The Song Is Them: Never Gonna Dance Troupe Reinvents Fred, Ginger and Jerome Kern

News   The Song Is Them: Never Gonna Dance Troupe Reinvents Fred, Ginger and Jerome Kern A guy. A girl. A dance competition. Manhattan. The 1930s. The music of Jerome Kern. Is there really anything else you need to know about the new Broadway musical Never Gonna Dance?
Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager of Never Gonna Dance.
Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager of Never Gonna Dance.

Turns out, there's plenty. For starters, "Swing Time," the Fred-and-Ginger movie on which the show is based, was originally supposed to be called "Never Gonna Dance," but the men at RKO Pictures wanted to tap into the blooming swing-music craze, so the marquee changed.

With the title restored now, the producers and creative team of the new Never Gonna Dance — including librettist Jeffrey Hatcher, director Michael Greif and choreographer Jerry Mitchell — looked at ways to expand the experience beyond the original film, which only offered a handful of Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields songs.

Librettist Hatcher told Playbill On-Line that the basic plot points from the 1936 film still exist in Never Gonna Dance: A vaudeville hoofer named Lucky (played by Noah Racey) comes to Manhattan to prove to his future father-in-law that he can make money in a legitimate business, but ends up dancing with a new partner, dance teacher Penny Carroll (played by Nancy Lemenager).

Hatcher, the respected playwright known for Three Viewings, Scotland Road and Sockdology, has expanded the story by adding a dance competition in which Penny and Lucky battle Harlem dancers Velma and Spud (played by Deidre Goodwin and Eugene Fleming).

"It did strike me that we'd probably have to have a more caffeinated book than the original film has," Hatcher said. "It's charming, but certain plot things had to be bumped up. I thought the basic premise was a really great idea. I took the key characters and three or four of the key plot points and expanded them." The Goodwin and Fleming characters were added because "there wasn't any real threat to Lucky and Penny," Hatcher said. The two couples now compete at a contest run by the newly created character of Major Bowes (a real impresario of the period, known for his amateur-hour shows).

Any fan of the movie "Swing Time" knows there is a problematic blackface minstrel show number performed by Fred Astaire. "Yeah, they had to clean that up a little bit," Fleming said with a laugh.

Goodwin and Fleming, both veterans of Fosse, said one of the challenges in rehearsal is finding out what common ground their new characters can find with Penny and Lucky.

"Noah and Nancy have worked on their parts for two years," Fleming said, referring to the earlier workshop of the musical. "We need to figure out how, as characters, we fit into the show. Penny and Lucky come to see us because we are their nemesis — we're the dance group going against them."

At an Oct. 9 rehearsal-hall press event, the company showed off four numbers, including Goodwin and Fleming's "I'll Be Hard to Handle," a nightclub-act number in a Harlem cabaret. "Pick Yourself Up," "Shimmy With Me" and "I Won't Dance" were also performed for invited press, with the understanding that the show is a work in progress. Hatcher said the company and creative team continue to learn things about the show as rehearsals progress, and previews will also be instructive.

Previews begin Oct. 27 at the Broadhurst Theatre, with an opening of Dec. 4.

A bundle of Kern songs, with lyrics by other writers, has been added to the expanded stage version of the story. At the heart of the show, given the work's roots as a vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is dance — particularly partner dancing.

"I knew the movie somewhat, and then after [producer] Jay [Harris] spoke to me about the project, I looked at the movie more closely," said director Michael Greif, known for Broadway's Rent but not for light musical comedies. "You sort of educate yourself. There's a real charm between those two characters in all of those films. I love the fact that they predominantly express themselves — and that their relationship develops — through dance, which was new to me as a director. I knew we had to find an extraordinary choreographer. I thought, how wonderful to be able to do a piece in which dance was really at its heart and center. [Dance] is like their heartbeat. Being able to dance is how they're able to breathe. In this film, which I think has one of the stronger plots, you find that some guy has met his soulmate when he meets his dance partner."

Hatcher was already on the project when Greif came aboard, in late 2000. Mitchell was next to join.

Elegant, free-wheeling, old-fashioned musical comedy is new to Greif, whose credits include the darker Rent, Bright Lights, Big City, Machinal, A Bright Room Called Day, Slavs! and Dogeaters.

"Yeah, it's different for me," Greif said with a laugh. "I've done a couple of shows, especially at Williamstown, that have been American classics, certainly — Kaufman and Hart's Once in a Lifetime. In terms of musical comedy, Jay Harris saw a show I did at Williamstown, Noel Coward's Tonight at 8:30, which was set in the 30s and was elegant and had style connected to it. I think he was surprised that I had interest in that area."

How did choreographer Jerry Mitchell prepare for the work on Never Gonna Dance? "I knew the Astaire-Rogers films, but I really have studied them getting ready for this production," Mitchell said. "I made my own compilation: I burned my own DVD of all of my favorite Fred and Ginger numbers. I watched them over and over. Each of them has a different sort of wonderful thing to them — the storytelling. I've become a deeper fan, a richer fan, since I started this project. There's so many different ways to examine their work: The joy they had as dancers, as actors, as comedians. And it's all told in dance."

In the stage show, Penny and Lucky "do three [partnering] numbers," Mitchell explained. "In their three stories, they tell of their whole life together — their relationship is told in three dances."

