Contact consists of three thematically linked short stories, each revolving around a central character who longs to make connection with someone else. And the primary vocabulary of these stories is dance.
Some shows are developed from a novel or a screenplay or an historical event, but Contact was inspired by an image.
I was in a downtown New York City club around 1:00am when I looked towards the crowded dance floor and from a sea of beautiful New Yorkers all clad in fashionable black there stepped a girl in a yellow dress. My first thought was “THAT is a bold statement – who wears yellow in New York at night?” But I was riveted to her. She would step forward when she wanted to dance with some man and retreat to the bar when she was done. I watched as men approached and asked her to dance. She did not say yes to everyone. The rejected men moved away but did not cause a fuss. The men who danced with her would seductively twirl her around the room. I witnessed several of these encounters in the span of only an hour or so. I said to myself, “This woman is going to change some man’s life tonight.” And then she just disappeared into the crowd. I turned my head and when I looked again she had vanished. As if some witching hour had ended.
Three weeks later I had lunch with André Bishop, the Artistic Director of Lincoln Center Theater. He said, “If you have an idea for a show, we will help you develop it.” Hearing that was like music to my ears. I took a beat and replied, “You know, I think I do have an idea. Give me two weeks to flesh something out and I will get back to you.”
I called my good friend, the wonderful writer John Weidman, and told him about my night at the club. Right away we started creating a story that would be told using dance – actually a version of swing dancing – about a man on the precipice of suicide who encounters a mysterious girl in a yellow dress.
At great length John and I discussed using live music versus prerecorded music. We imagined a man like our character, someone on the verge of killing himself, would see his life pass before him. Which to us means he wouldn’t hear a new Broadway score, but rather music that meant something to him during his lifetime.
We all have moments in our lives when we hear a tune that transports us back to the first time we heard that song. It could make us melancholy, deliriously happy, or desperately sad. When it came to staging the show, I made sure the music we used could be found somewhere on the set – CDs littering his desk, etc. Our leading man would be surrounded by the music we were about to hear. A playlist of his life—"Simply Irresistible,” “Run Around Sue,” “Beyond the Sea,” “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
When John and I had decided on the song list and an outline of the story, we went to Lincoln Center and met with André and Executive Producer Bernard Gersten. Together we pitched our idea – a New York City advertising executive on the brink of suicide who finds himself in a club and realizes he has to make contact with another human being in order to survive.
Andre and Bernie didn’t hesitate and immediately offered us a four-week workshop with 18 phenomenal dancer/actors. What was so remarkable to me was André did not say make a musical, a play, a dance piece, or an opera – he said, “Develop whatever you want.”
We all agreed that our leading man should be the gifted actor Boyd Gaines. Boyd was perfect for the part. He did not look like a dancer and, in fact, could not dance at all – which was another asset since it would take a great deal of effort for his character to muster the bravery to ask the girl in the yellow dress to dance.
The minute she walked in the audition room I knew who the girl in the yellow dress would be – Deborah Yates. She was beautiful, tall, danced with a terrific confidence and had a mysterious aura about her.
The rehearsal process began in the basement of Lincoln Center Theater. I started teaching swing dancing to the full company – my version of swing dancing. The choreography needed to represent connection. I put them through the paces of versions of East Coast Swing, Lindy hop, the shag, jive, rhythm steps, ballroom, and slow dancing. All of it using contemporary music. They learned a routine and would then switch partners. And then I would ask them to dance the combinations through different emotions – happy, angry, drunk, flirty. This process helped John and me match up the dancers and choose the characters to inhabit the club. The dancers were especially good at improv and made the characters richer by the minute. There were three solo men at the club who would be obstacles for our leading man – Jack Hayes, Seán Martin Hingston, and Robert Wersinger. All were magnificent, athletic dancers and skilled actors. Our leading man has to face these obstacles in order to finally make a connection with the girl in the yellow dress.
One of the show’s themes is the idea that dance equaled the joy of life. And that certainly was the case in the rehearsal room. Dancing every day in someone’s arms was romantic, sensual, life-affirming. Being in that protected creative space with dancers who inspired me is one of my fondest memories.
André and Bernie did not come downstairs until the end of those four weeks. They have enormous respect for their artists and believed Weidman and I would use their time and resources wisely. It was the ultimate – and rare – example of producers and artists trusting one another.
Bernie and André were pleased with the workshop and felt it was unique in every way. Then they both said the magic phrase, “We want to produce this.” André asked if I had any other short stories that could go along with it. I couldn’t answer fast enough and told him “I always have short stories spinning around in my head.”
