Born to Boogie: Broadway Choreographers
“I just loved listening to them,” said choreographer Spencer Liff after the panel that united him with choreographers Lorin Latarro and Andy Blankenbuehler. “You learn so much.” The trio enjoy a storied history, dancing together in their pre-choreographer days, dancing for each other’s projects, and they were more than willing to breakdown their creative process. The discussions about style, versatility, their own movement vocabularies, authenticity, and the rehearsal room culminated in a full-on movement demonstration.
“Every show I must explain the core challenge of the show, the core thematic idea of the show, [with the first time they move]. So in Hamilton, for example, the first step is on ‘Word got around they said this kid is insane,’ and so it’s the idea that Hamilton puts quill to paper, explosions happen, and the world changes because of an idea that he had that he put into action. So I wanted to tell the story about how cool words can be, about how moving action can be and how what seems intellectual for Alexander Hamilton is actually completely emotional for everyone else.” Blankenbuehler popped up and walked the audience through: “So the very first step has the gesture of an ear [on ‘Word’]” and as Blankenbuehler danced over the lyrics (corresponding to “this kid is in-sane”) he recited in rhythm “and they grew to the their shoul-ders,” bobbing his shoulders up and down to demonstrate Hamilton’s impact and influence through word (ear) and action (shoulders). Blankenbuehler delved into exact movement for In The Heights, as well. Only at BroadwayCon can you watch a two-time Tony-winning choreographer explain and dance his own movement.
For her part, Latarro created an interactive component to the panel to teach the audience how she physicalizes words and emotion. “Let’s just take an action word, let’s take ‘lonely’ and use the word lonely,” said Latarro. She called on one audience member to give a movement above the head that says “lonely,” another viewer to give a movement between the neck and hips that means “lonely,” and Blankenbuehler to offer a movement from the fingers that says “lonely” to him. Before they left, the whole audience had learned original choreography from Latarro conveying a message of loneliness.
Gadgets and Gizmos Aplenty: Prop Design
Buist Bickley (Dear Evan Hansen), Valerie Lamour (The Present), and Faye Armon-Troncoso (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) talked about the art of designing props for Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, which may be more intricate than an average audience member thinks. Armon-Troncoso said, “Not only are we responsible for the furniture, the set dressing…special effects, blood, getting out of costumes, food that they eat every night—and they have many allergies… We do weaponry, and also if there is an umbrella that catches on fire, we do that.” Bickley added, “Picture frames, rugs, chandeliers, sconces, any picture on the wall—those are all props. … I always say that the ceiling, the floor, and the walls are sets. Everything that makes it what it is is a prop.” Lamour also brought prop examples, including a type of fake blood she uses (available at the Manhattan Wardrobe Supply) that will come out of white shirts with just water. The audience members seemed fascinated by talk of special effects and the use of fake blood, so Armon-Troncoso revealed some secrets behind Les Liaisons Dangereuses. “Liev Schreiber said, ‘Rather than a blood capsule, I want to eat a chocolate filled with blood.’ I [went to] a chocolatier, and I said, ‘Let’s make a red chocolate with this stage blood from Alcone,’ but then they couldn’t get the chocolate in his mouth…’ I knew it wasn’t going to work, but I had to go through the motions.”
Julia Murney: Career Seminar
Former Elphaba Julia Murney took the panel audience through her career trajectory, including how she linked up with Andrew Lippa—leading to her starring turn as Queenie in his Wild Party. She recounted the infamous story of how she auditioned for Stephen Schwartz’s Snapshots and was asked by Schwartz to sing his “Meadowlark” at the audition. She didn’t have the music, but Lippa (the music director, who happened to be behind the table) had recently played the song for Patti LuPone’s concert. By memory, he accompanied Murney; after her audition he wrote on his notepad, “Who is she? Queenie?” As her career took off, Murney revealed that she was actually given the opportunity to come to Broadway a few times before making her debut in Lennon, but made alternative artistic decisions since she was able to support herself with her work in voiceovers. Although she’s been on Broadway and is an accomplished theatre performer, she admits to still getting nervous before certain auditions. “You can go to class 24/7; you can’t account for nerves,” she said. “They are the boogeyman who will get you in the night. I think you have to accept that everyone feels that way. Everyone’s nerves do manifest in very different ways, and some people nerves manifest in hyper-confidence—or what seems like hyper-confidence—and that can be intimidating. So sometimes in a waiting room, I’ll bring headphones with me. I generally know everybody else who is auditioning, which is also hard because they’re your friends, but you want the job! Then someone comes in, and I’m like, ‘Well, frickin’ Alice Ripley is here. I’m not gonna get this.’ Also, I love her, and we’re going to go have pizza, [but] I’ll bring headphones, even if I have nothing playing in them, just so I can be like, ‘Hi, I just need to listen to this.’ They will respect that, so you can just get into your center. It’s such a case-by-case basis, but you have to know it’s not just you.”
