Choreographers' next step: Directing, too

Zachary Unger as young Charlie Chaplain and Rob Zachary Unger as young Charlie Chaplain and Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplain in "Chaplin the Musical," at the Barrymore Theatre. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987. ...

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The hyphenates are back on Broadway, and they're getting really fun to watch. I'm speaking about the growing crop of directors who began as choreographers and just might revive the heyday of the director- choreographer that flourished in the '70s with musicals by Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett and Tommy Tune.

Actually, like those giants, and like Jerome Robbins and Gower Champion a bit before them, the new director-choreographers started out as gypsies, then lead dancers, then expanded that gotta-dance sensibility beyond their own bodies to designing movement for the big canvas.

Susan Stroman and Kathleen Marshall have been wearing both hats as double threats for a dozen years, but, until recently, they've been the only ones. Twyla Tharp ("Movin' Out") and Bill T. Jones ("Fela!"), stars of the dance world, have crossed over periodically to Broadway, but their gifts may be too individual to make a broader impact on the musical.

But look at last season and the start of this one. Warren Carlyle directed and choreographed the impressive cinematic look of "Chaplin" and "The Cotton Club Parade," which had an acclaimed limited run last year and returns to New York City Center in November. Andy Blankenbuehler, who won a Tony for his choreography of "In the Heights," runs the whole show in "Bring It On," the astonishingly high-flying, hyper-gymnastic and surprisingly savvy-sweet cheerleader musical on Broadway.

The list goes on. Jeff Calhoun, director-choreographer for last year's short-lived but inventively staged "Bonnie & Clyde," went immediately into directing (but not choreographing) the hit "Newsies" and just finished doing both for the American tour of the Broadway-bound revival of "Jekyll & Hyde."

Jerry Mitchell, who choreographed "The Full Monty," is doing both for "Kinky Boots," the Harvey Fierstein-Cyndi Lauper musical trying out in Chicago for a spring opening here. Sergio Trujillo, who designed the dances for "Memphis," moves into the double role for "Flashdance," scheduled for the summer. And Casey Nicholaw, who has a Tony for his choreography of "Spamalot," has led the way as a hyphenate for "The Drowsy Chaperone," "The Book of Mormon" (co-directed with Trey Parker) and "Elf," which returns to Broadway this Christmas.

"The advantage of doing both is that you have one brain, one clear vision, one clear voice with the set designers, the costume designers, the text and the dance," says Carlyle, who, like most of his colleagues, also does projects for which he is exclusively the choreographer. "On the other hand, it's lonely with no one to turn to and ask, 'What you think?' " he says while on break from designing the dances for "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

Dancing, of course, has been an important part of the American musical since George Balanchine first insisted the title "choreographer" be used instead of "dance designer" in the 1936 "On Your Toes." Seven years later, Agnes de Mille fused serious dance with story in a little show called "Oklahoma!"

The gypsies from Broadway's late-Golden Age -- Robbins, Fosse, Bennett, Tune -- took over the choreography and then the whole vision of the era's progressive, increasingly seamless concept musicals. By the mid-'70s, musicals were so dance-driven ("A Chorus Line," "Dancin' ") that they created their own genre, the dancical.

But Fosse and Bennett died too young, and Robbins, who had abandoned Broadway for the New York City Ballet years earlier, died, too. And Tune pretty much stopped opening his wildly original shows after "The Will Rogers Follies" in 1991. (Let's not count "The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public" in 1994. Be kind.)

Calhoun, grateful to have been mentored by Tune, has had a front seat to the changing economics of star-struck Broadway. "Michael or Tommy could go to a producer with an idea and that would be enough. Even though a lot of us now are doing both, those days are gone," he told me in a phone interview from London, where he is directing and choreographing a U.K. tour of "9 to 5." "Now Tommy has a show about Studio 54 that he developed in Florida. He keeps looking for a producer. Just goes to show you how things have changed."

In fact, none of the men I interviewed for this column felt they have the kind of individual style that used to identify a "Fosse show" or a "Bennett show." Interestingly, they don't seem to miss it.

"I'm finding, as I grow up in this business, that I respond to a certain kind of material," says Carlyle, who made his breakthrough as a director-choreographer with "Finian's Rainbow," but also recently did just choreography for "Follies" and the upcoming "A Christmas Story: The Musical."

"I like darkness and I like cinematic concepts," he says, adding that he may never develop an identifiable "Warren Carlyle" style. "I may end up like a Frank Langella or a Philip Seymour Hoffman, those incredible character actors can change their style according to the material."

Similarly, Blankenbuehler -- who's doing choreography for James Lapine's new staging of "Annie" -- tells me, "I love Bob Fosse. I love Jerome Robbins. But Robbins is the one I aspire to. He didn't have one style, but he was a chameleon. I've begun to notice there's a syncopation that I use. But stylistically, it's not so much about dance vocabulary for me."

There may be something in the crazy work ethic of dancers, something that makes all these men talk so unself-consciously about the pleasure in continuing to learn. Carlyle, a Stroman disciple and a frequent director-choreographer at the Encores! series, marvels at their "really tight community." As Calhoun sees it, "So many choreographers go on to become directors. We move dancers, we move action, we move scenes. Whatever we are doing, we have the gift of movement."

There is something moving about that, too.

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