s Fela, the Tharp show, and White Noise, the current season might see three choreographer directed shows running simultaneously on Broadway.
The point being that with my firing from White Noise I realized that I had no power. That in the power/politics of the commercial theater, the most expendable member of the creative team is the non-author or the director/choreographer (especially if unlike Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett or Tharp he or she has no marquee value as a choreographer/director). Interestingly, composers, lyricists, and book writers are considered the authors of a musical, while choreographers whose work is also original and generative are not. So I guess what this might really be about is my desire to be in control or at least in control of the artistic material and the loss of control I felt with my firing. It seems that the only way to be in control or at least to feel like you are in the commercial theater is to author or produce. And as an artist, authoring is the better option.
Control I believe is an issue for Tharp as well. I think her work has evolved the way it has as she has struggled to gain more and more control over the circumstances under which it is produced and as she has moved closer to authoring (in the commercial theater sense). She has been smart – as she has maximized her control she has minimized her financial risk- from not for profit dance company director (you can lose everything) to Broadway author (front end guaranteed, back end the possibilities are endless). She has managed to do this by shrewdly maneuvering within or manipulating the current commercial system she works in. It was rumored that with Movin’ Out she gave up some financial benefits to gain artistic control – and it paid off. Movin’ Out was a hit and she was then able to leverage that success for her next project, The Times They Are A-Changin’. While that show was a flop, it demonstrated/indicated where her aspirations are – the commercial theater (though it could be argued this was clear even back in 1981 when her dance project with David Byrne, The Catherine Wheel, was presented on Broadway at The Winter Garden). After the closing of The Times They Are A-Changin’, she then did what she had done before (among other things like writing books on personal practices or memoir), retreated back to the concert dance or ballet world to rejuvenate, to realign herself with her beginnings and that which she understood and that had always artistically nurtured her.
I do want to say that I think Tharp, aside from being driven, shrewd, and ambitious, to be courageous. She has had her share of successes, failures and disappointments, yet, she is always pushing forward. Sometimes, I think I tend to minimize her accomplishments and talent by focusing on what I perceive as her major shortcoming – a desire for greatness. That desire/urge is what drives and propels her forward but it is also what makes her recent work seem to scream for acknowledgement of its brilliance and originality. It can make it seem needy, inauthentic, dishonest, and even distasteful. Often I think of her like Judy Garland in those old black and white CBS TV images, gaunt yet blotted with the need for love and approval, a big empty needy hole in the center of her being that can never be filled, a black hole of desire dangerously fascinating, all the while sucking us in.
Yet, I must admit I admire her. She takes risks. And when she fails, which I think is often (and oh so publicly), in spite of what must be soul-wrenching disappointment, she rebounds. She is one tough broad and I lik’em like that!!
I want to share my thoughts on Movin’ Out because I believe that Tharp created with it a model for a successful dance musical. She refined and defined the form beyond the revue or anthology formats of Dancin’, Fosse, and Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. She did something new for the Broadway stage– it was only the choreography and dancing that mattered! The dancical, as formatted and practiced by Tharp, is the one commercial theatrical form where the choreographer is the key artistic player, the top dog. It is about what the choreographer is “authoring” that counts most.
Recently, there have been several examples of the dancical that have had moderately successful runs on Broadway – Fosse, Mathew Bourne’s Swan Lake, and Susan Stroman’s Contact come to mind- but the Twyla Tharp/Billy Joel production Movin’ Out captured the public’s attention in an unprecedented way. Perhaps not since Westside Story or Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ has a Broadway production with so much dance had such audience appeal and financial success. With the success of Movin’ Out on Broadway, the “dancical” seemed to be maturing. It also created dreams of prestige and fortune for starry-eyed producers and rights holders of popular music catalogues and libraries.
Firstly, what makes Movin’ Out striking as dance narrative is that the story is original. It is not based on a well know story nor is it a re-imagining of a classic tale, like Bourne’s Swan Lake. Contact also presents an original script but its storytelling ambition is not so high. And secondly, a single lead singer, three back-up singers, and small rock band perform all of the music in Movin’ Out, not in a pit but just above the main stage picture. The band and singers act not as characters, but rather function like the famous bands in 1980’s music videos whose guitar-strumming image or histrionic singing periodically interrupts the visualized narrative of their song. However, in this case they are neither famous nor stars, and are placed uncomfortably above eye level so that the audience has to strain its necks to see them clearly. They don’t highjack our attention or distract us too much from the main event – THE DANCING.
This places the dancing down front and center! All of our attention goes to the virtuosity of the dancers and the ability of the choreographer to convey not only atmosphere but also narrative. In its themes and tone, Movin’ Out, is the ultimate pop story-ballet. And as with all things pop, the audience needs no background knowledge or expertise to understand it. Watching the show might be a little disorienting at first if you have had little or no experience-viewing dance. But you quickly adjust and it all begins to make sense. Most importantly, you don’t need to know anything about ballet and its lexicon. The multiple-pirouettes, high leg extension, reference to vernacular dancing semaphore any meaning that is important. Add speed, sexiness, and exhaustive energy to the mix and dance literacy become about as necessary as high heel shoes. By the time the show ends, one feels pummeled into submission. We stand, applaud, and cheer. Tharp at her hyperactive worst has won out.
Movin’ Out is an ideal vehicle for a theatrical translation of the songs and music of Billy Joel. It creates a kind of nostalgia that hooks us (like Jersey Boys it’s a baby-boomers nostalgia). It is also a democratize nostalgia, someone else’s nostalgia available to any who wish to partake. With Movin’ Out, one gets to be white, working class, living on Long Island during the Viet Nam era. The experience is like a ride at a theme park with the music, dancing, and images triggering the imagination and causing “the ride”. We think, “So that is how it must have been”. So we end-up longing for something that was never a part of our personal experience or history but rather is the history and memories of another (possibly the creators/authors). Or it’s nostalgia for some pivotal moment in history, like Viet Nam, mythologized and all-purpose-sized for easy consumption. Perhaps any group of songs or music that speak to a specific demographic, an era, or a particular sensible would be ideal for translation into a dancical- like the songs of Frank Sinatra.
While the critical response to Come Fly Away has probably been equal to or better than Movin’ Out, only time will tell if it will equally capture the public’s imagination and have the same level of financial success as that show. But what I am most curious about is whether or not the dancical, like the book musical, is an enduring form or just a passing fad; and will the Tharp shows open the door for other choreographers and dancing to again to move down front and center in the commercial musical theater?