By the Hudson River, Skinner wheels his bike to a comfortable spot to chat. It’s starting to rain, but Skinner doesn’t mind; his mood is as light as his feet. The veteran of the 2016 Tony-nominated choreographers, Skinner moved to New York in 1976 and has been working in the business since. Having grown up in the age of the great MGM musicals and later working as assistant to Gower Champion, Skinner choreographed his Dames at Sea through the lens of American musical film. This fall’s Dames at Sea was his valentine to those Warner Brothers depression-era musicals.
How would you describe your style of dance?
RS: Well, I guess what people see in it is kind of the classic, what we call the MGM movie film dancing just because it brings everything to it. You have your tap, you have elements of ballroom, elements of what we call theatre dance now—formerly jazz but now jazz encompasses many things so now we call it theatre dance—and, of course, ballet. When I teach I always tell people that I was trained in what I think the greats were trained and how they come across on screen is that it looks like one art form—whether they were tapping or doing partnering work or doing ballroom. Being able to work with Gower [Champion] later in life when I moved to New York, I feel great about being able to pass it on and keep it going. American musical film is kind of our art form, those big bit musicals—what they call the Golden Age.
Do you feel, when you approach a piece, that you’re bringing your style to the story or that the story guides you?
RS: Both. Usually it’s the story and the music and also the period, of course, if you’re dealing with a show that’s a really specific era. If you are going to really honor that period and try to put that up onstage with not only the movement but with the sound, the orchestrations, the look of it with the sets and the scenery and the costumes and all of that, then you have a lot of history you really have to deal with.
Back in the day you would see something and say, “That’s Bob Fosse” or “That’s Jermoe Robbins.” The fingerprints were on it. Do you find choreography morphing in a way that story guides it more?
RS: I think it is. Also somebody like Bob Fosse started with the whole MGM thing, and then he developed his style from there. ... We are in an era where story is important and what makes sense. The days are gone when just the musical numbers can save a show. Years ago it was about the musical numbers and the score and now, boy, if people don’t really like the show or they can’t sit through the book for whatever reasons… It’s just different times. It’s a time you have to really know when to include dance when to not include dance, when to cut it because it may be extraneous. I think our audiences are less patient.
What is movement and what is choreography, and is there a difference? If there is where do they overlap?
RS: There are some shows that really do not lend themselves to ever stepping out and doing just a big ole-fashioned production number, and it is more integrated into the book the storytelling, and that’s what we usually call musical staging. I love the opportunity to do the big ole dance numbers. It’s how I grew up; it’s what I love. It’s what I love watching and I do the other. They’re both equally challenging.
The thing about Dames, which was so exciting to me, was that we were able to do what we call a dance-driven show where it is about a lot about the dancing but with no ensemble, where you had six people, because you can paint in different colors. You can really get intricate. You can do all sorts of interesting rhythms that you can’t quite put on a chorus because of the number of people and then you can do all sorts of different patterns that you might not be able to do with large groups. You certainly can add elements like turning, you look at those movies those people turn.
Fred and Ginger, those are my two role models, they sang and did the scene until they had to dance, and then after they danced they never came back and sang again. They made the statement, and then the dance finished the scene of what the moment was about or what the song was about. I think it was in Stephen Sondheim’s book or a book about Stephen Sondheim where it says, “You either sing about it or talk about it but you don’t do both.” I feel the same way with dance.
You did create such intricate footwork. Broadway hadn’t seen tap like that in so long. What was it like for you to bring tap back in that elevated way?
RS: It was phenomenal for me—but you have to have the cast.
What does it take to do a Randy Skinner show?
RS: Well you can only do what your best cast member can do. So it was a grueling audition process. When Eloise [Kropp, who played Ruby] walked in the room it was evident. It’s rare that you find somebody that has that training and can turn around and do just anything with her feet. I had no limitations. Every day I could walk in with new ideas, and I get up and I dance with my kids—I call them my kids. I get up and I dance full out with them, so I know how it feels. The advantage of that is: You know if it doesn’t feel good. I remember those days when you might dread something in a show or you feared something because it might not feel good or it might be painful, so I’m very conscious that everything feel fabulous so that when you hit that stage you’re joyful.
We saw another tap show this spring, albeit another style of tap. What do we need to do to keep tap alive and in the mix?
RS: Well you have to have the shows. That’s why so many of the older shows, the period shows, allow you to do it moreso than maybe the new shows. If it’s a new show that’s being written you have to kind of create it with that in mind or you’re open to a choreographer coming in and saying “Hey, you can tap here.” Years ago when you had shows being written for specific personalities, specific stars, like shows that were created for Ethel Merman or Gwen Verdon or Chita [Rivera], those were created around specific talents. Now shows are written and it’s “Who do we get to be in the show?” It’s a different process now.