Choreographer Twyla Tharp's work has appeared on Broadway before, in limited-run dance pieces and the 1985 musical, Singin' in the Rain, but certainly nothing she's done in the commercial theatre has attained the high profile of her current collaboration with Billy Joel, Movin' Out, which opens on Broadway Oct. 24 after a long, sometimes bumpy tryout in Chicago. The teaming of Tharp, high priestess of the rarified world of dance, and Joel, troubadour of pop radio, would at first glance seem a classic high art-low art marriage—not quite the Owl and the Pussycat, but the Swan and the Alley Cat. But both grew up knowing the optimism of post-World War II America, the turmoil of the '60s and Vietnam, and the long national disillusionment which followed. These are the experiences expressed again and again in Joel's songbook, and the story told in Movin' Out, which strings together a couple dozen of the songwriter's many hits. The show is doubtless Broadway's most remarkable visitor from the dance world since Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake. And, like that hybrid ballet/theatre piece, it is proving a draw at the box office (sales assisted considerably by Joel's heavy following in the New York area) and stands to assume the position recently relinquished by Contact, another dance piece with a theatrical personality. Tharp spoke to Playbill On-Line's Robert Simonson during Movin' Out's second week of previews.
Playbill On-Line: What have you learned over the past few months about working in the commercial Broadway theatre?
Twyla Tharp: I don't look at the question that way. I look at the question as how have I been able to make the show move better, stronger, all those things? Commercial takes care of itself. I don't deal with that. You do something an audience responds to and that's what it's about.
PBOL: So, it hasn't seemed very different an experience from your many dance works?
TT: Well, sure it has. There's a narrative that's coherent throughout the evening and that's very unusual in the dance world. I've done full-length evenings before, but I've never worked with dancers who are such strong actors. I've had pieces that have had a pop background, but they haven't had a sustained narrative line and they haven't had character development.
PBOL: It was my impression that the first act mainly concerned things that happened to the characters and the second act switched to what is happening inside the characters.
TT: That's an astute observation. We kind of shift gears in the second act and much of it does become interior monologue as opposed to plot. It also shifts decades so we move from a more "fable, fairy tale-esque, once-upon-a-time-long-ago" feeling to something that's a little closer to us. The '70s and '80s are a more tangible experience for much of the audience than what we're portraying as the '50s and '60s. The first act up until the war sequences deals with a sort of optimism, the attitude in America that we can fix anything, a kind of frontier spirit. A car is broken, we'll fix it; a relationship is broken, we'll fix it. When the war came, there was a corrosiveness that came into the culture. We couldn't always just fix things anymore. So, Act Two becomes about just survival.
PBOL: It's a story that many in the audience can recognize immediately. Do you think that's one of the strengths of Billy Joel's music, that it communicates that American narrative?
TT: I think that, first of all, that this—well, "epic" is a very grand word, but when you're dealing with a narrative that passes through more than five years, then I think it's a different sort of thing. Billy is a very good short story writer. He has great detail, he has incidents that are spot-on. One of the reasons he has such a broad audience is he comes to his material positively. He comes to it for a good reason. He doesn't come to destroy it. He comes, in a way, to honor it, no matter how desperate the situation, whether it's about fishermen or steelworkers or a guy who's life is deteriorated in front of his eyes. PBOL: In articles, Joel's comes off as very hands off, laissez faire. That must be very freeing for you artistically.
TT: That's just the way it's been and that's the way I always work. It's not that I don't collaborate. Every director collaborates and certainly choreographers collaborate, because most of the time they're not dancing. But in terms of decisions that are made, it's always my call as to wardrobe, narrative, casting, whatever.
PBOL: Have you always been a Billy Joel fan?
TT: Yes, I've known Billy's music since it was released. I've known all the albums as they've come out, and I've not only listened to them, but I've danced around to his music in the studio. But it was only recently that I began to think trying to find a coherent arc that would help place it all in a single dramatic spine.
