Interviewed by Dorothy Stanley
What inspired you to become a dancer?
My father, Frank Sheldon, was a dancer, who danced in the Australian productions of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, CAN CAN, and PAJAMA GAME. I was a child performer, and at the age 4 or 5, he sent me off to dance classes. But his reputa-tion was so great that the teachers panicked and tried to teach me EVERYTHING on the first lesson. I came home crying, and my Father said, "That's it, the kid's not going to dance!" and he forbade me to have dance lessons from that day on.
As a result of that experience, I ended up with rudimentary dancing skills, and would learn from the choreographers I was working with rather than having a true grounding in it. Meanwhile, I drifted into dramatic acting because my Mother was a Musical Theatre star, and my Dad left dancing to become and Television Producer. So my career was based in the classics, really. I was
doing Shakespeare, Chekov, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, etc., but my heart was always with " the dance". I just loved it, -- it was in my genes, and I was a very good "mover". I was always surrounded by dancers, and my friends were dancers. I really learned to dance by osmosis. And when I was cast in musicals, I was very lucky to work with the best choreographers, who all saw something in me. They'd take the time to call me in an hour before anybody else and say "try this step", and I would always be able to figure it out. They wanted to make sure I was on the same level as everyone else. I just had to work that little bit harder. .
Steam Heat from The Pajama Game
Who was the most influential person in your career?
It wasn't a person, actually, it was a show. When I was a kid, I was allowed to sit in on the rehearsals for SWEET CHARITY in Australia (while performing OLIVER in the next Theatre). Suddenly, I was exposed to seeing that choreography being rehearsed day in and day out. I had never seen anything like ...CHARITY -- a complete dance show --, and I learned the choreography to the whole show. I used to take the cast album with me to adult parties, and at some point I would put the album on, have everyone take a seat, and I'd say "this is the new show that hasn't opened yet and I'm going to perform it for you." And I would do all of SWEET CHARITY (as much as I could remember).
I can only imagine what it must have looked like -- this 10 year old boy playing all the roles and dancing all over the house. But I thought I was brilliant. People still talk about it to this day-- "Oh, yes, I was there when you sang There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This, did the Rich Man's Frug, and played everyone in the show." I think that's what sent me on the road to my obsession with dance theatre and dancers. As a result I've ended up writing dance shows, directing Cabaret's for dancers, and directing dance shows like PAL JOEY.
What was the most frightening moment (situation) in your career?
Probably when I was the Resident Director on FAME (the musical). In Australia we have Resident Directors, similar to the Dance Captains in NY. I was in the show, as well as being the RD. Two days into previews I got a call, at 10 am on a matinee day, saying that the leading lady had broken her ankle. We hadn't had any understudy rehearsals yet, so I had to teach her the entire show between 11 and 1. She went on and was wonderful. The next matinee day, the same thing -- the leading boy is out, and again, "You have to teach him the show." This went on, with all the Principals, over the next three weeks, because the choreography was so brutal. It was brilliant, it was flashy, but it was brutal, and not designed to be done eight times a week. So by the time I was scheduled to do my first understudy rehearsal, everyone had been "on", and they'd all been brilliant.
That was a trial by fire for me -- truly terrifying, because it could have gone so wrong. Luckily, it all went well. That's my most frightening experience. The other scary experience was being cast as Dick in DAMES AT SEA and being the only non-tapper in the show. I was taught the numbers during rehearsals, but I couldn't keep up with the other 5 because they were all so brilliant. However, I had the key to the rehearsal room, and every night at 5 o'clock the cast would leave, and I would stay until 9 at night, in front of the mirror, and teach myself the show so that I would be at their standard by the next morning. But, by God, by opening night I was tapping along with the rest of them. Those two instances are, pretty much, neck and neck as far as "most frightening experience" is concerned.
What experience or legacy would you like to pass on to the next generation?
The same as most of us as Dancers over 40 would like to "pass on", which is the discipline, the joy of dance, and the work ethic. It's hard to teach kids to play 8 shows a week, and to "give your all" at every performance, but I do think they take notice when they see it in action. I know, from doing PRISCILLA... and not missing any shows, that the kids are impressed. They think I'm crazy, but still, they're impressed, and I hope it inspires them to do the same -- to set a good example, and give the public what they deserve. That's what I was taught growing up by the folks I idolized in Australia.
Tony Sheldon (center) in PRISCILLA
What is the most memorable moment of your career?
There have been so many memorable performing moments, but I was so proud of an Australian Dance Award nomination for PRISCILLA. I lost to Hugh Jackman for BOY FROM OZ, but the fact that I had been taken seriously by the dance community, at my lofty age, meant a great deal to me. Probably nobody else, apart from the dance community, was even aware that I had been nominated, but it meant so much to me. It really brought everything full circle with my love for the dance. I was asked to provide a biography for the program, and all I did was make a list of every choreographer I had worked with over the years. It was a very impressive and imposing list, so I put them in alphabetical order, and said "Tony would like to thank...". That was a treasurable, memorable moment for me.
What does the future hold for Tony Sheldon?
