It's 10 AM on a Sunday morning, and choreographer Jerry Mitchell sounds like his energy is at an ebb. He's quietly mellow on the phone as he talks about the two high-profile Broadway shows he's currently juggling. The Full Monty, a musical that he has been involved with for 14 months, has exceptionally good buzz, but there is still some tweaking to be done before it opens. Still, the bulk of his attention has now turned to rehearsals for the revival of The Rocky Horror Show. And the double whammy has just hit.
"This was our first weekend of previews for The Rocky Horror Show," Mitchell explains between sips of coffee. "We had a 5 PM show and a 9:45 PM show. We always knew the 9:45 crowds would be rowdy, but the theatre was a mess after the show: toilet paper, cards, confetti and toast." Although the productions overlap, he says, "I realized that in one day I could probably maintain both shows. I could go to The Full Monty at 2 PM and watch the matinee; go to Rocky at 5PM; go to Full Monty at 7 PM and give my notes and watch the first act; and then go to the 9:45 PM of Rocky Horror. Luckily, they're one block away from each other."
Choreographing two musical blockbusters in one season—let alone one month—is a formidable challenge, but if anyone has the pedigree for it, it's Mitchell. Now 40, he arrived in New York half a lifetime ago, and by 23 he was dancing in On Your Toes for George Abbott. He led the typical gypsy's life, graduating from the chorus to more important positions. "I worked with Michael Bennett and Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille," he recalls. "I was assistant to Jerome Robbins on Jerome Robbins' Broadway. I was assistant to Michael Bennett on Scandal, his last musical, which no one ever saw." More recently he choreographed the Paper Mill Playhouse revival of Follies, with Ann Miller, and the Broadway revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. And for the last ten years, he has stage the Broadway Bares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraiser.
But turning a hit British movie about unemployed Everymen into a new musical comedy with American heroes—book writer Terrence McNally has reset the story in Buffalo, NY—is a big step from incorporating dance into established material.
"One of the great challenges of putting The Full Monty on stage was finding a way to tell the story in the theatre," says Mitchell. "Film and television do not necessarily translate to the stage. We've seen it tried before, and it's always disheartening, because cinema is one form of magic and theatre is another form. On film, the camera tells you where to look, while in the theatre the job of the choreographer is to get 1,500 heads to look in the same direction at the same time." That happens nightly at The Full Monty with the rousing Act I finale, "Michael Jordan's Ball," in which the six hapless men who want to devise a strip act learn how to turn bobbing and weaving into bumps and grinds. But that number wasn't always where it is now, says Mitchell. Originally the six were supposed to watch a video of Jennifer Beals in "Flashdance" to show the audience that they grasped the essentials of dance, and that was the Act I curtain.
"I couldn't seem to make that storytelling work on stage," says Mitchell, who played basketball in college (he's 6-foot-4) and had already choreographed the basketball number for the second act. "Then I suggested moving 'Michael Jordan's Ball' to the end of the first act. And through the disguise of basketball moves, the audience realizes, 'They're going to get it.' " In the same way, Mitchell has transposed the memorable "Hot Stuff" number that occurred in the movie's unemployment line to a different but equally effective stage moment.
Mitchell also used dance to overcome a plot hitch and to fill in scene changes in McNally's script. "We think after the 'Michael Jordan' number that they're going to get it," he explains. "But then Jeannette [the men's wisecracking accompanist] sings 'Things could be better.' So we've got to see them working on it." McNally's script had only marked "Transition" between scenes in the second act, and Mitchell asked himself, "What if in each of those transitions we got the chance to see the boys performing one of their strip routines?" The result: As the moving panels on John Arnone's set slide back and forth between scenes, they reveal the men honing their moves. It's a trick Mitchell learned from Michael Bennett, "a master at keeping the story going and not having scenery change in front of your face."
Other mentors continue to influence him as well. During tryouts, he says, "I gave the men a regular dance audition. I gave them part of a routine to see if they could stay on the beat. The other thing I did, which was a trick I learned from Jerome Robbins, was to give them something to do, describe it, and see if they can act while they dance. So I told them, 'You're at the club, stripping for 1,000 women.' Then I made them each strip for me. I wanted them to be real guys taking off their clothes. By doing that you could tell immediately who was comfortable and who could make it work in the end without making them look like a Chippendale's stripper. We should never forget that they drink beer and that they were steelworkers." Leading man Patrick Wilson, who plays Jerry, lauds Mitchell's efforts. "I think what makes Jerry so successful is his ability to work with what he's got," says Wilson. "That seems to be what separates the choreographers from the 'musical theatre dance instructors,' who just put together a series of unrelated dance moves, hope the 'dancers' pull it off, and call it choreography. In 'Michael Jordan's Ball' Jerry takes six pretty much non-dancers, and by the end we are dancing!"
Mitchell thinks a trend away from using dance in musicals began in the 1980s with shows like Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. "These British shows, with the exception of Cats, didn't have dancing," he says. "Dance is a very sexy way of telling a story.
"I think that when people saw Jerome Robbins' Broadway, they realized, 'Dance can tell a story.' Robbins once again opened the door to producers' saying, 'Let's have some dance in it.' So the '90s allowed more dance to come back into shows." Even so, in recent seasons exuberant dance numbers haven't been that noticeable in new musicals, some of which seemed like the collaborations of Kafka, Rimbaud and Schoenberg on an absinthe bender. Audiences will find The Full Monty a major corrective.
"I see people come into that theatre, and I see them leave that theatre, and they've had a great time," says Mitchell. "I think the thing about it is that everyone thinks, 'I'm going to see this strip show.' And they walk away, and they've seen this show that's touched them. And that's been the fun of it."