How a new choreographer gets a job is tricky – usually you have to have a show running for anyone to understand your work. I was very lucky to have two shows on when British director Mike Ockrent was searching for a choreographer for a new Gershwin musical called Crazy for You.
Mike had flown in from London to see And the World Goes ‘Round Off-Broadway and Liza Stepping Out at Radio City. I think it was the comedy in And the World Goes ‘Round and the extravaganza of Liza’s show that made him believe I was the right person for the job.
I was so excited to be part of this show. Crazy for You had everything I had trained for. It was a true dance musical – a genre that had all but disappeared with the influx of blockbuster shows like Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, and Phantom of the Opera. I could not wait to get into the rehearsal studio.
The 1930’s story has two locations—New York City and a fictional mining town called Deadrock, Nevada. I researched New York City in the 30’s and mining towns of the old west and even traveled to an abandoned mining town outside Reno to take pictures.
I worked closely with our set designer Robin Wagner to choose props that would help the storytelling and also to fully understand his multi-level set and its many opportunities for dance. More than any other set designer, Robin really understood dance. I distinctly remember sitting in the Imperial Theater not long after I had arrived in the city, watching Dreamgirls and marveling as the scaffolding set piece flew in from the rafters with actors riding along. I thought, “If I could only work with Robin Wagner someday...” I had the exact same thought when I saw William Ivey Long’s magnificent costumes in Nine, Paul Gemignani conducting Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, and Mike Ockrent’s hilariously witty staging in Me and My Girl. And now here I was, actually collaborating with a team I had admired so much from my half-priced theater seats.
Robin and I discussed how to make the set part of the choreography – corrugated tin on the sides of the buildings for tap dancing, a feed and hardware store filled with equipment like pickaxes and mining pans, a backstage location with ladders and spools of ropes, and a floor that would raise from the stage high into the air for a “Zangler Follies” grand finale.
During our production meetings, I listened to Mike and book writer Ken Ludwig tell the stories of Bobby, the reluctant banker who wants to be a dancer, Polly, the small town feisty but lonely girl, and dried up Deadrock, Nevada. Mike spoke about the real theme of the show, which was how art and culture can renew a lifeless town – Bobby ultimately infuses life into Deadrock by reviving the town’s Gaiety Theater.
Both Mike and Ken were very funny – they understood and appreciated comedy, which made the collaboration wildly enjoyable. We were blessed to have Harry Groener in the lead as Bobby. Harry is a real song and dance man who possesses the added gift of true acting chops. And he’s an old vaudevillian at heart – Harry and the actor Bruce Adler, who played Bela Zangler, both seemed to have stepped right out of the Orpheum Circuit.
My unsung hero in all of this was the extraordinary dance arranger Peter Howard. We sat on the piano bench together and planned how to open up all of Gershwin’s melodies for dance. Then he watched every move and dance step I created and supported it with the music. If I jumped in the air, so would the music. If I did a floor spin, so did the music. Peter’s talent as a dance arranger was unmatched – he most notably created the famous waiter dance in Hello, Dolly! and the dance arrangements for Chicago. Many of today’s best dance arrangers stand on Peter Howard’s shoulders.
Rehearsals were like something out of an old MGM musical. Everywhere there were pockets of people working away. All the men looked as if you might actually find them in an abandoned mining town out west. When they started tap dancing, it was a complete surprise to the audience. They used props you would associate with a miner – they danced on mining pans and corrugated tin, flipped pickaxes, played saws, blew on jugs, clogged. Joining the male ensemble was The Manhattan Rhythm Kings, a vocal group comprised of Hal Shane, Tripp Hanson, and Brian Nalepka – Brian portrayed sweet bumbling Moose, whose bass playing inspired the number “Slap That Bass”.
The women in the show were all to be from New York City, where the dance style at the time was very different from dance in the Old West. They moved with sophistication and grace, striking poses that echoed the architecture of the city and the figures found in Art Deco design. They are Bobby’s friends and confidants, backing him up in numbers like “Can’t Be Bothered Now” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It”.
Crazy for You has one of the best Act One closers ever written for a musical – Bobby has successfully fooled Polly into thinking he is the great impresario Bela Zangler, the town is coming back to life, hope is in the air, everyone is singing and dancing “I Got Rhythm”, and in stumbles the real Bela Zangler. Curtain! That’s my kind of cliffhanger!
Jodi Benson, who was famously the voice of Ariel in the Little Mermaid, played our heroine Polly. She and Harry worked beautifully together. Her task delivering the perfect ballad “Embraceable You” was to make it sound truly romantic and at the same time play the straight man to Harry’s comic shenanigans. Not easy. She really delivered – the sound was glorious and the comedy perfect. Jodi was incredibly gracious to the company, truly a great source of inspiration and a model of professionalism.
The entire cast was fearless and each one of them had that all important funny bone. Jane Connell, who played Bobby’s mother, landed the comedy every time, working side by side with Harry Groener like they were Nichols and May.
Where's your head?!
I didn't ask what's in it.
John Hilner and Michele Pawk as Lank and Irene were up for the physical comedy. Irene used Lank’s own Western ways against him – she hogtied him, rolled him around, and rode him like a horse. Hilner was like rubber man, twisting and turning his body – we were hysterical watching them in rehearsal. “Naughty Baby” became a comic revelation for two people meant to be together.
We were all loving the rehearsal process. Six weeks flew by and soon we would be on our way to Washington D.C. to open the show. On our last day at 890 Studios, the final run through had gone extremely well and the studio was buzzing with excitement. The show was ready for an audience. The designers and most of the stage management team had already arrived in D.C. and were busy teching through the show.
