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DO40 Arts Legacy Interview

Jerry Mitchell

Jerry Mitchell

Interviewed by Marcus Galante

What inspired you to become a dancer?
I think probably the old films, MGM movie musicals that I used to watch when I was a kid. I got involved at a very early age with my local community theater, Palmer Village Players, and I used to watch the MGM movies on television. Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse -- that was it. I met Cyd, I actually worked with Cyd twice. And I met Gene. I never met Fred. I have a picture of me dipping Ginger. Those dreams sort of all came true, a high point.

Who was the most influential person in your career?
It’s probably more than one person, so I would say Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett and Jack O’Brien are the top three.

What was your most memorable dance experience?
One for sure was "The Will Rogers Follies." Being in the production from the very beginning, from the first day of the workshop through as long as I stayed on the Broadway production, and having the ability to do that little teeny solo. That little minute and a half, what kind of an impact it had, I'll remember as long as I live. I never got enough of "A Chorus Line." I was asked to join the tour; it was 1980. I had two weeks left of my sophomore year, and I auditioned. And Bob Avian picked me, and I went on tour for the entire summer.

I'll never forget the very first time I went on. I was in Louisville, Kentucky, and my parents drove down to see me. I was on stage and da-da-da duh-duh-duh, and the lights came up, and I started to do the choreography.  And I wondered who was in the last row, because the first time I saw "A Chorus Line," I was sitting in the last row at the Shubert Theater in Chicago, in the third balcony. The day I saw that show, I thought, I am going to do that show. So it was sort of a full-circle event.  Prior to that I auditioned for Agnes de Mille for "Brigadoon," and I got it, my first Broadway show -- my first audition in New York. And so I went back to college and said, hey, I got a Broadway show. They said we’ll give you credit, you can go to New York and do a Broadway show. I will never forget walking onto the stage, where "Phantom" is, at the Majestic, my first step onto the stage, and I was just in tears.

Do you have a most frightening moment in the theater?
I remember once in "Woman of the Year," a chorus dancer went onstage under the influence of something. I’m not sure what it was, and it was very scary to me. It was the only time that I ever lashed out at a performer – not really, but I did read him the riot act. I said if you ever come onstage that fucked up, and dance next to me, I will kick your ass (or something like that!). I was 21. I was just really appalled by it. Certainly, in our business, we see people coming and going in different ways. But it was really shocking to me at that age.

What experience or legacy would you like to pass on to the next generation?
I don’t think about that. I find it strange because I remember Jerry Robbins saying something to me at his 70th birthday party. I said, how do you feel? And he said, “I don’t feel 70, I don’t feel 70 inside.  I still feel like I’m 24,” and I said “you don’t look 70.”  That has become a clearer realization for me as I’ve aged. Speaking of Dancers Over 40, how about Dancers Over 50?

As I’ve aged, I've realized that I haven’t lost the spirit that was in me when I was 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21. I'm still finding the experience of getting into the room as magical as I did when I first started. That is a gift that is not taken lightly. I just feel so blessed. I don’t think about what I’m going to do for anyone else. I think that "Broadway Bares," that event I created, is really me caring about my community and people that I have a great joy of collaborating with on every level. It’s important to give back to the community where I was born and raised, and "Broadway Bares" has certainly offered me that opportunity.

When did you decide to be a choreographer and director?
I started directing and choreographing when I was a kid back at the Palmer Village playhouse. One of the women who was in the Village players saw something in me that I didn’t even know was there, although I was always bossy as a child, and I was always choreographing with the girls, the cheerleaders, with the pom-poms and the flags. Anyone I could show a routine to, I would show a routine to. So she asked me to direct and choreograph a children’s musical when I was 14, and I said absolutely. I got one of my friends to be the musical director. I got my other best friend to be the star. I got another friend to be one of the supporting players. I had it all mapped out: one of them painted the scenery, one of them painted the boxes. I was basically fearless at 14. And what I often say when fear enters my circle: remember what you did when you were 14 -- think about that.

Because the truth of the matter is, you think that way because nothing else matters, and that’s really the best way to look passionately and creatively. Nothing else matters except what you’re doing right now. I came to New York; I followed the same path as everyone who was ever before me. First you dance, then you assist, then you choreograph your own stuff on the side. Then someone sees it, someone gives you a shot. Then you’re a choreographer, you’re ready to direct, and then finally you get the offer from somebody to do it all. I’m all by myself, and ultimately this is where I always knew I was headed. But there’s one more step for me, and that’s the producing step, which is actually where I see myself ending: more in the sense of how someone who can produce, direct and choreograph steps into the project that you feel can serve it best. I’m in awe of so much talent, so much young talent, so much new talent –to find a way to create and to produce that.

