Please welcome back guest blogger, Alicia Hansen, with your Broadway Buzz Extra for Bullets Over Broadway.
Great news, Cleveland theatre lovers: the 2015-2016 KeyBank Broadway Series at Playhouse Square is ready to entertain you. The production opening this season, Bullets Over Broadway, captures the making of a Broadway show, highlighted by the masterful choreography of Broadway legend, Susan Stroman. In this interview, Clare Cook, choreographer of the tour, gives us the inside scoop on what it takes to keep all those dancing gangsters creatively engaged as they arrive in Northeast Ohio.
How did you discover dance? How did it bring you to the theater, specifically Bullets Over Broadway?
I started dancing at a very young age growing up in Louisiana, but have been living in New York City for about ten years now. I originally moved to New York to peruse my Master of Fine Arts degree at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts – that is what first brought me to the professional realm of New York City. Shortly after finishing my degree there, I began working with productions of new musicals a lot as NYU has a graduate program in composing/writing musicals, which is rare.
In addition to all the training in my younger years plus having a lot of theatrical work in my training as a choreographer, participation in those pieces was my first foray into working professionally in musical theatre. It was really exciting for me to be working on these new pieces — you are literally the first person to get to make the movement and have it dance off of the page. You are working in a highly creative way. You are constantly in conversations. Things change rapidly. It is an adrenaline rush. It was a nice balance to be able to work with musicians and actors, not just only dancers. The work has continued to come since my professional start, and I am very grateful for that.
I first became involved with Bullets Over Broadway project several years ago during one of its workshops in New York City before it went to Broadway. I did a great program through the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. They offer an “observer-ship” which is essentially a paid fellowship/internship opportunity. After a specific interview process and several interviews, Susan Stroman selected me to be the observer for the New York City Bullets workshop. That was an amazing opportunity because it allowed me to closely witness her work in building the production. I had been doing that in my own field on a smaller scale, so to watch someone like her who is a master at her craft was so exciting. I was learning from her new things but also understanding that the work is the work. No matter what the scale is, the toolbox is still similar. It was rewarding on many levels to have that realization at the same time.
From there, Bullets went on to Broadway and I went on to other projects. What a wonderful opportunity it was to get an email several years later to say they were going to do a tour asking if I’d want to be involved with it. And so here I am!
In serving as the choreographer of the tour, what does your role entail and how does it continue to evolve? What challenges arise as you are on the road?
I have the great fortune to be working with some of the best choreography in the business. It is a real pleasure to be inside of Susan’s original movement from the Broadway show every day. First, part of my role is just physicalizing and knowing that work intimately so I can pass it on to the performers. Then, because it is a tour — it is not the same cast as Broadway and we have some adjustments to the set pieces – it has been exciting to take the original choreography, but, in the moment, shape it to the actors, sets and transitions that we have found in the touring process. It involves a lot of thinking on your feet and quick reflexes. Ultimately, I try to maintain the original work as closely as possible and as elegantly as possible. I shape the work so the current cast can understand the style and help them get inside of the piece so it becomes original to them – the cast then takes ownership over the moment.
You are working on a show with a some very well respected names associated with it, including Woody Allen and Tony-Winning director Susan Stroman. What lessons have you learned while working with this creative team?
One thing I learned from Susan a long time ago is that you have to trust your instincts. Be open to new discoveries. If you have an idea, try it. There is no harm in trying. For this touring cast, we are setting the original work, but as it is on human beings, you have to be open to their ideas as well. The director of the tour also carries that sense of experimentation and inspiration with him. If there is an idea in the room, it’s “let’s try it” and “let’s see what happens.” If you try it before you have time to self-edit, you might find something really great.
Are there specific moments of the show that are favorites for you? For the audience?
There are so many moments, but towards the end of act one, “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do” is an ensemble tap dance number lead of by Cheech, one of the main characters. It is one of the most thrilling musical theater experiences in terms of dance that I have ever had the chance to be involved in, but also that audiences really respond to during the show. It features nine or ten tap dancing gangsters in suits, fedoras and tap shoes. It is so exciting to see the physicality, yet you’re not losing any of the edge of a gangster. It is so physical, heavy footed and acrobatic.
The men in the number are coming at this with different levels of tap dancing experience. We have some very skilled tappers and some tapping novices. For the Broadway show, it was the same and Susan was really excited and inspired by having all of them do the choreography. These men have worked, toiled and really just gave it all for this dance. It is a real excitement for me to see it all come together. I am just so proud of them as they are embracing it with such force.
Also, the rhythms in this dance especially show the craft of Susan Stroman. It is very even, articulating that sound of bullets. It is not only physically exciting to watch, but to hear the sounds of it — it fits so seamlessly into the story that you don’t believe for a moment that you’re watching a bunch of tap dancing gangsters!
What makes Bullets stand out from everything else that you worked on over the years?
It is the craft of it. The story so tight and so funny. Add in the dancing, the staging, the costuming, the designs, the sets — it’s just one of the most professionally perfect pieces of theater, in my opinion. The elements just fit so seamlessly together and support each other so well. When you experience it, it just flies before you. You are suddenly inside of it, and before you know it, you’re in the next scene, the next action, the new character. Yet since it is an ensemble story, you grow to love all of them. It is the collaborative nature of the creative, the design, the story, the characters themselves – it is just its own perfect family.
Bullets Over Broadway plays in Cleveland October 6 – 18 at the Connor Palace Theatre at Playhouse Square. For more information, please visit the show’s page on the Playhouse Square website.
Alicia Hansen is the writer behind Poise in Parma, a healthy balance blog for Clevelanders. A graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College’s theatre program, Alicia is a yoga teacher at Evolution Yoga, an event and marketing professional and proud Northeast Ohio arts supporter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.