Remember Sutton Foster’s eight-minute tap marathon in Anything Goes? Or Donna McKechnie’s showstopping layouts in “Music and the Mirror”? As it turns out, the music of a trademark splashy production number is often a collaboration between a composer and a dance arranger. A necessary part of the team, the dance arranger is actually also a composer, but rather than writing the melody of a song, they write the expansion of that melody. “Composers might write a minute-and-a-half song and it’s my job to make it into, say, a three-minute dance number or a seven-minute big production number,” says dance arranger David Dabbon. These artists write the music for dance breaks—at the very least—but may also create vocal arrangements and orchestrations depending on the song and the project.
“When I did Disaster! there’s that famous Beethoven disco—‘A Fifth of Beethoven’—but JoAnn Hunter, who choreographed it, wanted this section where it’s a tap break. So it’s my job to figure out how to make [the dance break] sound like what everyone had heard before, yet create something totally different,” Dabbon explains.
This experimentation and expansion of form attracted Dabbon to dance arranging in the first place. But Dabbon began as a musical theatre student at the Hartt School of Music and found his way to musical direction and composition “A lot of dance arrangers are either composers or pianists who have great ideas,” says Dabbon. In fact, composing greats like Marvin Hamlisch and Jeanine Tesori started out as dance arrangers. For a dance arranger, the question is: “How can I make [the melodies] more enticing and more thrilling as well as help support what we need to feel and learn?”
The first step to answering that question for Dabbon is music research; he curates a library of songs for each show he works on. “There’ll be everything from things of the time period [or] sometimes I’ll go as random as typing in words that might be associated,” says Dabbon. “For Beauty and the Beast I might type the word ‘beauty’ in Spotify and see what sort of songs come up. I don’t need to stay true to just taking a melody and figuring out how to recreate it. I think that’s what makes my dance arranging a little different and why choreographers enjoy working with me is because I love to stretch as much as I can.”
In addition to his practice of casting a wide net for musical inspiration, as an exercise, Dabbon watches video and writes music on top of it. As ritualized as these practices are, Dabbon also likes to break the rules.
“There are a lot of tricks, you could say, that dance arrangers use and I like to break those tricks,” he says. Instead of a crash every time someone kicks, “I like to make the music flourish a little bit more, so it’s not just drum-driven.” In fact, it was Marvin Hamlish—the composer on Dabbon’s first arranging gig with The Nutty Professor—who encouraged Dabbon to break the rules.
In addition to collaborating with the composer of a musical, Dabbon works hand in hand with the choreographer in a show’s earliest stages—plotting out a vision for the number before he gives it a first pass. But the true creativity happens in the rehearsal room. “I’ll tweak a little bar to match the choreography or vice versa,” he continues. “Like ‘I really like this music. What do you think of making the hit on count eight instead of seven?’ and then through that the choreographer might say, ‘That actually gives me more time to stretch something.’ So it’s a give-and-take.”
Dabbon also learns from the dancers in the room. “I’m looking for how it feels on a body,” says Dabbon. “In rehearsals, when dancers are on ten-minute break, I can hear them singing the dance music—where the hits are, how it feels. That’s always very telling to me.”
And Dabbon’s background as a dancer causes him to watch with a different eye. “I can read dancers’ bodies very well, and I can hear when music’s not jiving,” he says.
Now working on Beetlejuice, Dabbon reunites with choreographer Connor Gallagher, who choreographed Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast for its cruise ship production, which Dabbon arranged. And Dabbon is having a blast with the zany and eclectic sound of the show. Though his playlist casts a wider net of styles than the actual score, the eclectic inspirations speak to the variety of dance Beetlejuice audiences can expect, with everything from tap to contemporary hip hop. It’s that versatility combined with imagination and musicality that, Dabbon says, are the keys to great dance arranging.
If you’re interested in dance arranging, Dabbon suggests listening to the work of:
“The very first one that was my inspiration was Peter Howard on Crazy For You. That’s one of the most lush, fun, whimsical, crafted, artistic arrangements.”
AND, you can learn a section of this dance break by three-time Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler in the video below: