2019 Tony-nominated Choreographers Discuss Their Diverse Experiences
In This Episode
ELYSA GARDNER: Welcome to Stage Door Sessions, by Broadway Direct. In this podcast, we have in-depth conversations with Broadway’s brightest, bringing you what’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s coming next to a stage near you. I’m your host Elysa Gardner and today we’re speaking with you from the Tony Awards Nominees Press Reception, where some of those brightest and most noteworthy artists have gathered on a two-show day—no doubt running on sheer adrenaline —to talk about their work, the season, and being tapped by Tony, as the big night approaches. In this episode, we have some of this year’s Tony-nominated choreographers speak to us about their inspiration, and how they worked within their creative teams to bring all the right moves to their productions.
ELYSA GARDNER: We are here with Camille A. Brown, the fabulous choreographer who is up this year for Choir Boy, which is a play. You are the one choreographer nominated this year for working on a play.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: I am.
ELYSA GARDNER: Tell us about the particular challenges of that.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Well first, thank you so much for having me here. And I think one of the challenges for me was that the play already had a life before I came onto the team and it is already… it was already a beloved show. So I didn’t want to mess it up. And I wanted to make sure that I supported Trip Cullman’s vision and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s vision to the best of my ability. But I have to say they created an amazing uplifting space for me to share my experiences and my ideas. And so that challenge that I thought was there was actually opened up and it made a space for discovery in the best of ways.
ELYSA GARDNER: Was the movement in the show is as fully developed when you came on board? I’d imagine that it was not and you…
CAMILLE A. BROWN: No I wanted to…well I hadn’t seen the show because when it was at Lincoln Center it sold out. So I wasn’t able to see it and even though I knew it was about a choir and choir boys and young men singing, that can mean anything. So the when I heard and saw and read that Tarell had incorporated spirituals inside of it and listening to all of the men sing immediately I started thinking about South African gumboot and step. And I felt like those two dance, social dance forms, were connecting the past to the present. And then also helping us to look at the future. So that’s how I incorporated it inside of the piece.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, this show has meant so many things to people. It touches on issues from faith, to racism, to homophobia and also just coming of age and coming into your own and having the courage to be who you are.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Right.
ELYSA GARDNER: Have you gotten feedback from audience members or did the show resonate with you personally on that level?
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Well yes, I definitely got feedback from everyone, especially about the step. And they were so excited to see that and I was so happy that they saw that and knew what that was. And I was honoring HBCUs and the power of the African diaspora and the dance of, of the tradition. For me, it meant a tremendous deal because it was an opportunity for young black men to show the authenticity of themselves. And when I think about the past and what black performers of the past had to do in terms of minstrelsy, putting on blackface in order to perform, and now we are in a space where black men can be on stage and showcase who they are unapologetically, that for me was very special.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well thank you so much for stopping by to chat with us and congratulations.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Thank you, thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: We’re here today with David Neumann who is up for his choreography in the most nominated show of the season Hadestown. Congratulations!
DAVID NEUMANN: Thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: This is a musical that speaks to our times in ways that probably could not have been imagined back when the show was first conceived. How long have you been with the show by the way?
DAVID NEUMANN: I’ve been with it since the very very beginning.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh wow!
DAVID NEUMANN: Yeah, yeah. So I’ve been on the whole ride.
ELYSA GARDNER: So more than a decade, right? Back from the shows in Vermont?
DAVID NEUMANN: No no. Actually not from there. Not from Vermont, but from the first ones in New York.
ELYSA GARDNER: Got it, got it. So it’s been through different iterations since then?
DAVID NEUMANN: Indeed.
ELYSA GARDNER: How has that affected your choreography?
DAVID NEUMANN: Well there’s some significant changes that have happened. For one, we added an ensemble and an ensemble of workers that both reflect the world above ground and the dire conditions below ground in Hadestown. And we started working with the ensemble when we were in Canada and then in London, we expanded it even a little bit more. And now we’re back down to five for the Broadway production.
ELYSA GARDNER: Right. The uh, the chorus and the fates, that all plays a big part in this production which gives you a lot of wonderful stuff to work with. As I mentioned it addresses our times not just in political overtones of a song like “Why We Build the Wall,” but in generally addressing the redeeming power of love I think, and how it can help us cross great divides without seeming too corny about it.
DAVID NEUMANN: Yeah
ELYSA GARDNER: Have you found yourself thinking about that? Especially as you’re reading the news or watching the show?
