"Composers these days don't really write with dance in mind," lamented choreographer Joshua Bergasse shortly after one of the final previews of On the Town, the 1944 musical comedy by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jerome Robbins, now back in its third Broadway revival at the rechristened Lyric Theatre.
That trend may change after the flurry of raves that greeted On the Town following the opening-night bows on Oct. 17. The show isn't just a love letter to New York City, it's also a valentine to the good, old-fashioned dance musical of yesteryear.
While he earned an Emmy Award for his work on the short-lived NBC musical series "Smash," On the Town marks Bergasse's Broadway debut as a choreographer. And what an introduction it is. He walked away from his first Broadway opening with New York Magazine calling his work a "glorious sight" and Ben Brantley of the New York Times reporting that On the Town featured "the dreamiest dream ballets I've seen in years."
"I dreamt of doing a dream ballet from an MGM musical," Bergasse said. "The thing is that I had seen the movie 'On the Town,' but never seen a stage production. I had no idea how much they had changed for the movie. The movie was a very different animal. I didn't realize the amount of dance that was actually in the show that was not in the movie."
On the Town returned to Broadway by way of the Barrington Stage Company, where this production was first presented in the summer of 2013. It was in preparation for that staging that Bergasse realized the amount of choreography the show required.
"The first thing I did was that I really studied the symphonic recording before I started choreographing back last summer," he said. "I listened to it so that I knew the orchestrations. It's happened to me too often where you rehearse to a piano for a month and then the orchestra comes in and it doesn't sound anything like what you thought. I made sure I knew what it was going to sound like. Then I choreographed it."
On the Town is back on Broadway with a lush 28-piece orchestra, allowing Bergasse to further exploit the nuances in the show's original orchestrations, which are used in this revival.
While the recording provided Bergasse a map for his choreography, he said that changes were made once the dancers and live musicians were able to rehearse together. "You learn even more about the way this orchestra sounds and the way they're playing it," he explained. "And then you adjust the choreography, you adjust the timing and you adjust the feeling of it. And sometimes you say, 'That's not supported in the orchestration, so let's pull back on that,' or 'The orchestration is much bigger here, and it's more aggressive, so we need to match that.'"
In addition to the orchestra, the cast of On the Town has also swelled to 30 since its initial Barrington run, a dream for Bergasse, who was charged with filling the mammoth stage of the Lyric Theatre (initially named the Ford Center and most recently the Foxwoods Theatre) with bodies in motion.
Bergasse was quick to point out: "This show is about the people. It's not about the sets." He credited his collaborator, director John Rando, for opting to cut sets out of the show's budget if it meant hiring another dancer. "If we were on any smaller of a stage right now, we would not fit," he laughed. "We're already running out of space and dancing into the wings. And when they say, 'I'm in the wings!' I say, 'Great! Still dance! Somebody's gonna see you.'"
Transferring On the Town from an intimate, 520-seat theatre in the Berkshires to Broadway's second-largest theatre (at 1,930 seats) required rethinking the show's staging and choreography in some cases. The challenge, according to Bergasse, was "keeping the heart of the production, but lifting it to the next level."
A larger venue and a larger cast also meant that Bergasse had to ensure that audiences were tracking the story the choreography was telling, especially in numbers like "The Times Square Ballet," which serves as the Act One finale.
"Everybody is doing something different throughout the whole six-minute ballet and they just come together every once in a while," he explained. "You craft the perfect moment so that the audience can find it. It's difficult, because you don't want the audience to be confused or distracted, you want them to have eye candy at times, but to also be able to follow the story."
Part of that eye candy is New York City Ballet principal dancer Megan Fairchild, an addition for the Broadway production, who stepped into the role of Ivy Smith and danced away with some glowing notices of her own.
"She is a dream," Bergasse said of Fairchild, his muse for two of On the Town's stand-out ballet sequences. Significant changes were made to Ivy's featured numbers since the Barrington production in order to showcase Fairchild's skills.
"She's so inspiring. She's so obviously talented and well-trained, but really a lovely woman and really hard working and open and giving. She gives me freedom. Because of her technique and talent, she gives me freedom to imagine anything and then make her do it," Bergasse said.
"I love daredevils," Bergasse added, turning his praise toward the work of the three sailors who take audiences on a joyous adventure throughout New York City while on shore leave. "I can't imagine any other guys doing this. It's not easy to do what they do. It's unbelievable."
Portrayed by Clyde Alves (Ozzie), Jay Armstrong Johnson (Chip) and Tony Yazbeck (Gabey), the three sailors hit the stage with unique physical vocabulary that inform audiences about their characters before they utter a word. Alves dances a charmingly apish Ozzie, while Johnson's rubber-limbed Chip summersaults around a taxi cab, and Yazbeck's lovelorn Gabey dances with a haunted and masculine authority as he faces a "Lonely Town."
"It all starts with the storytelling," Bergasse said. "The dancing is so integral to this show that you have to get the characters from A to B with the dancing. It's a part of moving the plot forward. The different characters dance a different way.
"I found that as long as I stayed true to that, then we were moving in the right direction. Whenever it seemed something wasn't working, it was because we weren't telling the right story [physically]."
Storytelling through dance is something Bergasse hopes will find a regular place in Broadway's offerings. He said that while many musicals today may include choreography, they aren't necessarily created to feature dance at the core of the plot.
"I find that's a trap that we get into," he noted. "I see it in so many shows. There's choreography, but it's not really meant to be there, and it doesn't really work. You shoehorn it in there because you have to stage the musical. By the end of previews you've cut it all out, because you realize it doesn't actually fit."
Future projects for Bergasse include a 2015 Broadway revival of the Lerner and Loewe musical Gigi, but he stated that since On the Town he plans to create a wish list of contemporary composers with whom he'd like to collaborate on new musicals.
"Hopefully composers will come see On the Town and remember that they can do that. They're allowed to write ballets and put dance in there."