Oh..., I don't really know, as I'm starting from scratch, again, in a brand new country. So I just hope to bring all the experience that I have from Australia and can continue to put it into play over here. It's the great unknown. I really don't know at this point, but I'm willing to give it a go.
Interviewed by Tony Sheldon
What inspired you to dance and who was the most influential person in your career?
My mother was a dancer and a dance teacher. I never saw her dance but I have some good pictures of her. She danced like Isadora Duncan in a toga with a little rope around her waist. She used to say to me, “Our side of the family has a tendency to be heavy”, so she pushed me into dance school at the age of four. She wasn’t a stage mother but by the time I came along she was 40, I had two older brothers and she was busy being a housewife so I think she vicariously lived her life through me. She was very good to me, she took me to the ballet, whatever company came through town at
the Bushnell, and I would just ogle the ballerinas.
One summer I was fortunate enough to do ballet at Jacob’s Pillow and we had teachers from Russia, from Africa, it was a phenomenal summer. I remember the Joffrey Ballet was in residence and the only thing I ever saw the prima ballerina do was smoke and eat yogurt. I thought, “Ooh, I don’t think that’s the career I want to pursue.” But I knew I wasn’t a ballerina. I loved the ballet and I’m glad I took it for 17 years but you needed to have a develope up to your ear and I can’t give you six o’clock. I can give you quarter after. At Miss Florence Greenland’s School of Dance in West Hartford, Connecticut they used to do huge recitals in the spring and she had me do a tap solo. There I was, four years old alone on the stage of the Bushnell Theatre which was huge to me, performing “Oh, You Beautiful Doll”. I can still almost remember the combination today.
So I just loved tapping from the beginning. I happened to hit Broadway at the right time because there was a lot of tapping going on. But the first quarter of my life was basically music because I played piano and viola and when it came time for college I decided to major in viola because I wouldn’t have as much competition. Dancing was sort of swept aside while I went to school, although during the summer I spent in Vermont I did stock at the Western Playhouse. FINIAN’S RAINBOW and ANYTHING GOES were my first two shows there and I was so happy.
What was the most memorable moment in your career?
It was when the phone rang one morning at 10 a.m. and a voice says, “Hi Dottie, this is Hal Prince. I want you to be Ellie in SHOW BOAT.” I was speechless, my jaw was on the floor that Hal Prince had picked up the phone himself. He had previously cast me as Fraulein Kost in the tour of CABARET but what happened was he saw me in LIZA MINNELLI: STEPPING OUT at Radio City Music Hall and just went “Boom!”. Liza said to me, “You know Hal wants you to do SHOW BOAT” and I’m thinking “Yeah, right, that’s going to be swept under the table really
quickly” and sure enough a couple of days later he called. I was going on 40 and I said “Ellie? At my age?” And he said, “It doesn’t matter, it spans 20 years so you’re absolutely perfect for the second act!”
It was kind of a bittersweet moment because I had done Ellie 20 years earlier in a bus and truck tour with Forrest Tucker and Butterfly McQueen, which was quite an experience. The stories there!
Jana Robbins, Dottie Stanley & Anna McNeely in GYPSY at the Paper Mill Playhouse
in New Jersey
What was the most frightening moment you experienced?
I was cast in “ANNIE 2: MISS HANNIGAN’S REVENGE” and I was thrilled because I was finally going to work with Danny Daniels who was probably the only tap choreographer I hadn’t worked with. That was the only reason I auditioned for the show. However, they asked me if I wanted to stand by for Dorothy Loudon and I said “I don’t want to stand by, I want to be in the show, I want to dance.” So they rehearsed me for three weeks in a slot called ‘Madam X’. I did the dance numbers and a couple of little scenes as different characters but they wanted me to be free to watch Dorothy and really keep my focus on that role.
Sure enough, we get a week’s notice during the pre-Broadway tryout in Washington and she gets ill on the Tuesday morning with a throat infection and can hardly get through the show that night so they ask me to come in and sing through the show Wednesday morning and at 12.30 that afternoon I was told I was going on for the matinee in front of 4,000 people at the Kennedy Centre without ever having
had a rehearsal. They had just added a twelve-verse song the week before and I only knew the first six verses so the conductor said “Dottie, what do you want? Anything. Cue cards in the pit?” I knew that wouldn’t work so I cut out the lyrics and put them on the purse.
Luckily, I was supposed to demure in Mr. Warbucks’ presence so I could look down at my purse and sing demurely. I ended up doing five performances before Dorothy came back for closing night but after that experience I never want to see ANNIE again!
What will be your legacy to the next generation of dancers and how do you see your experiences with them?
I don’t consider myself a teacher but I try to inspire kids. When I was in college I took all my minor subjects in the theatre and when I had classes with actors they didn’t want to work with me, not because I wasn’t talented but because I was a music major. It’s like you have a disease.
There was a teacher named Alan Robb and at the end of the semester he said to me, “Dottie, you have what it takes.” And that’s what I tell kids who have talent. Stick with it. Patience, perseverance, faith, believe in yourself and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it. And I have to say, there are a half dozen or more shows that I’ve been in at the Lincoln Centre Library so if people are interested in seeing what I’ve done, that’s a legacy there, too.