DAVID NEUMANN: Absolutely. I mean I think throughout the process we’ve found that the show has a certain universality to it and it also can speak very directly to our times. This sense of divisiveness that is happening in our culture specifically isn’t something we addressed sort of literally or directly, but it’s there. The divides that happen between people can separate us and alienate us. And you know in the end, all we have is one another. We just have each other. And so it has a way of bringing huge ideas, ancient stories, large political ideas, philosophical ideas, and all of those high minded things down to some very human level experiences like love, hope, desire, tragedy, and, and you know it weaves them together with this extraordinary score and…
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah yeah
DAVID NEUMANN: …you know I think that’s how people connect to it and why it feels topical. You know there are these political overtones but then you know you fall in love again you’re, you’re asked to consider who you’re sitting next to in a way…
ELYSA GARDNER: Aww, Yeah.
DAVID NEUMANN: …in the audience.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah that’s very true. And there is a bit of a concert element to it as well. At one point, one of the characters introduces the band members, so the fourth wall is down. What sort of challenges did that present, or opportunities maybe I should say, did that present as a choreographer?
DAVID NEUMANN: These are great. I love being able to admit that everyone’s in the same room. And I think that that fits with the nature of the piece, you know that the emotional underpinnings of the work we always intended it to be somewhat of a concert. Its source is concert. Its source is musical. It’s a bunch of people hanging around a fire making music together essentially, which is a very ancient thing that humans have done and so, we wanted to keep some element of that and allow everyone to fall, sort of slip into the story without drawing too much attention to fourth wall or no fourth wall.
ELYSA GARDNER: Right, right
DAVID NEUMANN: We, we look at the audience all the time because we’re all, we’re in this world together. Is the idea.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah yeah. Well, thank you so much. It’s really a beautiful piece and we appreciate your stopping by for a minute.
DAVID NEUMANN: Thank you very much.
ELYSA GARDNER: Congratulations.
DAVID NEUMANN: Thanks so much.
ELYSA GARDNER: Take care.
DAVID NEUMANN: It’s a pleasure.
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ELYSA GARDNER: We are here today with Denis Jones who is up for choreographing Tootsie. Congratulations.
DENIS JONES: Thank you so much.
ELYSA GARDNER: People are just loving this show and I’m thinking it must be, must have just been so much fun to work on it.
DENIS JONES: You are correct. Yeah, it was… it was great fun. You know David and Robert have written such a hilarious show and we’ve been so blessed to have this incredible company of actors who are… just each and every one of them is so very funny in their own right. That, as you can imagine, just the rehearsal process itself was a delight every day. And you know under the direction of Scott Ellis who is like one of the most joyful people I’ve met. Clearly, it was, it was a good time.
ELYSA GARDNER: And he was quite busy during this process…
DENIS JONES: He was!
ELYSA GARDNER: …juggling a few shows.
DENIS JONES: No he’s… It’s pretty amazing. He was able to balance the two of them I think with great dexterity and you know we never felt you know ignored. But yeah he’s a busy guy.
ELYSA GARDNER: Now I know that this show was adapted obviously from a beloved film, but they brought it to the present.
DENIS JONES: Yes.
ELYSA GARDNER: Which I would think as a choreographer, anybody involved creatively, would involve also amending it somehow, making it speak to a contemporary audience.
DENIS JONES: Yes. No, I think they’ve done a really nice job you know updating it and making it something for today’s audience. But also what was a, I believe, a really smart decision was to take it out of the world of soap operas and put it into the world of Broadway, so that you know the kind of the world that the character of Michael Dorsey inhabits is that of Broadway shows. So interesting, in a very meta way. It’s great for a Broadway choreographer to be creating choreography that is meant to be for Broadway shows within this show. You know what I’m saying.
ELYSA GARDNER: I’m thinking like now, I hadn’t even thought of that, but what you would’ve done for a soap opera?
DENIS JONES: I don’t… that… yes, that would have been quite different. No, I’m very excited about it. And you know what’s fun too, is you know part of the story of Tootsie the musical is you know that me and Dorothy Michaels gets cast in this musical that’s actually terrible and the sort of what she inspires within the company and within the writers and producer and stuff is a much better version of that show. So it’s fun to kind of play with that “show within a show” and say okay what’s the bad version of this moment and then what’s a good version of this moment. It’s fun. It’s been fun.
ELYSA GARDNER: Another thing that was striking about it is is in updating it you obviously address certain issues, women’s concerns particularly…
DENIS JONES: Yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: …as we look at them today. Did that impact your choreography in terms of either for the women on stage or for the character of Dorothy Michaels?