What was your first gig as a choreographer?
It’s a great story.  I was in "On Your Toes" on Broadway.  I had choreographed a production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at Hope Summer Repertory Theater in Carlo, Michigan earlier. Then John Cranny had been asked to direct it at the Chanhassan Dinner Theater in Minneapolis, an Equity Dinner Theater, and he asked me if I would choreograph it.  It was basically a two-week rehearsal process. I only had one week’s vacation in "On Your Toes," every six months. I went to the company manager and the stage manager and said I have been offered this great opportunity to be a choreographer for the very first time. I was 23 years old. I so wanted to do it. But I needed two weeks in December, so I had to ask the producer -- Alfred Taliaga, who was co-producing a lot of Broadway shows. He always wore a trench coat with a hat. And beautiful suits.

When you are in the chorus you are very polite to the producers.  Remember, it’s 1983, and it was half hour. I said, “Mr. Taliaga, can I speak with you?” And I remember sitting on the bench backstage and saying I have been offered my first opportunity to choreograph, but I need to be there in two weeks, and I need another week’s vacation. And he said “Jerry, I believe you are going to be a choreographer and I see it in you, so I’m going to give you that second week, if you agree to stay in the show for a whole year.” And he said, “can we do it on a handshake?” I said “absolutely.” He shook my hand. I shook his hand. Not only did I stay for the year, I stayed for the entire run.

Jerry Mitchell

What series of events led to your first break as a Broadway choreographer?
Now that’s a different story. I had assisted Michael Bennett on "Scandal" and had been in London with Bob Avian in "Follies." Then I came back to NYC and did "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" and the very first production of "Jekyll and Hyde" at the Alvin Theater.  Then I did a new musical called "Heart's Desire" up at the Cleveland Playhouse and was waiting to get a Broadway show. And while I was in "Will Rogers," I was choreographing every movie I possibly could. I got asked by Robert Johanson to do "Follies" at the Paper Mill Playhouse with Ann Miller and Donna McKechnie. I jumped at the opportunity. This was ’99, after "Will Rogers." So I did "Follies" at the Paper Mill Playhouse. It was a smash hit, and they were thinking of bringing it to Broadway. I believe there was a rave in the Times, and it was great for me. Michael Mayer came to the Paper Mill Playhouse to see it. He saw the show and asked me if I would be interested in doing "Charlie Brown" on Broadway. That was my first break.

What show do you consider your best and why?
It’s so weird. I don’t look back. I’ve never been the person who actually stopped and looked back. I’m always trying to look forward and to be present. Every show that I worked on has been for me, personally, an incredible experience. The pas de deux specifically that I created in "Never Gonna Dance" was sensational. I think that the numbers in “Catch Me If You Can,” particularly  "Don’t Break the Rules" were knockouts. I think “Michael Jordan’s Ball” in "The Full Monty" was sensational. I think not a specific number in "Hairspray," but the way the choreography moved and the way the choreography never stopped and the way the story just spilled out, was sort of magical. And in "You Can’t Stop the Beat," which I always intended to be a Macarena, I said if everyone can’t do Tracey’s dance, I have failed. Some of the first-previews kids were standing up and doing the steps with her, and I said, yes, yes, this is what I wanted.

And I’m talking to you so passionately about it, because the truth of the matter is that I can’t choreograph something if I’m not passionate about the piece, if the music doesn’t get me excited.  Some of the favorite dances I’ve created are actually strip routines that are in "Broadway Bares," two numbers in the Las Vegas production of "Peepshow" that I think are maybe two of the sexiest, most sensational dances I’ve ever dreamed of. The jump-rope number "Whipped into Shape" in "Legally Blonde." I couldn’t even jump rope. I had no ability to jump rope. Larry O'Keefe had written this song and I said we need another song in the second act, and they came to me with another song for the opening in the second act, “Work It for Me.” I said I wish there was a way that we could twist it into those infomercials: everyone is doing a song that is an infomercial for the Thigh Master or the Ball or Winsor Pilates. And I said what should I do? Maybe a jump rope, maybe she’s selling a jump rope. And they came up with the Cardio 5000, and then we created "Whipped Into Shape." It was just amazing. I just love it. Lots of good stuff.

How do you make the connections to get into the theater world?
That I can’t answer. I can tell you how it happened for me. Basically, I was a dancer, I was a good enough dancer to be hired by Agnes De Mille, to be hired by Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett, Donald Saddler and Ron Field. So here I am working with all these great choreographers and learning from them, eager to assist them, eager to get them a fucking cup of coffee if I had to. I would have done anything for them if they asked me, and I think they saw that in me -- that I was in it to win it, and I wasn’t there because there was somewhere else I had to be -- there was one place where I had to be, and that was in the studio. That's something I don’t see a lot of, and when I see it in a dancer, I will take that dancer over somebody who can kick their leg around their head. They’re there because there’s nowhere else they want to be, because commitment is 90% of it. You have to be there all the time. Jerry Robbins would call me in the middle of the day, the middle of the night, the middle of the weekend, and ask can you come? I would say yes, yes, because that’s what he wanted to hear.

