Musical and dance go together like Germany and France - centuries of conflict. Directors resent the Choreographer’s need for rehearsal time and space, Set Designers resent the need for ‘a big flat bit in the middle’ to accommodate show stopping routines and Costume Designers despair at all those splitting gussets. Worst of all most dancers can’t act and don’t necessarily sing too well so the arguments start at the casting stage. Then again there are those who just don’t like dancing at all. Queen’s Roger Taylor expressed this point of view clearly the day he arrived at We Will Rock You rehearsals during a run of Radio Ga-Ga and loudly declared “Oh I fucking hate dancing! Can’t we cut all the dancing?”
Before you hire a choreographer you need to consider the dance style of the piece,
arty-farty balletic or tap, there is some middle ground but these are the two ends of the dance spectrum. Human beings have long known something of the emotional impact of tap dancing, the Romans were the first to attach ‘taps’ to their shoes, there are the accursed Morris dancers, and we should never forget the achievement of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard who routed Marshall Kutozov’s 4th Division by the sheer ferocity of their tap dancing on the cobbles of Austerlitz. After a peak in the Fred & Ginger years, tap dipped in popularity until relatively recently, and now nearly every village hall in the land echoes to the relentless tramp of OAP and toddler tap classes. Whichever way you go your choreographer needs protection from the forces arrayed against him/her, they tend to get the rough end of the schedule, the rehearsal space, the casting and are quite often presented with a set at an angle of 45º with a surface like black ice.
My best example of a choreographer in extremis was probably Reda, the French/Algerian choreographer of the awful musical version of Romeo & Juliet at the Piccadilly. He had the shortest fuse imaginable and was a rich source of entertainment to us all throughout the production but he excelled on one occasion during the tech. He asked the director David Freeman if one of the set trucks could be moved slightly, David mildly pointed out that if the truck were moved it would block the next entrance. Reda exploded, he bounded off the stage, into the auditorium, and ran around shouting “Fucking English! Fucking English!” at the top of his voice for several minutes before vanishing through the Front of House not to reappear for several days.
Stage Design! What a rich field of human endeavour this is. On the one hand ‘design’ has transformed some musicals from just being successful into a global brand, on the other inept design can strangle the life out of a perfectly good musical and dump it into a shallow grave.
The key thing is to make sure that your director and designer are at least on speaking terms and it’s even better if they have had a meeting or two before rehearsals. Surprisingly this is not always the case. You would be simply staggered by the number of design presentations that I have attended where it appears that the director and designer only met on the bus on the way there.
I could fill a book with quotations from set designers, bewildered, embittered, angry, betrayed, and I probably will, so you will have to wait until then to hear them.
Project Model – Maintenance!
Kevin McHarrowing has insisted that the set for Maintenance be designed by his regular designer Ulla Hoos. Dungaree clad Ulla is Latvian born but UK based, she won her theatrical spurs working as assistant to Frankfurt Opera Artistic Director Klaus Kronstadt on the notorious nude Carmen (set on a croquet lawn) and the even more notorious Der Rosenkavalier, which closed after three nights following violent protests from animal welfare organisations. Maintenance producers Samuel J Bloodlust and Alvin Toxteth have their doubts (like McHarrowing Hoos has never done a West End musical) but have agreed to his proposal. Bloodlust said at the time “She’s what we need. We need to be edgy on this one. Why the fuck does she wear dungarees all the time?” Ulla has already set off for Mlada Boleslav, location of the main Skoda plant, in order to stay with a typical Czech car-worker’s family in the interests of research. The Kopecnick family are puzzled as to why this grim faced Latvian lady has come to live with them but they take her money with good grace. Mrs Kopecnick, particularly, got rather flustered when Ulla insisted on taking a photograph of the entire family in the bath together. The time has not been wasted, McHarrowing has been bombarded with giga-bytes of gritty car plant imagery, hectares of gear boxes and brake linings, rows of dumpy canteen ladies, men in showers, girls in showers and Skodas, lots of Skodas. The only piece of research material that Ulla may choose to disregard is the farewell advice from Mrs Kopecnick’s mother “You are are a nice girl but you will never find the love of a good man while you are wearing those fucking dungarees”.
On the choreographic front Toxteth and Bloodlust have opted for experience and proven success and have snapped up the doyen of Broadway choreographers, Bobby Brasso. Brasso has become available after the abrupt cancellation of Fight Club – The Musical and has promised to make something “Sweet! Sweet! Sweet!” out of the opening ‘Skoda Production Line Clog Dance’. He is a legend on the ‘Great White Way’ for the commitment and intensity that he brings to his work. He is such a dauntingly intense individual that he makes Bob Fosse look like a Golden Labrador jumping into a pond. Also there isn’t a row of tents anywhere in the world camper than Bobby Brasso.