DENIS JONES: Well I don’t know that it necessarily impacted the choreography, but what I would say is, you know, one of the very earliest sessions that I had with Santino Fontana was, you know, putting him in in a pair of heels and putting him in a corset and putting him in a dress and and just spending some time and kind of learning what that feels like and just how that impacts the way you move around. You know part of the storytelling is that you know it’s not that Michael Dorsey becomes Dorothy Michaels so that he can audition for The Rockettes, you know what I mean? So it’s not you know it’s not important that it’s something that he immediately masters. And we see the kind of the journey of Dorothy a little bit, kind of learning what it is to walk in those shoes. So it’s, you know he’s a bit clumsy at the at the job. But you know it also is… it’s an interesting thing to discover is you know there’s no way that women walk or that men walk. It’s not… I didn’t want want to impose upon him, you know, sort of a language of movement as if to say “this is what women do” because you know I know a lot of women and I know a lot of women who move very differently. I know a lot of men and a lot of men move differently. So it’s really not about that. It’s just saying okay, what is it like in these shoes, in this dress, in this corset, and I think he’s just done an amazing job. He’s incredible.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh he sure is. And that’s a great point you make. There are many ways to walk a million miles.
DENIS JONES: Yeah, yeah. I would never say okay this is what women how women walk down the street. I don’t know.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah yeah yeah. Well, thank you so much for joining us.
DENIS JONES: Oh my pleasure.
ELYSA GARDNER: And congratulations again.
DENIS JONES: Thank you. Thank you. So nice being here
ELYSA GARDNER: We are here with Sergio Trujillo who has one of 12 nominations for Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, which, the first thing I thought of when I saw this show is oh my God. What was the audition process like? Because you have accumulated such a team of amazingly talented singers and dancers. I mean real triple threats, actors as well. What was it like, you know, building on the legacy of this incredible group? There’s not a… there’s not a better performance group I think in R&B and pop music and yet you brought a very contemporary energy to that.
SERGIO TRUJILLO: Yeah I mean I think that thus far in my career, I think this is the biggest challenge, choreographic challenge for me because you know I had to live up to the legend that is The Temptations. Not only because of their music but because they’re also known for their moves. And so when you know when I knew that I was gonna choreograph this show, for me it was important to look at it through the lens of today because I wanted… first off what I wanted to do is I also wanted to make sure people who know The Temptations for them to connect to them and say “oh I remember that kind of.” But then somebody, like a younger audience to be able to see them and say “wow they’re so cool, they’re so hip, they’re so funky.” And so for me, it was figuring out exactly like you know take all of the influences of dance in the last 50-60 years and figure out a way of creating also, something that choreographically works for our show. Because the narrative has… I have to be really specific, you know. I can’t just be a selfish choreographer and think well I think this is a cool move. I also have to service this story. The moment the characters… when you know when they’re in a performance you know the real Temptations is slightly different, because in our show we’re actually telling the autobiographical story of who they are. All the sacrifices they went through all of those life, all of those life moments that are important to capture on stage. And you know and you have to translate that in choreography. So you know, that was there was a lot it was a lot, but nonetheless, the music is timeless. And how can you not dance to that music? So whenever I got into the studio to choreograph I was so carefree.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah yeah. And you get that sense. I mean you have this the “smoothness,” you know that’s the word everybody thinks of with The Temps, but also this electricity you brought to it which is very much I saw as a very modern kind of feel. How did you find these amazingly talented guys? How did you get down to this group?
SERGIO TRUJILLO: Well, first of all, thank you for the compliment. You know, so the audition process was probably one of the most thrilling audition processes that I’ve ever had. So about 10 years ago when we were auditioning, even longer than that, 12 years ago when we were auditioning for Memphis, you know, to find African-American male actors was challenging at times that were able to do singing, acting, and dance. But in the last 15 years, there has been this growth, this resurgence this amazing, amazing crop of really gifted male and female African-American actors that can do it all. And it just seems like, so at the audition process was probably more one of the most humbling moments because I had 30…at the final callback, I had 30 incredible actors who can really sing and really act and it was just a… it’s a beauty to watch and they’re all really supportive of each other. So the cast that we ended up with is, you know, the cream of the crop. And for me, on a personal level, Ephraim Sykes I hired when he was 20 years old and he was in the cast of Memphis. Derrick Baskin was also in the cast of Memphis. Jeremy Pope I worked with before. James Harkness has been in three or four of my shows. So and then there’s the other the rest of the cast and so for me, it’s been a real personal, really joyful experience. And for me to watch these wonderful men, these wonderful talented men become these characters has been absolutely, absolutely captivating.
ELYSA GARDNER: And the audience feedback! I know when I was there it was a standing ovation like the second the curtain came down which is even in today’s environment, that’s not always the case. That must be thrilling as well.