If you’re looking for a connection, rather than ask it, show it-- show your commitment, because a choreographer will want that, will recognize that. This is the ladder, and there’s a step, and there’s one step to get to the top. If you jump, you might fall, but if you take it one step at a time, if you keep building and keep focused and stay on the path, you’ll make it. There’s no rule; you’re not fighting against anybody. There’s room for everybody -- just take your steps.

Whose work do you admire or care for who works regularly on Broadway these days?
It’s a great question. When I go to the theater, I try to focus on what I like most about the show.  Maybe it's only the lighting, maybe it's the costumes, maybe it's an actress, maybe it's one song in the whole musical, or maybe it's the entire show. I’ve seen shows come to Broadway that have been successful and unsuccessful, shows that I was offered somewhere along the line. I’m in a place right now where I’ve been fortunate enough to choose the things I want to be involved with.  That’s a big, very fortunate place to be. Michael said to me, don’t wait for someone to ask you to choreograph a show. Just go choreograph it. That’s how "Broadway Bares" was created. I didn’t wait for anybody to ask me to do "Broadway Bares." I thought, I’m going to put on a show, and I did. It sounds like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, but that’s what I did, and look what happened -- that show has given me a career in a lot of ways. And I was doing it because I wanted to help my friends. Once when I went to the theater because a friend asked me to go, and I thought, OK, it’s a new show. I loved it; there was no choreography -- I was just in love with the show, with the performances. I got completely pulled into the story. I cried two or three times. That’s why I go to the theater, to get swept up in the story.

Are you working on any new projects?
I’m working on two amazing projects. One is called "Kinky Boots," which is being adapted from the British film. Cyndi Lauper is writing the score, Harvey Fierstein is writing the book, and I’m directing and choreographing. And I’m working on a new musical based on the characters from "The Honeymooners." It’s a totally new idea. Bill Dust has written the book and Keith Mills and Steve Winer the score and lyrics. We’re going to be doing a reading right after Thanksgiving. We’re very excited about that. My show in Vegas, “Peepshow” is in its third year and we’re talking about future companies. And in London, Olivier Award winning "Legally Blonde" will be going on tour, and I’ll be moving it to Australia next year.

 


Gary Flannery

Gary Flannery

Interviewed by Marcus Galante

What inspired you to become a dancer? 
I was very hyper (ADHD for sure), and I did a lot of sports, but my Russian grandmother wanted me to dance, so at 5 yrs. old I started with a combination Ballroom-Ballet-Gymnastics class, which I really enjoyed.  I, of course always hid this fact from my peers!

Who was the most influential person in your career?  
BOB FOSSE!  While I had many great teachers and mentors, Bob was the one who pulled me up from chorus boy to a Rwas so lucky to have him as a role model (except for that wild personal life).   We shared the same birthday-June 23rd-so there was always a conversation and TRUST that went both ways!  Try and get dance and acting lessons from a genius!

What was your most memorable dance experience? 
When Bob Fosse decided to re-choreograph “Recollections of an Old Dancer (Mr. Bojangles)” for me in the Broadway Company of “Dancin”, it was very special!  NO ONE has ever learned the piece that he did for me, and after seeing me do it on stage the first time—he came backstage at intermission and said it made him cry!  I said—IS THAT GOOD?  He said—YEH- REAL GOOD---IT’S JUST WHAT I WANTED!  It is now a sacred piece to me, and I cry every time I perform it!  Thanks Bob!

Do you have a most frightening moment in your career? 
I was injured in Canada doing a Six-Fouette, and fractured and badly damaged my left ankle.  I was told I would never dance again, yet

with brilliant surgery and dedicated therapy and work---I was able to audition and toured with the 1ST tour of Bob Fosse’s PIPPIN about a year after the accident! After the tour, I went into the Broadway Company of PIPPIN!

Gary Flannery

What experience or legacy would you like to pass on to the next generation? 
FOSSE of course---but 22 years of my life, money and work has been on the “GREAT AMERICAN REVUE,” a term that I use to describe the epitome of LEGITIMATE theatre and dance on Broadway and in Hollywood from 1900 to 1940.  These “variety-REVUE” shows developed everyone from George Gershwin to Irving Berlin to James Cagney to Fred-Eleanor-Ann-Ethel-Bojangles-and all the rest, who came out of the amateur status of Vaudeville into the professional world of the “Revue”//  This history is fading fast---and is not—I REPEAT—IS NOT being saved!  There has never been an Exhibition or Documentary on the REVUE in American history!  I, for one, hope to change that!

What do you think of the state of Broadway and theatre dance in general today and the few choreographers that seem to have Broadway locked in their vice. 
I guess you want the truth, huh?  OK--Gary's idea of truth.  The sophistication seems to be out of Broadway today. Not that there shouldn't be comedy and slapstick in musicals---but it has to be done with infinite wisdom and great writing--also lacking in today's musicals.  The chance for an unknown to make it with a Broadway concept-or choreographic idea is still pretty remote.  This has been the case for years though, as even Fosse had to spend his own money to produce Dancin’ -- when no one believed even he could.  Friends and parties seem to be the way to get ahead--not talent!   

 

 

 

 

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