Sometimes, a season or so away, you can see the hyphen coming: Hotshot choreographer (usually marked on your Tony ballot with twin nominations in the same year) will turn director within the next two years. It's a theatrical inevitability — a tradition begun by the likes of Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse and Gower Champion and perpetuated by Rob Marshall, his sister Kathleen Marshall and Susan Stroman.
The latest to make this leap into legend is John Carrafa, 50, a Connecticut Italian who canceled himself out of a choreography Tony with nominations for both Into the Woods and Urinetown, survived the infamous Dance of the Vampires and is now settling into a comfortable hyphenated state as choreographer and director of Good Vibrations, an original musical based on the songs of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.
"I always had an image of getting to a point in my career where I was doing both," he admits, "but, at the same time, I was avoiding making that transition until I thought I was ready. If you're really good at doing musical theatre choreography, you learn so much of what the director has to do by doing that. You have to tell a story, you have to work with actors — it's as close as one can get to being a director without being one.
All it took for Carrafa to get rolling as a director was a vehicle: "I was outside the TKTS booth, waiting to cross 46th, when [Dodgers producer] Michael David asked, 'How do you feel about The Beach Boys?' I said, 'They're great.' He said, 'Well, I've got something we should talk about.'" The offer was to choreograph Good Vibrations, but that changed last fall when the director dropped out, and the vehicle pressed on, powered solely on Carrafa's suggestions. Slowly, the sneaky suspicion that he should direct the show dawned on the producers. An offer was made and speedily accepted.
Director-choreographer Carrafa's first order of business was to huddle with Richard Dresser, who had been assigned to hammer out a play in which more than 30 Beach Boys songs would felicitously fit. "I asked Rick, if The Beach Boys had written a musical, what would be the story and what would be the themes? We knew it had to have cars, girls in bathing suits and, most of all, guys getting dumped by girls. Those things had to be in there, so we started making outlines of what the story could be. The first script was broad, like a cartoon, but the more we worked on it, the more we thought the music goes to a deeper place — it almost goes to a spiritual place. There's heartache in the harmonies."
The resulting plot concerns a bunch of kids from a fictional Eastern town taking a road trip West. "It's a fable about growing up, about that innocent time in your life when all the possibilities are there. It looks like the sixties, but we don't say it."
The songs along for the ride, like the ones in Mamma Mia!, are not listed in order of presentation to minimize audience anticipation. "We are completely sincere about the way we use the songs. This is America's music. One of the concepts of the show is that it's everybody's music. It has become a part of American culture: 'In My Room,' 'God Only Knows,' 'Surfin' U.S.A.,' 'Fun, Fun, Fun,' 'Dance, Dance, Dance,' 'California Girls,' 'Help Me, Rhonda,' 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' — and then there are the hits...
"When we went up to Vassar last summer and tried this out for six weeks at New York Stage & Film, people were dancing in the aisles. Literally. The music is pure joy. If you approach it that way choreographically, if you don't try to see what clever steps you can do and just make it about people expressing themselves, it's joyous. That's why I love to work with actors, because they can just go out there and be people like you and me dancing. I feel dancers have a tendency to alienate the audience, make you feel like, 'Oh, I can't do that.' The more impressive the dancing is, the less you feel connected to it."
Carrafa cast the show accordingly — actors with new faces and unfamiliar names. Tituss Burgess, David Larsen, Kate Reinders, Brandon Wardell and Jessica-Snow Wilson head a cast of 23, the best-known of whom is Chad Kimball — and he, ironically enough, last trod Broadway completely camouflaged as a cow (Into the Woods' Milky White). "Everybody in the cast — like me — is getting a chance to do something new.
I purposely picked people who were taking a step up. Supporting players are now principals. Ensemble people are now supporting. Everybody's going to do something that they never got to do before." Carrafa also cast the show sexily. "It's the sexiest cast in the history of Broadway," he crows. "It has the most beautiful women and men I've ever seen on a stage. We had them auditioning in bikinis because our costume designer said even people with great bodies don't necessarily look great in bathing suits. And you have to make sure they look good in a bathing suit because they spend a decent part of the show onstage in a bathing suit."
Nice work if you can get it — and John Carrafa, this season's new director-choreographer in town, gets it double strength.