SERGIO TRUJILLO: Well you know, in the end, the proof of it is always the audience. Because you know that’s why we do what we do, right. I mean you know I am passionate about what I do, we are passionate about what we do. The rest of the team, you know, we felt we had a responsibility because it is a real story. Because it is a real story, because it is about Otis Williams that, you know, that we had this pressure to make sure that we did justice to the entire to the legend of The Temptations. And I think the audiences connecting to it on a really human, spiritual level.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, clearly they are. Well, thank you again so much and congratulations on this latest nomination.
SERGIO TRUJILLO: Thank you so much. My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
ELYSA GARDNER: We are here this morning with Warren Carlyle who is up for his choreography for Kiss Me, Kate, one of Broadway’s hottest choreographers who last year did Hello, Dolly! Recently Me and My Girl for Encores! which was just so joyful and we all love that. Doing Kiss Me, Kate, this was a version of the show that was both very faithful to the spirit of the show and also I’d read that Amanda Green did a little, as she put it, “delicate surgery” with it so that it was resonant and relevant in our time. Addressing that as a choreographer, how did that impact what you did?
WARREN CARLYLE: Yeah I mean, I approached it with great equality. Actually, if the men danced, then the women danced better. You know there’s this great kind of within Kiss Me, Kate, there’s this wonderful battle of the sexes which I really enjoyed. I used it as a theme in every single number. I used that as kind of an organizing principle. But you know led by Kelli O’Hara, the women were never going to be in a secondary position in that show. Ever, ever, ever. So between Kelli O’Hara and Amanda Green and the wonderful director Scott Ellis, you know the women were really well cared for. And the point of view of a woman was really well cared for. And I did the same choreographically. The women have a very strong point of view. In Cantiamo, the grape dance, they’re celebrated as these kinds of goddesses of the harvest. All the women dancers in the show are extremely strong. And I thought about it a lot when I was choreographing. I thought about the woman’s point of view a great deal.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. And we see a side of Kelli O’Hara in this show that we don’t always see as marvelous as she is. And she can do pretty much anything, but she’s so playful and funny and sexy, you know, getting to that side. That must have been a lot of fun.
WARREN CARLYLE: I think it’s amazing. Watching Kelli, I’ve worked with Kelli before, I had the pleasure before. But her physical, her physical work in this show is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I mean she’s incredible in Kiss Me, Kate. The voice is astounding. I think there isn’t another voice like it that just doesn’t… it doesn’t exist in our generation. She’s a fine, fine actress. Boy, is she truthful. Boy, is she truthful. Every single… you believe every single word out of her mouth and then all of the antics you know all of this physical comedy that’s just just wild and wildly entertaining. She’s really surprising. She’s worth the price of a ticket. She is incredible.
ELYSA GARDNER: And Will Chase as well, he told us that you work the actors. You, he didn’t say you specifically, but he said that it’s a lot of hard work.
WARREN CARLYLE: Yeah, it’s a lot of hard work and I am a believer in hard work. I love working hard, but there’s something about dance and movement in particular that repetition really helps. It really helps that good old fashioned muscle memory or again, again, again, again. Just, it just helps.
ELYSA GARDNER: And bringing this music, this wonderful Cole Porter music that’s decades-old into our current day also you know there was a lot of there were a lot of contemporary references in the production numbers and so, balancing all that must have also been exciting.
WARREN CARLYLE: Yeah. And I, you know I love doing revivals of shows I really love it. I love celebrating what came before, but truthfully I’m making theater for today. You know making theater for today’s audiences. So it has to be through a very contemporary lens whatever I’m doing. I’m looking at “Taming of the Shrew” but I’m looking at it through a 2019 lens. You know for our, for our generation, theater for us.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah that’s right. Not just Cole Porter, Shakespeare. [laughs] He goes back a few more years.
WARREN CARLYLE: Right, right. And what a crazy combo that is. I mean there’s no one better than Cole Porter. What an incredible score. What incredible music, what incredible lyrics and then set against this classic Shakespeare tale. It’s really fun.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well thank you so much and congratulations on being up for your second Tony.
WARREN CARLYLE: Thank you very much.
ELYSA GARDNER: So don’t forget to tune in to the Tony Awards which will be airing live Sunday, June 9 at 8/7 central on CBS. This podcast is produced by Broadway Direct, and the Nederlander Organization with Iris Chan, Glenn Halcomb, Erin Porvaznik-Wagner, and hosted and produced by me, Elysa Gardner. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you soon on Broadway.
We continue to celebrate the upcoming Tony Awards with a special episode of Stage Door Sessions. In this exciting segment, we get to know some of the 2019 Tony-nominated choreographers, including Camille A. Brown, David Neumann, Dennis Jones, Sergio Trujillo, and Warren Carlyle. Once you’ve put away your dancing shoes, remember to also tune in to the Tony Awards live on CBS on June 9 at 8/7c.