When High Button Shoes bows at New York City Center Encores! May 8, audiences will have a chance to marvel at Jerome Robbins’ original choreography—well, two numbers of it—and a fresh take on the movement in the madcap musical comedy by choreographer Sarah O’Gleby.
O’Gleby has choreographed high-profile routines for the Oscars, for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the NBC upfront presentations, and Saturday Night Live. The dancer-choreographer (who has been seen onstage in Broadway’s Promises, Promises, 2011’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Chaplin, and Cinderella, and who assisted Rob Ashford on How to Succeed and Disney’s Frozen) crafts her own take on the big ensemble production. Here, she reveals the process of re-staging famous movement, her inspiration, and more:
Jerome Robbins made such a huge impact on dance. What was it about his choreography that changed the landscape at the time and continues to reverberate in musical theatre dance today?
Sarah O’Gleby: The difference with Jerome Robbins is that he was a director that understood and told stories through dance. And even more than stories, he told you the deepest secrets of someone’s heart and even wrapped it up with incredible wit and humor.
Watch this archival clip from High Button Shoes:
You re-stage Jerome’s choreography for two of the numbers in the show—one of them the famous ballet “On a Sunday by the Sea.” Why was it important to preserve the original choreography on these two numbers, specifically?
The other number is called “Jealous.” It’s a soft shoe duet between Mama and Papa. These were two of his numbers he chose to put into Jerome Robbins’ Broadway [his 1989 revue], so they must have been incredibly special to him. From all the research I did about High Button Shoes, it was always the Mack Sennett Ballet that was spoken about with regards to the show, so we all decided that it was very important to preserve the original choreography for both these numbers.
Watch the original “On a Sunday by the Sea”:
When re-staging someone else’s choreography, how do you ensure that you’re getting it to be as close to the original as possible?
The estate provided me with some videos for me to watch and learn from. I also was incredibly lucky as my husband [Chris Bailey, also a choreographer] and his associate Beth Crandall were part of the team to recreate Jerome Robbins’ Broadway at The Muny [in St. Louis] last summer, which hadn’t been seen for something like three decades on stage. One of the most exciting parts of the Jerome Robbins exploration was getting to sit down with the legendary Cynthia Onrubia, who was Jerome’s right hand lady throughout the creation of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. She knows everything about the show and what Jerome was always looking for. She said, ‘Character first above all else’. The biggest challenge was that we have 20 less cast members than Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, so it was quite a challenge to make sure we had every beat covered. Every cast member is basically doing a double track, but I think we have covered every moment. Also a huge challenge is teaching this epic 12-minute number along with all the other production numbers. City Center was incredibly generous and gave us an extra three rehearsal days as they knew how important it was to give this number a little extra time. I truly could not have done it without Beth Crandall, my associate; she has been simply incredible.
With the other numbers, you’ve created original choreography. How do you ensure your dance blends with Jerome’s so all of the numbers feel like part of the same world?
There is a particular style of how we play this show, that partly comes from the era it was set but also from the talents of the people who created it. When it comes to the actual choreography of the dances in the show, I do want them to be different. That usually gets dictated by the song and the narrative we are trying to portray. This show has been such fun to choreograph because each number really does have such a different character to it. You can see by the two numbers that we kept the original choreography for are really quite different, so Jerome must have had such fun himself creating all these different styles which I have embraced.
If you were to describe your movement vocabulary for your own numbers, what are three adjectives that guided your approach to the movement?
Honest, fun, and expressive
Which one of your numbers are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the “Country Ballet.” I could have spent weeks, months on this, crafting and adding so many layers. It’s a beautiful moment in the show, the music I most connected to. I’m always very vulnerable in the room with everyone and truly wear my heart on my sleeve, and I wanted this to be a very heartfelt, honest moment in the show and [demonstrative of] what it would mean to their characters’ hearts. I spoke about my family and my marriage a lot and what each moment meant to me. I know that when I performed for years, that when something was taught to me with strong narrative and emotion, I lost myself onstage in the best possible way and I wanted that for these dancers, too.
A lot of your work is on a huge scale—the Oscars, big brand launches, big choruses for TV numbers—why do you like working with big groups?
It’s actually quite funny, because I’m a tiny lady (5’1”) and I’ve become someone who can make a lot happen very quickly with a large amount of people. I love being with dancers, there is nothing better than soaking in all their amazing energy, and when that radiates off the stage and into peoples souls in the audience, there is nothing better! The dancers in High Button Shoes have been simply incredible! They have learned an unbelievable amount of information in nine days, and not just steps but tone, nuance, and narrative. I couldn’t have done it without them!