PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Bill Deamer, Choreographer of London's Top Hat
By Mark Shenton
June 30, 2012
Meet Bill Deamer, London's latest star theatre choreographer, the man behind the feet and movement of the screen-to-stage musical Top Hat.
Just as Christopher Gattelli has recently entered the top rank of Broadway's most sought-after choreographers following his Tony win for Newies, London, too, has a new dance star: Bill Deamer, whose choreography for Top Hat brilliantly reinvents the movie-dance classic for the stage.
Like Gattelli and choreographers from Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse to Susan Stroman and Rob Ashford before them, Bill Deamer began his career as a dancer, and has served a long apprenticeship to build up his current profile. Now he's on a roll, juggling interesting student projects like the current first major London outing for Chaplin (not the version opening on Broadway this year but one that was intended to reach there 30 years ago, in 1982) at Guildhall School of Music and high-profile British TV jobs choreographing for "So You Think You Dance?" and "Strictly Come Dancing."
When Top Hat opened at the West End's Aldwych Theatre in May, the London critics were particularly impressed with the dancing; Kate Bassett, writing in the Independent on Sunday, commented, "The tap-dancing is pretty dazzling.... from the waist up, an air of nonchalant idling, while the feet are a blur of patent leather, rapping out punctilious beats. The chorus routines sound like a crescendoing war dance with syncopated machine-guns." Playbill recently caught up with the engaging Deamer over coffee in London.
Where did you train and how did you start in the business?
Bill Deamer: I was already a trained dancer before I went to the Guildford School of Acting when I was 18. So when I went there, I was able to continue my advanced ballet and tap, but what was great there is that I used to warm up in the morning, do an hour's ballet, then go to a Shakespeare class. They concentrated on all the disciplines. After I graduated, I started going into shows like Underneath the Arches in the West End and The Boyfriend for Cameron Mackintosh — a show I would later choreograph myself and which got me my first Olivier nomination when we did it at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park! But Cameron's production, which went to Canada before it came to the West End, was wonderful, and I'll always be very grateful to him — he taught me the value of good production early on, and that has been really important to me.
Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen in Top Hat.
photo by Brinkhoff and Mogenburg
When did you make the switch into choreography yourself?
BD: I was doing a production of Cabaret in the West End, choreographed by Gillian Lynne, in 1986. I did the first three months, but I was then offered a choreography job at the Salisbury Playhouse, and I had to take it! It was to do a production of Cabaret, funnily enough! Gillian taught me a couple of great lessons: I learnt from her that you must always choreograph what it is you want to do, not what's expected of you. And she also told me early on: you will never be a choreographer's assistant — you have a mind of your own.
I worked there for a while — I was able to choreograph and be in the shows as well, that was the joy of it. Because of the way I trained and was brought up through the ranks working with great choreographers and good directors, I developed my own way of doing it. I was always greatly influenced by Fred Astaire and Bob Fosse, but I was never a copier. You have to create your own style — so it sometimes takes a while to break through.
Summer Strallen in Top Hat.
Photo by Alastair Muir
From being a jobbing dancer, you became a jobbing choreographer.
BD: Yes, I did lots of rep work — and started working with Martin Connor doing musicals with students at Guildhall. One of the shows we did there was Babes in Arms — and it led to a professional production at Cardiff, and then Jonathan Church asked us to do it at Chichester as well. It was a huge hit, but the first half wasn't quite right. We've worked on it some more, and it is now — and we're going to do it again at Arts Ed [another London drama school] later this year.
You're at Guildhall again at the moment, working on Chaplin [an American-penned musical famously aborted for Broadway in 1982, and now receiving its first full production in its original version].
BD: It's an absolute joy. The facilities are incredible — you get a full orchestra and a full stage set, so you can explore any musical you want to. Chaplin is a piece Martin and I did a workshop of first with students at Guildford, my old school, so it was fun to be back there. But it has given us the chance to explore something that is essentially brand new. It's got a very interesting concept and it's got something to say — its told in a music- hall style, which then becomes filmic and there's projection, and there's also mime and commedia dell'arte — you're crossing lots of different worlds, and it all mixes up. I also didn't realize what an awful life Chaplin had, or that he didn't find his true identity until quite late on.
What about your own artistic identity? What are your personal trademarks?
BD: I've always been a good comic, so choreographing comedically is something I can do. It also comes in handy when you're choreographing and things get tense. I always know how to calm down a situation!
Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen in Top Hat.
photo by Brinkhoff and Mogenburg
You're also very good, of course, at period dance.
BD: Yep, I can do anything from Edwardian up to '70s or '80s dance. I don't do street dance yet, though I'm taking classes in it — as a choreographer, you have to keep reinventing yourself, but there are people who do that better than me!
Simon Blackhall in Chaplin.
Photo by Clive Barda
You mentioned Astaire as being an influence — you've also become an Astaire expert.
BD: In 2002, I was asked to do the first-ever tribute to Fred Astaire at the London Palladium, and met his daughter Ava Astaire. It was quite daunting at first rehearsal — I arrived and there was Cyd Charisse, Jane Powell, Ann Miller and Robert Wagner, sitting in the front row waiting for me! That's where it all started! And when Top Hat came up, Ava insisted I did the job! That was a great honor.
Top Hat has joined Singin' in the Rain in the West End — another film transposed to the stage. Is there a special trick to reinventing them?
BD: You have to find the energy of those shows and make them accessible to audiences today. You can't copy the film — you have to go somewhere else with it. You have to be faithful to the style of the original, but you must then go where you want to go with it, as Gillian Lynne taught me. Besides, no performer can be Astaire — so if you try to make it a copy, you're on a hiding to nothing. I was given the rights to use the choreography from the film, which is a great honor of course, but it didn't work onstage.
You had quite a long journey with Top Hat — literally so, as it toured for a long time before it came into the West End.
BD: It changed a lot on the tour. We realized that we didn't have a good enough opening number for the West End. We had a meeting with the Irving Berlin daughters and Ted Chapin and Bruce Pomahac from the Rodgers and Hammerstein office in New York [who administer the rights to the Berlin catalog], who've been the most amazing support to me throughout, and they let us put in "Putting On the Ritz." I remember tapping it out on the table for them, and they said yes. It gets the show off with a huge bang.
Other support, of course, comes from your dance arranger Chris Walker and director Matthew White.
BD: Chris is a genius — every eyelash, every arm is orchestrated! You're lost without a good dance arranger. I've worked with directors before where I've been in another room rehearsing, and you come back and half a dozen bars have been cut! You can't do that because the whole flow of a phrase will go. So the director and choreographer have to work hand in hand, as Matt and I have done.
Are you tempted to direct as well?
BD: I'd love to! That's the next step. But I love working with good directors — when the collaboration is right, there's nothing better!