Movin' Out, the new musical collaboration between pop legend Billy Joel and choreographer Twyla Tharp — firing up audiences and the box office — will officially open at Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre Oct. 24, following previews since Sept. 30.
The bookless show moves seamlessly from Billy Joel hit to Billy Joel hit, using the lyrics and Tharp's rigorous, demanding choreography to trace a tale about five friends and lovers across three decades. The story follows the travails of Brenda, Eddie and Tony, names familiar to any owner of Joel's breakthrough 1977 album, "The Stranger."
As the lyrics of Joel's anthemic song "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" go, "Brenda and Eddie/Were the Popular Steadies/And the King and the Queen of the Prom/Riding Around with the Car Top Down/And the Radio On." In the tune, the couple gets married, hits the skids and breaks up (all of which happens in the first 10 minutes of Movin' Out).
The musical drafts the character of Tony from "Movin' Out," as in "Anthony Works in a Grocery Store/Saving His Pennies for Someday." After leaving Eddie, Brenda hooks up with Tony. Meanwhile, two other characters from Joel songs, James and Judy, fall in love and get married. All is relatively sunny until the Vietnam War drafts all three men, sending back only two, and casting the group of friends into emotional and psychological turmoil.
The piece is without question the most dance-heavy show currently playing on Broadway, causing many viewers to label it a ballet, albeit an extremely accessible one. There is no dialogue and all the songs are performed by pianist, singer and Joel sound-alike Michael Cavanaugh, who sings non-stop and heads an on-stage band during the show. The musical's songlist is a collection of pre-existing Joel songs which make up the narrative's score. "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" functions as a sort of overture, introducing the characters. The story kicks off with "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." Among the other selected tunes are such monster Joel hits as "We Didn't Start the Fire," "Big Shot," "Uptown Girl" and "Just the Way You Are," as well as more obscure early work like "James," "Summer, Highland Falls," and "Angry Young Man."
Speaking of the impetus behind the project, Tharp told Playbill On-Line, "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."
When asked about how she matched her movements to Joel's songs, Tharp observed: "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."
Tharp continued, "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 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.... Act Two becomes about just survival."
To read the entire Brief Encounter interview with Tharp, click here.
The cast, all highly experienced dancers, includes Elizabeth Parkinson as Brenda, John Selya as Eddie, Keith Roberts as Tony, Benjamin G. Bowman as James and Ashley Tuttle as Judy. The cast of 27 is completed by Scott Wise, Andrew Allagree, Mark Arvin, Aliane Baquerot, Alexander Brady, Holly Cruikshank, Ron De Jesus, Melissa Downey, Pascale Faye, Scott Fowler, David Gomez, Meg Paul, Laurie Kanyok, William Marrié, Rod McCune, Jill Nicklaus, Rika Okamoto, Karine Plantadit Bageot, Lawrence Rabson, Dana Stackpole and John J. Todd.
Movin' Out had a tryout at Chicago's Shubert Theatre this past summer, a run that was occasioned by some mixed reviews and a lot of show doctoring by Tharp.
The Tribune critic, Michael Phillips, went back in last August and published a sort of re-review on Aug. 22, which included comments by Tharp. "The guiding principle was this," said Tharp. "If it's confusing, cut it out." According to the article (which a show spokesman confirmed was accurate), the number "I Go to Extremes," which had followed "Movin' Out" in the opening sequence, was cut. The latter number, which once featured Keith Roberts and a bevy of females, now involves the male leads.
Designers are Santo Loquasto (sets), Suzy Benzinger (costumes), Donald Holder (lighting) and Brian Ruggles and Peter Fitzgerald (sound).
Stuart Malina is the music director on the venture.
Matinees of Movin' Out will feature different leads and a different singer than will the evening performances.
On Wednesday and Saturday matinees, Brenda and Eddie will be played by Holly Cruikshank and William Marrié, while David Gomez will be Tony, Dana Stackpole is Judy and Wade Preston is on vocals.
At all performances, Scott Wise will play Sergeant O'Leary and the Drill Sergeant, and Benjamin G. Bowman will portray James.
The shifting line-up, which is detailed in the show's program, was no doubt devised to afford the lead performers a break from the physical workout provided by Twyla Tharp's choreography.
During evening shows, Cruikshank and Gomez are part of the ensemble. Marrié and Stackpole are swings.
Tickets to Movin' Out may be purchased by calling Ticketmaster at (212) 307-4100 or www.ticketmaster.com.