Stepping Into the Spotlight: Replacing on Broadway
Moderated by Howard Sherman, the panel featured Frankie J. Grande (who took over in Mamma Mia! and Rock of Ages), Arielle Jacobs (who replaced in In the Heights and was the Jasmine in Australian company of Aladdin), Marc Kudisch (who most recently replaced in Finding Neverland), Deirdre Lovejoy (who replaced as an understudy in How I Learned to Drive, eventually playing all the roles in that show), Luba Mason (who replaced as Lucy in Jekyll & Hyde), and Julia Murney (a former Elphaba in the long-running hit Wicked). Depending on the show, it turns out some replacement actors are asked to perform much like the actor they’ve succeeded whereas some are given the freedom to make it their own. When Grande went into Mamma Mia!, he asked if he could add a backflip to his dance solo. After the creative team agreed, the move was then added into the track, and all future replacements for that specific role had to do be able to do a backflip to get cast. When Sherman asked the panelists if there was any show they’d like to replace in, Kudisch delivered the most interesting reply. “No, absolutely not,” he said. “And here’s why: I think, as an actor, as a performer, as a creator, as a collaborator in this business, it is in your best interests to know why it is you want to get on the stage to begin with. What I’ve learned—at least through my experience in this industry—is: I have a love of process, not performance. I’m not interested in eight shows a week. The reason that I like to create is because I like the conversation, I like the dialogue with an audience, and if it is a show or a piece or an event that is engaging, I want to be there to experience that firsthand experience with the audience. [With] replacing, to me, the thing that I love the most has already been executed. The reason that I went into Finding Neverland was because I had a previous connection with it [doing early readings] in terms of process, and I didn’t get closure. I know I love what I do. If you’re going to replace in a show, like Wicked or In the Heights, and you know you’re going to be in for a long period of time, you’ve got to love the performance aspect of it. And, frankly, I don’t. I like the process.”
Putting It Together: Broadway Directors
The future of Broadway was very much on the minds of the Broadway directors who took part in the “Putting It Together” panel. Observing that the Tony Award-winning directors of the future might well be sitting in the room before them, Tina Landau (The Spongebob Musical) told them to find the thing that makes them unique and “constantly question it and constantly reconnect with it.” Pam MacKinnon (Amélie) urged them to think outside the Broadway box and work in theatre communities around the country. Commenting that directing “an apprenticeship art,” Marshall (In Transit) said they should take the time to observe how other directors deal with their collaborators. Diane Paulus (Waitress) advised, “Ask super big questions. Break the rules. Redefine theatre. Expand it. Don’t assume there is a cookie cutter way to do this. Dream of the impossible.” And Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys) said, “It’s not enough to reflect the world; maybe we need to change the world. So that’s my ambition for you: Change the world we live in.”
Ten new productions slated to hit Broadway this spring, including Amélie, Anastasia, Bandstand, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Come From Away, Indecent, Miss Saigon, Significant Other, Sunday in the Park With George, and The Play That Goes Wrong. Fans also saw an exclusive first look at a scene from the film adaptation of the Michael John LaChiusa musical Hello Again, which stars Audra McDonald, Martha Plimpton, Cheyenne Jackson, and more.
Revisiting a Show
Sunday’s “Revisiting a Show” panel at BroadwayCon featured an eclectic group of actors in the unique position of performing a role in a show, and then “revisiting” it either in a different role, or in the same role after some time had passed. Judy Kuhn, who played Cosette in the original 1982 production of Les Misérables and returned in 2006 to play Fantine in the show’s first revival, confesses to finding the return to be “very bizarre…. It was like visiting a childhood home [that] feels familiar, but things look different than you remember them. It was not always comfortable.” She also reminds us, “The original production was just this show, Les Misérables, and not [the mega-phenomenon] it is now. [Revisiting it] affected me [in that way] too. it was [now] much bigger than what any one character was doing.” Alexandra Silber, late of Fiddler on the Roof, took a much more personal route, having played the role of Hodel before playing Tzeitl. Daisy Eagan, the star who cemented her place in history through performing Mary Lennox in the original The Secret Garden, recently revisited the show as Martha in a concert version of the show, opposite Sierra Boggess, Ramin Karimloo, and Tony nominee Sydney Lucas in her former role. “It was a trip,” says the 1991 Tony winner. “I was terrified. It was the first time I had been back to New York in 15 years. Judine Somerville, one of the original dynamites in Hairspray, spoke to performing the role 15 years later in NBC’s Hairspray Live!, and how her approach to the role changed, as she now had a 12-year-old son (born actually during her original Hairspray run).
The BroadwayCon 2017 Closing Ceremony
To wrap up the three-day extravaganza, actor Sam Tanabe reprised his role of Carl from the opening ceremony to reminisce about his favorite BroadwayCon 2017 memories. As BroadwayCon staff joined Tanabe in the original song by Ryan Scott Oliver, co-founders Anthony Rapp and Melissa Anelli thanked the attendees for bringing their love of Broadway to the Javits and encouraged them to take the memories and lessons of BroadwayCon home with them. “We recognize that this weekend has been a welcome escape,” said Anelli, “from the all to harsh reality of the world outside it. ... We cannot restrict the empowerment we feel after a weekend like this to only those who are privileged enough to be a part of it. The theatre community is not one event, one moment, or one weekend, it's spirit is ever-growing. We here onstage are asking you as one to take what you felt this weekend with you. If you leave here and are met with hatred, intolerance, oppression, and bigotry from people who want to build walls, take away rights and tear down spirits, please remember what it was like this weekend—the times that you felt impassioned, enlightened, welcomed, informed, safe, included, happy, encouraged, accepted, and loved.”