Twyla Tharp is the woman who made Billy Joel dance when she created Movin' Out for Broadway in 2002. Now the legendary choreographer is working her magic with another music icon, Bob Dylan, in the new show The Times They Are A-Changin'.
Although Tharp toils mostly in the rarefied worlds of classical ballet and modern dance, she has always had a rock 'n' roll heart. In fact, the 65-year-old iconoclast, a onetime disciple of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, has often used pop music to fashion her kinetic pieces, creating dances to songs by Chuck Berry, Fats Waller and The Beach Boys.
Most famously, she used the songs of pop star Joel to devise a show about a group of friends whose lives are irrevocably altered by the corrosive effects of the Vietnam War. Movin' Out eschewed dialogue and made dance its driving force — and became a critical and commercial smash that ran for more than three years (closing last December).
Whereas Movin' Out functioned as a story ballet told through Tharp's choreography and Joel's songs, in Times the three main characters all sing, while an ensemble of singer–dancers play supporting parts and also serve to underscore the narrative and the emotions that are unfolding onstage.
"There's no separation of the music and the action, as there was in Movin' Out. The singing is all from the floor," says Tharp, adjusting her familiar black frame glasses. "The songs have been assigned to character arcs and narratives. And we've taken the material as language and given it to the actors as text."
Tharp says that Dylan, who had approached her about creating a Broadway show from his music, embraces reinterpretations of his music. "It seems to me, he has not been so interested in promoting the presentation of his music as he is in creating it," she observes. "He is very generous with allowing all kinds of experimentation with his music because he believes in it, because he believes it can sustain that kind of examination."
Make no mistake, The Times They Are A-Changin' is not a bio show about Dylan's life. Set in a low-rent, broken-down traveling circus, the story revolves around the generational conflict and strained relations between an autocratic father, the peg-legged circus honcho Captain Ahrab (Thom Sesma), and his troubled, sensitive young son Coyote (Michael Arden), who longs to break free from his father's ironfisted ways and chart his own course. In addition, both men are romantically linked to a beautiful young circus performer, Cleo (Lisa Brescia).
While Joel's songs are known for their storytelling nature, Dylan's more elliptical lyrics led Tharp to unfold the tale as a dreamlike fable rather than a straightforward narrative. "Dream logic is very different from narrative logic. Dreams misrepresent things all the time. But their logic is very theatrical. And it's based a lot on exaggeration and on transformation — two components that also figure in circuses. Clowns exaggerate, and everything in the world of magic transforms — one thing into the next into the next." Tharp says she thought these two components "would be mutually supportive here in telling a story that would very broadly move along as a series of dreams, so that each song could have its own atmosphere and its own world — some more nightmarish than others and some more pleasing, pleasant, fun or romantic."
Since its out-of-town tryout in San Diego last winter, Tharp has revised the final third of the show significantly. "A lot of work has been done on clarifying points that were left vague but seemed as though they needed more specificity. We want people to be clear about what's happening."
But the biggest difference, she insists, will be in the amped-up dance aspects of the show. Many of her powerhouse lead dancers were unavailable for the run last winter because they were still busy with Movin' Out. "Putting this group of dancers in [makes it] a totally different world. They have a lot more power and drive and force. You can do a major dance number now."
So can lightning strike twice on Broadway for this revered dance doyenne? The combined weight of her and Dylan's artistic legends would seem to only add to the anticipation and the pressure. Yet Tharp insists that she doesn't think about it that way. "It's about the show," she says. "It's about the material. And it's about believing that this material has a real importance and a real relevance to us now. It's not about personalities. It's about the bigger picture."