A Life in the Theatre: Choreographer Patricia Birch

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Choreographer Patricia Birch
 
Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft.
Patricia Birch
Patricia Birch

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For some theatre people, "Gotta Dance" is a lifelong theme. Patricia Birch is one of them.

"It’s loving to move," Birch says. "And loving to move to music."

The choreographer–dancer–director has moved to music, and made others move to music, with great success. She has worked on and Off-Broadway in shows that include the original productions of Grease—whose 3,388 performances made it for a time the longest-running musical in Broadway history; You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; The Me Nobody Knows; Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and Pacific Overtures; the acclaimed 1974 Broadway revival of Candide; the hit 1979 musical They’re Playing Our Song; the 1998 musical Parade at Lincoln Center; and this season’s revival of Candide at New York City Opera.

She has also had a long career in movies ("Grease," "Grease II"), television ("Saturday Night Live," music videos for Cyndi Lauper, the Rolling Stones, Carly Simon and others) and opera — a career that has garnered her five Tony nominations, two Emmys and the Astaire Award as Best Choreographer for Parade. It all started with dance classes at "age six or seven" in a childhood that took her up and down Westchester County. "I think I loved the pretty tiaras and costumes, and I wanted to show off," she says. She was first discovered by no less than the renowned choreographer Merce Cunningham at Camp Perry Mansfield, a summer dance camp in Steamboat Springs, CO, where she was a student and he was a teacher. Cunningham took her to Martha Graham and the School of American Ballet, and Birch wound up dancing for Graham "on and off" for two decades.

"I loved it, and I loved her," Birch says. "But I was always chomping at the bit. I found I loved musicals as much or more than the pure dance world. I also think I became tired of dancing for other dancers. And I wanted to do something more accessible."

In 1960, she danced in the Broadway production of West Side Story and her connection to Broadway, and to choreography, began to be cemented. "I had always choreographed a little, beginning in high school," she says. "And I leaned toward choreography. I always had an overview of what was going on. After West Side Story, I was auditioning for everything. And I was getting close to being hired, but I didn’t sing well enough. The producer Arthur Whitelaw persuaded me to do a production of West Side Story out in New Jersey, in a horrendous place that was turned back into a bowling alley. We got on well, and when he did You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, he asked if I wanted to play Patty."

But Birch felt she was a natural Lucy. "He said no. So I said, ‘Okay, then I’ll choreograph and assist Joe Hardy with the direction. And I’ll understudy Lucy and show you who’s the best Lucy in the world.’ And I did play Lucy over one weekend — and I lost my voice."

The musical became an Off-Broadway hit, and she was offered the job of choreographing The Me Nobody Knows, a musical about the lives and thoughts of ghetto schoolchildren that became a huge Off-Broadway success and moved to Broadway in late 1970. "That show turned my life around," she says. "It was the right show for me — kids and rock ‘n’ roll and Off Broadway. I was really happy. And it changed the way I looked at theatre."

The combination of kids and rock ‘n’ roll, only this time with Broadway, led to "somewhere else I really belonged — Grease. It felt like we were doing the documentary of our lives. It was when I really began to realize what great things you can do with actors who move. What I really like doing is storytelling, finding the body language that is necessary for the story. And when I’m doing it and it’s working, I’m thrilled."

From Grease came her first Tony nomination and all the other musicals of her long and varied career. Her most recent Tony nomination was for Parade, a musical based on the lynching of Leo Frank in the South in 1915.

These days, she says, "I have lots of projects in the hopper, including a Gershwin evening with the San Francisco Symphony this coming June. I do a lot of film work, which I also love. The goal is to divide my time between stage and film. I’m very busy. And busy is good."

Through it all, she says, she always returns in her mind to something Martha Graham told her. "She said that the stage is a sacred place. And I do believe it is. And everyone who puts a foot out there has to know why they’re there."

Pat Birch has put her best foot forward out there for decades — and she, and everyone who sees her work, knows for sure why she’s there.

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