Mitchell said he's not a ballroom dance expert, though he knows the physical language of that world. His approach was intuitive: "When I'm dancing with a woman, I have to feel good about the way we're moving together. I think it's about storytelling. Ultimately, it comes down to the story that they're telling while they're dancing together. The style of those period films allowed the man and the woman to dance side by side, not always in proper dance position, although Fred and Ginger did that also. If you watch certain routines, they are often standing side by side, and I try to mimic that idea in 'Pick Yourself Up,' which is their first number, very much a flirtation number. They're meeting for the first time and dancing."

By Act Two, the partners are dancing more passionately, complete with dramatic lifts.

"They do more of the partner and lift stuff in the title number, very traditional, with long white dress, tuxedo — romance, unrequited love, much more intimate," Mitchell explained.

Of all his recent work on Broadway, Mitchell points out, "This is the first time the characters are professional dancers: He's a stage dancer and she's a dance teacher, it allows you a whole other vocabulary and level on which to work. I haven't seen anything like this on Broadway, and I've been in New York since 1980."

Karen Ziemba, who plays wisecracking Mabel, Penny's pal from the dance studio, said she knows all about Mitchell's partnering moves.

"I've wanted to work with Jerry Mitchell," she said. "He and I had danced together many years ago when he was still dancing. Everybody wanted to be his partner because he was the strongest, biggest, most handsome partner. Not only could he dance by himself beautifully, when he lifted you in the air, you felt like a feather. Now that he's doing such great work as a choreographer, I jumped at the chance to work with him."

Tony Award-winner Ziemba said she's like an older sister to the Penny character, and accepts the comparison to Eve Arden. "I'd love to be like Eve Arden, she's one of my favorites," Ziemba said.

Her comic romantic interest in the show is Peter Gerety, playing a former financier broken (but not beat) by the Depression. The characters are inspired by the second bananas in film, played by Victor Moore and Helen Broderick.

Ziemba, remembered for Contact, Steel Pier, Crazy for You, Chicago and more, sings the obscure "Shimmy With Me," a rag-flecked number that is jazzed up (the lyric is by P.G. Wodehouse), plus "You Couldn't Be Cuter" and the lesser-known "I Got Love."

For "newcomers" Racey and Lemenager, this is a chance to step into leading roles after several years of ensemble parts in touring and Broadway musicals. Racey's recent Broadway gig was the company of Thoroughly Modern Millie (he was the associate choreographer) and Lemenager's credits include the tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Music of the Night, Broadway's Dream, How to Succeed... and Guys and Dolls.

"They didn't hire ballroom dancers, they hired musical theatre dancers, people who love all variety of dancing — and also acting and all the things that go into the roles," Racey said.

"We were fortunate enough to do the workshop two years ago, and I think that was a big key in the casting," Lemenager said. "Jerry was pairing people up at the workshop audition and when we got called back it was the two of us in a room together. It's something you can't put your finger on: Why do people get married? Why do people connect? Why do people become friends? Why do we make good partners? From Day One we sort of moved alike. We felt the music similarly."

"We had met a couple of times — " Racey said.

"We knew each other," Lemenager added, finishing his sentence.

"We have mutual friends," Racey offered.

"But we had never worked together," Lemenager returned.

"You know, we didn't dance a lot together in the auditions," he said.

"I don't think I danced with you at all," Lemenager said.

"Yeah," said Racey, his memory sparked. "We didn't! I think Jerry had us both in his head."

"We were paired with different people," she said.

"Yeah, just to see how we moved," he said.

"He's sly, that Jerry Mitchell," she said.

"He's a smart boy, that guy," he said.

This is a fine romance.

*

The company also includes Peter Bartlett, David Pittu, Deborah Leamy, Philip LeStrange, Ron Orbach, with ensemble members Timothy J. Alex, Julio Agustin, Roxane Barlow, Julie Connors, Sally Mae Dunn, Jennifer Frankel, Jason Gillman, Greg Graham, Ipsita Paul, T. Oliver Reid, Kirby Ward and Tommar Wilson.

The Broadhurst Theatre is at 235 W. 44th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.

The show is expected to boast such Kern standards as "Who" (from Sunny), "She Didn't Say Yes" (from The Cat and the Fiddle), "The Song Is You" (from Music in the Air), "I'd Be Hard to Handle" (from Roberta), plus classic movie musical songs "Pick Yourself Up," "Waltz in Swing Time," "The Way You Look Tonight," "A Fine Romance," "Never Gonna Dance," "Bojangles of Harlem" (all from "Swing Time"), "Dearly Beloved" and "I'm Old-Fashioned" (from the film "You Were Never Lovelier"), "I Won't Dance" (from the film "Roberta"), "You Couldn't Be Cuter" (from the film "The Joy of Living") and "Remind Me" (from the film "One Night in the Tropics"). Some changes in the songlist may occur as rehearsals and previews continue.

Lyricists whose work is used include Dorothy Fields, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Johnny Mercer, Otto Harbach, P.G. Wodehouse and Jimmy McHugh.

Producers of Never Gonna Dance are Weissberger Theater Group/Jay Harris, Edgar Bronfman Jr., James Walsh, Ted Hartley/RKO Pictures, and Harvey Weinstein.

Designers are Robin Wagner (set), William Ivey Long (costumes), Paul Gallo (lighting), ACME Sound (sound). Robert Billig is music director. Ochestrations are by Harold Wheeler. John Miller is music coordinator. Zane Mark is (music/dance arranger).

Never Gonna Dance's playing schedule is 8 PM Monday-Saturday and 2 PM Wednesday and Saturday.

Tickets ($71.25-$101.25) are also available through Telecharge at (212) 947-8844.

For more information, visit www.NeverGonnaDance.com.

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