ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The Dance Arranger

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Question: Peter Howard, the long-time Broadway dance arranger, passed away on April 18. What does a dance arranger do? Answer: For this question, AskPlaybill.com spoke with David Chase, the dance arranger for the current Broadway shows Cry-Baby, Curtains and The Little Mermaid (not to be confused with the creator of "The Sopranos").

"The simplest answer is that my job is to be the liaison between the music department and the dance department," Chase says. He's "the person who takes both the melodic and the musical structure of the show, and what the choreographer wants to do physically, and tries to marry them."

Think of a classic cartoon, Chase explains: "Every time a character does something, it's [accompanied by] an appropriate sound. Every time someone takes a step, you hear the band go, 'bloomp bloomp bloomp.' Or every time they come down the steps, they go, 'de-de-de-de-de.'"

Similarly, the dance arranger has to make sure that the sound matches the dance movements. So when the dancers kick, for instance, the dance arranger wants to make sure that it's accompanied by a cymbals crash. Or perhaps he wants a softer accent, like a drum sound. Or perhaps the melody doesn't accommodate an accent on that kick, and you have to shift the melody around, or move the kick to somewhere else in the music. And, do you want the kick on the downbeat (the first beat in the measure, which is typically emphasized in classically derived music such as Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber) or the offbeat (the second beat in the measure, which is typically emphasized in rock-and-roll, Gershwin and other popular music forms).

Or perhaps, in some cases, you don't want the kick accented at all. "We sometimes refer to music becoming too Mickey Mouse," he says, when it's "too cartoony because you're hitting every accent." Think about scoring a movie, Chase says: Sometimes you want the music to enhance the scene emotionally, while other times the music should play against the scene. "If you have emotional music with an emotional scene, it can get sappy," he says.

Chase uses another useful metaphor (there are a lot of useful metaphors for his job): "It's like focusing a light on an actor's face — I'm using the music to tell the audience where to look at the dance." Sometimes you want an actor to be very well-lit; other times, you want him in a bit of darkness.

On a larger level a dance arranger has to look at the song as a whole. When should the dance breaks happen? When do the dancers need a short bit of background music to play as a transition, while they make their way up the stairs, for instance? What kind of music should that be? A dance arranger then has to write those dance breaks and those transitions, using music that the composer has written for that song, or for other songs in the show, or from other songs from that time period. While making these decisions, a dance arranger has to make sure that these decisions fit the style of music the composer is trying to evoke, and the story that the director wants the song to tell.

Chase says he starts his process by talking to the composer, the music director, the orchestrator, the arranger (if there is one), the director and the choreographer. He gets everyone's input and looks for a singularity of vision — typically coming from the director — that will guide his work.

After that, Chase spends a lot of his time with the choreographer. He explains: "Rob Ashford and Kathleen Marshall both like making ABC lists. The A numbers are the ones that really involve dance and specific dance movements. The B list is the one that involves essentially musical staging. The Cs are the numbers that they don't really need to think about except for shaping in a very general sense, like a ballad, something that isn't movement driven."

Starting with the "A" numbers and working their way down, Chase and the choreographer discuss their general thoughts on each song. For instance, in "A Little Upset," the prison number in Cry-Baby, Chase says that Ashford "knew it would have a chase sequence, he knew that within the number there would be moments when the guys break out of prison. Where can we expand the number?" Not only where it makes sense musically, but where it makes sense with what's going on physically.

They play through the song. "We say here's a place we can expand it. Then: how do we want to expand it? Is it just its own section, which means you're establishing something that has its own melody?" — like a dance break. "Or we're going to [only] add a couple of eights here" — that's dance language for eight counts. (When each measure has four counts, for instance, eight counts is two measures. If you've seen A Chorus line think of it as the eight in "five, six, seven, eight.")

Chase then has to write the music to fit what he and the choreographer decide. In "A Little Upset," he wrote the music and the words for the Latin chant that the prisoners sing as they go up the steps (approved by the songwriters). He created the music that's heard after the prisoners break out of prison and the police are chasing them around the stage. For that sequence, he drew from songs in the show, plus influences that fit the 1954 setting, such as Ray Charles' "Hit the Road Jack," Peggy Lee's version of "Fever," Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and the music of Neil Hefti, who in the '60s wrote the "Batman" theme.

Chase and the choreographer start out spending a week together, four or five hours per day, discussing their general thoughts. Then after a month, they come back together for another week or two to nail down the details, this time with more people in the room, such as an associate, an assistant and the dance captain. "He'll come back and say, 'I wish I had four more counts here,' and I'll say, 'Can you do that for one more bar?'"

Other details get added later. At some point, someone in the creative team said that the characters of Allison and Cry-Baby should sing during this chase sequence. David Javerbaum, one of the songwriters, wrote a lyric for that section. Lynne Shankel, the music director and arranger, arranged the vocals. And then Chase inserted it into the song — he and Ashford decided that she should sing while three of the dancers run in slow motion.

After Chase is done arranging the whole song, he hands his music to the orchestrator to orchestrate, with very detailed notes: "This is what I hear, this is what's important, here's where it's loud, here's where it's really supporting the dance, here's where you can go a slightly different way," Chase says.

During rehearsals, Chase starts off as the rehearsal pianist during dance rehearsals, paying close attention to the dancers. "I might say, 'Gosh, that's a bigger accent than I thought,' or 'That's a bigger gesture than I thought.'" During breaks he'll often make changes to his score, which is on his laptop in Finale, and can even have the stage management print out the score and make copies for the actors that day. During previews, he still makes changes — he can sit by the sound booth, make a change, and have a new score ready by the end of a performance.

Some numbers are harder to crack than others. One particularly difficult song was "Kansasland" in Curtains. "On the script it says 'Bambi does an incredible dance that wows everyone,'" Chase says. "That character has to prove that she's truly talented and not just there because of her mother." Chase and Ashford created a whole Wild West-like dance sequence to convey this idea. Ashford took advantage of the actress Megan Sikora's flexibility, and Chase created music that was "somewhere between 'American in Paris' and Aaron Copeland," he says.

Chase has a few favorite songs from his productions, in which he felt the dancing and the music melded particularly well: "Too Darn Hot" from the 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate, choreographed by Kathleen Marshall; the courtesan dance in "The House of Marcus Lycus" from the 1996 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, choreographed by Rob Marshall; the Havana sequence in Guys and Dolls in London, again with Ashford; and "Hernando's Hideaway" in The Pajama Game revival, with Kathleen Marshall, in which Harry Connick, Jr. had a piano solo in the middle of it. That song, Chase says, was "about how people interacted with him playing piano. How the song adjusted itself around the style of the playing." He adds, "That version of 'Hernando's' could only have existed with Harry Connick."

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