Choreographer's got Broadway rhythm

When Susan Stroman's choreography first appeared on Broadway eight years ago in "Crazy for You," dance had virtually disappeared from the Great White Way. By the time she accepted her third Tony Award in early June this year for "Contact," she had managed to return dance to a position equal to that of singing.

The "British invasion" of shows such as "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Misrables," where all dialogue is sung and there is virtually no dancing, created a climate that all but eliminated dance from new musicals.

After choreographing two successful Off-Broadway shows in the early 1990s, Stroman burst onto the Broadway scene with "Crazy for You," a Gershwin pastiche with rousing tap routines, romantic duets, and stage-filling numbers where cowboys tossed around buckets and brooms.

Audiences clamored for more. Two years later, she repeated the success with "Showboat." Producers brought out other dance-oriented shows by other choreographers, including "Chicago."

In "Contact," which Stroman also directed and co-wrote with John Weidman, "the dialogue and the dance go together," she says, as we talk while seated on the floor of the downstairs lobby in the Neil Simon Theatre. Ignoring cries that "Contact" was not a traditional musical, Tony Award voters chose the unconventional piece, with three vignettes set to recorded music, as Best Musical. No one sings, so its award sets a precedent: a show with dance but no singing that qualifies in that prestigious category. Stroman's choreography is also represented on Broadway this season in the revival of Meredith Willson's classic musical "The Music Man," which she also directs.

Stroman's method of working receives as much acclaim within the theater community as her results do with award committees. She spends time with each dancer to create a "history" for his or her character. The result is a performance in which the dancers fully become individual characters in the show.

In "The Music Man," she says, "they all have a back story, they all have a journey. For example, I found out that [the painter] Grant Wood was from Iowa, so one of the little boys who paints the white picket fences is Grant Wood."

For "Contact," she began the rehearsal process "by doing nothing but partnering up [the dancers] and making contact. It allowed me to see how people dealt with one another. In that way, I was able to finalize who was alone in the club [in the second act], and who was with who."

She cast Boyd Gaines, a two-time Tony winner for "The Heidi Chronicles" and "She Loves Me," as a despairing young ad executive contemplating suicide (the male lead) despite Gaines's lack of formal dance training.

"He's a wonderful actor, which is what I needed. I didn't need a dancer," she says. "The character takes a chance, tossing himself into a room filled with those thoroughbred dancers, and Boyd brought that vulnerability to the role." Gaines won his third Tony for the performance.

Her love of research was visible last year when her revival of "Oklahoma!" caused a sensation in London. Plans are under way to bring the production to New York. Stroman "went to pictorial research of the time, and found that it was a much grittier Oklahoma than we're accustomed to seeing. When Americans think of the Wild West, they think of geraniums in the window boxes. Of course, that's not true." For her production, with its muscular dance numbers, "there was mud on the shoes, and mud on the skirts."

Stroman has developed a reputation for honoring material, rather than imposing a personal style on it. This was most evident in "Oklahoma!", where the legendary Martha Graham had stamped her identity.

"There are choreographers," she explains, "like Bob Fosse, or Martha Graham, who had a style they hung on to, and they never swayed from it. That makes all their choreography recognizable, but it's not always appropriate for the piece. Choreography, above all, has to be believable. If you're asking an audience to believe that somebody is going to launch into a song and dance, they have to believe it's appropriate. And you may have to forfeit style to achieve that."

Another technique, which she uses in "Music Man," is "to manipulate the time signature of a piece to evoke a certain emotion, and help that actor. I might take a melody and have it arranged in 3/4 time, when it's not necessarily played in 3/4 time, to make the results more passionate."

For "Music Man," she also researched the popular dance crazes from the turn of the last century. "Vernon and Irene Castle were just hitting in Europe and making their influence felt back in the States, so I had elements of the one-step from the Castles and also the Castle Walk."

Growing up in Texas lent itself to the creative process in "Music Man." In high school, she helped create routines for the marching band, and strutted her stuff as a majorette. "Those baton lessons paid off. In the finale, when that baton twirler comes on, I could actually speak to her in baton terminology."

Her next project is another musical based on a Mel Brooks comedy film, "The Producers." She smiles at the thought of doing something set in the '60s. "It's a backstage musical, so there will be theater dance styles. I won't have to be doing the frug."

For Stroman, her style as a choreographer and director "all has to do with rhythm. That's what defines my work. It's not visual. It's more of an emotional feel, because even if I'm doing something lyrical, or balletic, it has a great deal of rhythm in it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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