After dismissing the cast, I could tell our director was not as jolly as the rest of us. Mike asked me, Ken Ludwig, and Paul Gemignani to stay behind and take a seat around a table in the now empty studio. “There is something wrong with the second act. It does not work,” he said. “We have to throw it out.” You could have heard a pin drop! The idea that we might be facing our first performance in a week with a brand-new second act made us all stop breathing.
The next morning, Mike, Ken, Gemignani, and I caught an early train to D.C. We hunkered down over a table in the club car. From the time we left Penn Station to our arrival in D.C., we had rewritten the entire second act.
When we got to the National Theater, Mike gathered together the designers and stage management. We were lucky to have the top designers on board with us. Along with Robin Wagner, we had costume designer William Ivey Long and lighting designer Paul Gallo. Our stage manager was Steve Zweigbaum – the best. Mike passionately addressed the group, telling them we threw out the entire second act on the train. “It is sitting somewhere in Trenton.” They were all completely gobsmacked by such a big change – and I use the word “gobsmacked” because I had never heard the word before this rehearsal period. I heard Mike give it as a direction to all the boys, “Be gobsmacked when you see two Zanglers!” Little did I know, this was just the beginning of British words and phrases and adventures that I would experience with Mike Ockrent.
It was a brave thing for Mike to make such a big change, knowing the domino effect this would have on each department and the stress it might cause. Most directors would be too afraid or too unsure of trusting their instincts. I found it very courageous. It was one of the first of many things I would admire about this man.
In the original second act, our lead character Polly traveled from Deadrock to New York City to find Bobby, just as Bobby was traveling from New York City back to Deadrock to find her. It did seem endless – boy meets girl, boy losses girl, girl gets lost in New York City looking for boy, boy gets lost in the desert looking for girl. It was all too much. Mike was right, it had to be fixed.
Ken found a song called “Stiff Upper Lip” that was Gershwin’s answer to Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up”. Mike, being from London, was tickled that “Stiff Upper Lip” – a popular British phrase – was going to be sung by the only British characters in the show, Mr. and Mrs. Fodor. We cut the grand production number, “By Strauss”, which also meant throwing out William Ivey Long’s gorgeous waltzing gowns. Instead, the Fodors, a British couple hiking through the Old West in order to write a guidebook, would sing “Stiff Upper Lip” and rally the town together. Peter Howard was very upset we were cutting “By Strauss”. He thought the new one song would be inferior to what we had. I loved Peter so much that I was upset that he was so upset! I went home and ate a whole pumpkin pie!
The next day we decided to carry on and keep muddling through. We headed down to the basement of the theater with the dancers and 25 gold chairs to create yet another giant production number. William was in the basement sewing new costumes. His Tony-winning costumes for the show were spectacular. From his now-famous Pink Girl costumes, to his invention of Pueblo-Deco dresses, to the elaborately beaded Follies showgirls – this was a real showcase for William.
At the end of “Stiff Upper Lip”, Bobby returns to New York City after being rejected by Polly. Back in the city, Bobby’s mother has foreclosed on the Zangler Theater and is giving it to Bobby with hopes it will keep him in town. When Bobby asks, “Where’s Zangler?” His mother replies, “He gave it all up for some girl in Nevada named Tess.” As Bobby takes in that information, we hear a newly added reprise of “Nice Work If You Can Get It” begin to play. Bobby’s friends, dressed in William Ivey Long’s exquisite Pink Girl costumes, appear in Bobby’s daydream to give him advice.
THE MAN WHO ONLY LIVES FOR MAKING MONEY
LIVES A LIFE THAT ISN’T NECESSARILY SUNNY;
LIKEWISE THE MAN WHO WORKS FOR FAME—
THERE’S NO GUARANTEE THAT TIME WON’T ERASE HIS NAME…
FALL IN LOVE—YOU WON’T REGRET IT.
THAT’S THE BEST WORK OF ALL—IF YOU CAN GET IT.
The song concludes, telling us if you are lucky enough to find love, you can only get it if you really try, AND if you are lucky enough to get it – who can ask for anything more?
Bobby does a dance, deciding to give it all up and head back to Deadrock. Harry’s ballet background was evident here – he floated on air. Just as Bobby makes it to Deadrock, Polly has decided to go to New York to find him – he catches her in the nick of time. They were both willing to give up their lives for love and to start new ones in a new world together.
We had a triumphant run out of town and the show opened on Broadway to rapturous reviews. I’ll never forget our producer Roger Horchow reading the opening night reviews at the after party. It’s an extraordinary story about Roger – as a boy in Cincinnati, he woke one night to sound of marvelous piano music and went downstairs and saw George Gershwin sitting at the family piano. That moment stuck with him and 58 years later, after becoming rich from his Horchow Catalogue empire, he put all of his money into a Gershwin musical. His dream not only came true, it paid off.
Crazy for You went on to win the Best Musical that year and I won my first Tony Award. Taking that chance and tossing out the second act saved the show. That was a good lesson to learn from our director – not to be afraid, follow your instincts, take chances. And every time I find myself on Amtrak, I think about the four of us in that club car, saving the future of Crazy for You.
What most rings true for me about the whole experience of Crazy for You is that art imitated life. About four weeks after we opened on Broadway, Mike called me from London. I thought he was calling to talk about understudies. But, after some pleasantries and business bits, he said, “I have fallen in love with you and I have to come back”. This was a surprise to me. The entire time he had been nothing but a perfect English gentleman, never once letting on. I took a pause. What did I have to lose? I had survived tech with this man – I knew everything about him!
So, Mike, like Bobby, gave everything up and moved to New York City. We started properly dating and falling in love with high hopes to live happily ever after.
Who could ask for anything more?
Music by George Gershwin
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Book by Ken Ludwig
Direction by Mike Ockrent
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Robin Wagner
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Paul Gallo
Sound Design by Otts Munderloh
Musical Direction by Paul Gemignani