PBOL: Joel's' songs seem to mean an awful lot to a couple generations of listeners, particularly in the New York-Long Island area. Do you think his work's influence with people's affections will help bring this show across to fans who might not otherwise seek out your art?
TT: Absolutely. And vice versa. From that point of view, it's a very good sort of cross pollination, if you will. It is also that both of us are interested in a larger subtotal than our individual audiences. One of the things that makes music strong is what you could call a kind of classicism, whether it's the sound of the 19th century or not. It's an interest in that which survives, that which is going to continue, not just that which is topical. I think Billy has a real concern with that and always has. Even when he seems to be working a real genre of vernacular song like "Uptown Girl," he makes a classic out of that kind of doo-wop. We want to reach an audience with a kind of material that people might ostensibly think of as pop, but we're saying, hey, think of it slightly differently. Maybe it has a deeper resonance than just in the moment.
PBOL: Was it always easy to find the right movements to go with each song?
TT: It's never easy to find any movements whatsoever. No, I'm teasing you. It wasn't just about finding the movements that were right for the music. Obviously, it also had to do with the narrative we needed to get and the characters and where they needed to get, for an overall beginning, middle and an end. Some of the time is was about finding movements that would be appropriate for the music, but that's because the music was appropriate for the moment and the characters. For example, "Angry Young Man," which opens the second act, is actually a song about a Vietnam vet and so therefore is exactly what we're doing, so everyone's in the same boat. Then there are other songs where I don't run exactly parallel to what Billy's intending in the song, for example "She's Got a Way," which is a beautiful ballad. We have an essence of romantic love in the way we portray it, but it has a sourness to it, again because of the corrosion of the war. There I was seeking to express and make clear that sense of things, rather than to be illustrative of Billy's music.
PBOL: Are you still honing the piece at this point?
TT: It's still called previews, right?
PBOL: Have any songs been added or dropped since previews began in New York?
TT: No, and there won't be.
PBOL: You demand more from your dancers than perhaps any Broadway show I've ever seen. Are you concerned for their stamina?
TT: Well, sure. I'm concerned for my stamina, too. Look, that's part of why we do it. Everybody who is up here is taking on the challenge, if not willingly, then knowingly. I say to dancers who work with me, "Look, you guys, I expect a lot out of myself, I expect a lot out of you. I understand it's going to be a real challenge. Either you want to be an elite force or not." That's always been part of the challenge for me. It's not just about making dance. Dance is a physical thing and it's an athletic thing and I've always challenges myself athletically. Triathletes are great, but they work in relatively limited muscle group areas, whereas a dancer's got to have it all. You've got to jump, you've got to turn, you've got to be fast, you've got to be slow, you've got to have stamina, you've got to be able to spring. You've got to do it all.
PBOL: The second act's "Big Shot" and "Big Man on Mulberry Street," in particular, seemed like a brutal sequence for the characters of Brenda and Tony.
TT: That's a character-driven piece. I think it's fair to say that the second act blasts in a way the first act doesn't. We kick into high gear there. I don't think that "Big Shot" or "Mulberry Street" is any more arduous than "Pressure" or "Goodnight Saigon." "Saigon" is actually—excuse the French—a real bitch, especially for the men.
PBOL: "Goodnight Saigon," Eddie's dreamlike return to Vietnam, feels like the heart of the show. Would you agree?
TT: Yes. Definitely. It's a very operatic thing. It is absolutely the core of the thing, because it's the moment of redemption. And to those of us who were here when the war was happening and when the vets came back, and have any sense at all as to what those guys were experiencing, the purging to try to redeem their lives is pretty intense.
PBOL: After his redemption, you give Eddie an awful lot of crowd-pleasing moves in the second act: break dancing, moonwalking, etc.
TT: It has to do with making your character sympathetic. You want compassion for Eddie. You give him moves to do that will warm the audience to him.
—By Robert Simonson