Inspired by the Piano Man

Twyla Tharp's 'Movin' Out' uses Billy Joel hits to portray society's shifts from the '60s to the '80s.

What do you get when you cross a score of beloved songs by Billy Joel with a dance-drenched story? If your name is Twyla Tharp, who conceived, choreographed, and directed "Movin' Out," you hope to get a theatrical hit the size of "Mama Mia!" or "Contact."

The musical "Mama Mia!" based on the songs of the Swedish pop group ABBA, is still playing in theaters around the world. "Contact," which also uses existing music, has just ended a two-year run on Broadway and goes on tour again this season.

But don't think the task is easy. "Movin' Out" has been in the works since Ms. Tharp came up with the idea of creating a show to Joel's music and lyrics two years ago.

One of the most well-known and accomplished choreographers who has worked on Broadway, in films, and in TV, as well as in the ballet and modern dance world, Tharp aimed the new show at the commercial theater rather than the concert dance stage.

Like the Little Red Hen, she decided to do it herself, at least the writing and choreography. She also found a clutch of producers to back the Tharp-Joel combination with $8 million.

"I've always liked Billy's music," says Ms. Tharp, in a telephone interview from New York.

"I listened to all of Billy's songs and CDs over one weekend. I immediately saw I could read his songs, put them into a context, and make them into an epic."

So she wrote a scenario – weaving in hits like "Uptown Girl," "Just the Way You Are," and "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" – that paralleled both Joel's rise to prominence and the transformation of American society from 1967 to 1987.

This was a period that Tharp believes started "when things were happier, when things were broken and we could fix them," she says. "Then came the Vietnam War, and I think the culture realized that we're broken and we're not going to fix it so easily."

The plot focuses on three young men and the women they love. When the men go off to fight in Vietnam, the relationships change. At final curtain, "we survived for better or worse; we sloughed our way through it," says Tharp.

The modern-dance choreographer was determined to tell the story without the use of dialogue. "What were we doing before language evolved? We were communicating by movement," says Tharp, "so when you can link into a subject where you get substance you're speaking to people in a much more deeply emotional way."

The cast was picked by raiding the ballet and modern dance troupes: Keith Roberts, John Selya, and Ashley Tuttle from American Ballet Theater; Elizabeth Parkinson of the Joffrey Ballet, and Ron De Jesus of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, among others. She also found Michael Cavanaugh, a charismatic young singer-pianist who sounds enough like Joel to be his double. Mr. Cavanaugh sings more than two dozen of Joel's songs while suspended on a balcony above the stage, with a nine-piece orchestra backing him. The lyrics suggest the action but do not form a specific narration.

Movin' Out" opened in Chicago for a 10-week tryout period last summer, following the path of previous Broadway musicals, notably "The Producers," which proved an instant hit, and "Sweet Smell of Success," which did not. Cavanaugh won rave reviews, even though the critics reception of "Movin' Out" was mixed. He is sure to please Joel fans who throng to see the pop composer's work in the context of a theatrical production. No doubt dance fans will swoon over the caliber of the dance performances.

"What has been unfortunate is that I've been reviewed along the way [to New York], on my first draft. Hello! Nobody said that it was ready to be seen. It never should have been full ticket price and never had an opening night," Tharp says in response to the tepid reviews. But she also notes proudly that each of the 77 performances in Chicago drew a standing ovation.

Working hard in traditional tryout manner, where the cast rehearses a new version during the day but performs the existing material at night, Tharp revised the narrative thrust of the first act – which had caused most of the confusion – by the close of the Chicago run. She says she'll make a few more changes before the Oct. 24 New York opening, but "on the hoof" (meaning the cast won't need rehearsal time in the studio to insert the additions).

Does Tharp think she set herself too difficult a challenge? "No, I wouldn't have a writer if I did it over again," says Tharp. "The word 'choreography' means to write with movement."

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