So back to the drawing board Weidman and I went. We needed two more stories that would create a first act. Our evening would become a trilogy, with our new short stories continuing to explore the idea of making contact and also riffing on the word “swing”.
The first short story was inspired by the Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting, The Swing. The painting depicts an ecstatic young woman swinging high on a swing that is propelled using ropes held by a smiling man. There is another man in the painting who watches her longingly from the bushes. But the figure that really caught my eye was the Cupid sculpture. He holds his finger to his mouth as if to say, “Shush! Don’t tell anyone.” I always thought there was more to explore in this painting than just its beauty. I showed an image of it to Weidman and we started thinking about what was really happening in that garden.
We returned to the basement of Lincoln Center Theater for another workshop. The theater crew painstakingly hung a swing in the basement for us to rehearse.
Since we had used recorded music for the “Girl in the Yellow Dress” section, it seemed clear that we needed to be consistent with the same sound for the other two stories. For “The Swing”, I used a jazz version of Rogers and Hart’s “My Heart Stood Still” performed by Stephane Grappelli. The music sounds like a classical violinist has been smitten with love and turned his Bach-like melodies into jazz. We decided to make the two male figures in the painting into a Lord and his servant. When the Lord (Scott Taylor) leaves to get more champagne, the servant (Seán Martin Hingston) hops on the swing with the coquettish woman (Stephanie Michels), swinging from the ropes like an acrobat while the swing steadily rocks back and forth with joy. The movement of the swing became hypnotizing to the audience – like a giant spellbinding pendulum. At the end, the men switch coats and trade places. You realize it was a sexual game of role playing – the upper-class husband pretending to be the working-class servant. “The Swing” was a perfect way to open the show – three people with no problem whatsoever making contact.
The second story “Did You Move?” was inspired by the Rat Pack of the late 50’s —Swingers. We were already using Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody til Somebody Loves You” in our third story, so there was definitely a musical connection. The story in “Did You Move?” involves a woman and her mafioso husband. He is explosive, verbally abusive – it is contact through marriage but with no real connection.
The scene opens in an Italian restaurant. As the mobster husband and long-suffering wife sit at the table, the husband announces he’s going to the buffet for more calamari. As he leaves, he turns to her and says, “Don’t fucking move.” The wife recoils, fearful. If someone spoke to you that way, I wondered what the most extreme movement would be to counteract such a brutal, violent order – classical ballet!
So, The Wife, played by the remarkable actress/dancer Karen Ziemba, dances comic balletic sequences throughout the restaurant, fantasizing about escaping her abusive spouse. The headwaiter becomes her handsome Premiere Danseur and the restaurant patrons become her supportive ballet corps. At every opportunity she slips into the fantasy – the restaurant transforms into a magical ballet and a beautiful form of escapism. Her daydreaming is always cut short when The Husband returns and coldly asks, “Did you move?” Each time she timidly shakes her head no.
It seemed fitting to find the music for this story on a CD I had that collected all of Leonard Bernstein’s favorite classical dance arrangements from Tchaikovsky to Bizet to Grieg.
Our first act became “The Swing” and “Did You Move?” and the second act became “The Girl in the Yellow Dress.” And the whole trilogy became Contact – “The Swing” being about three people who shamelessly have no issues making contact; “Did You Move?” about someone trapped in a loveless relationship and can’t make contact; and “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” about a man who will lose his life if he doesn’t make contact with someone that very night.
The show was embraced by audiences and critics alike. Contact had an accessibility to New Yorkers, who fight to live on top of one another and yet can never seem to make contact.
Contact went on to win four Tony Awards – one for Best Musical, one for Best Choreography, and acting awards for both Boyd Gaines and Karen Ziemba.
The real girl in the yellow dress I saw that night in the club never materialized. The show received a wild amount of press and I thought for sure she would come forward if she saw Deborah Yates’s picture on all the buses, taxis, and the billboards of her leaping through the air in a yellow dress.
The day after the show opened, I jumped in a cab and headed downtown to find that dance club again. I arrived at the corner of Hudson Street and Hubert Street but I could not find it. The space where the club had been was gutted, stripped bare and utterly unrecognizable. That one special night, with that club and that iconic image, had disappeared like Brigadoon, only to be reborn again at Lincoln Center Theater.
Conceived by Susan Stroman and John Weidman
Book by John Weidman
Directed and Choreographed by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Thomas Lynch
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design by Scott Stauffer