In my downtime, I log many hours strolling through museums. It relaxes me and inspires me. I find myself wondering – What was the artist thinking? Was he trying to tell us a secret? Was he making a statement about society? Who are the models? The figures? Is there a story in the scene? I can get very wrapped up in imagining all sorts of scenarios with every painting, sculpture, and photograph. My day immediately becomes brighter and full of possibilities.
I had been working in London and was about to make a short trip to Paris when I got a call from lyricist Lynn Ahrens. She had an idea and wanted to get together and chat about it. Excited about the possibility of working on something with the extraordinary musical team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, I told her I would come over the minute I got home.
The following day, I arrived in France and went to my favorite museum in Paris – the Musée d’Orsay. The building is beautiful. A grand Beaux-Arts structure that was formerly a railway station, it now holds the largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world.
My favorite floor is at the very top and it is filled with works by Edgar Degas. If you grew up in the dance world, as I did, you were surrounded by Degas prints — his work was on your wall, your dance bag, your lunch box. To experience his works at the Musée d’Orsay, to see his brushstrokes and his fingerprints, is viscerally exciting.
In the middle of the room sits one of the world’s most beloved works of art – La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans. Young dancers flow into the room to see Degas’ famous Little Dancer sculpture, stopping alongside to emulate her famous stance — a lax fourth position — with hands clasped behind the back and chin jutting forward. This sculpture has inspired young girls from all around the world to dance.
A week later, I returned home to New York City and went to Lynn’s apartment – which happens to be in the same apartment complex where I live. I sat down on her sofa and she said, “Have you ever thought about Degas’ sculpture The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen?”
I said, “Yes! I just left her!” I was so excited! I could not believe Lynn was bringing up this idea. It was as if it was meant to be. I could feel chills on my arms!
Lynn went on to say she had done some research and had been thinking about the statue’s model for some time. Degas’ model was, in fact, a real historical person. There hasn’t been much written about her, but enough to write a musical.
The model’s name was Marie van Goethem. Her name and identity are always outshone by the man who made her image everlasting. Born into a poor family, her widowed, alcoholic mother was a laundress and her older sister was a prostitute. Her younger sister had, like Marie, been accepted to the Paris Opera Ballet, eventually becoming a well-respected ballet teacher for the company. As for Marie, she vanished from history. Disappeared. No one knows what became of her. We know she made money for her family not only by dancing, but by working for the laundry and posing for Degas. We also know she was frequently late to rehearsals at the Paris Opera Ballet. The last known moment of the real Marie comes from the company’s register, where her name is listed and next to it just one word – “Dismissed!”
In a way, the mystery of the real Marie’s fate was helpful. Our musical became part fact and part fiction. Our Marie is on the brink of womanhood, caught between the opposing demands of life and art. As storytellers, we get to imagine what happened to Marie. And in our minds – she survived.
Lynn and Stephen and I sat down to create a story for Marie that pulled from fin de siècle Paris, the Paris Opera Ballet, the struggles of the working class, and the affluent high society of the era. The opportunities were rich. Lynn was writing the book and the lyrics, Stephen writing the music. The scrumptious score offers a blend of contemporary and period melodies. The music and lyrics beautifully evoke the lives of these Parisian characters in tone and storytelling. Lynn brought a truthfulness to her lyrics by tapping into many of Degas original quotes and writings.
Degas’ own words – “Painting is easy when you don't know how, but very difficult when you do” – resonated with all of us.
We depict Marie as a true inspiration for Degas. You see a father-daughter relationship form between them. We magnified the lives of these two people who were both true artists and considered the enormous toll on their psyches when they lose the ability to do what it is they are most passionate about. Little Dancer takes place at a time when options for a woman were little to none. We wanted to give voice to those women who had gone unsung, just as Degas had painted undiscovered women – women at work, women at rest, women as resilient, women as survivors.
Of all the shows I have ever been involved in, I think Little Dancer is the most visually stunning. Our set designer Beowulf Boritt master-minded large canvases on the set that were saturated with color. And with the help of our projection designer Ben Pearcy, brushstrokes paint the stage and evoke Degas’ brand of Impressionism. Costumer William Ivey Long borrowed from many of Degas’ paintings, capturing the colorful tutus and recreating the exact dress of familiar Degas subjects such as the hard-working laundresses, strict ballet masters, and upper class abonnées. Lighting designer Ken Billington’s inventive work captured daylight streaming through the large ballet studio windows, the beautiful Paris skyline at sunset, and the provocative Parisian nightlife —achieving the perfect mood for every moment.
Each scene has a nod to Degas, whether it is in the set, costumes, or staging. There is an abundance of characters in Degas’ art, and they are all in the life of Marie. Even the painted abonnées, wealthy male subscribers to the Paris Opéra Ballet, lurk at the edges of the stage pictures, cloaked in their black evening clothes and staring at the dancers. Degas painted many dancers looking down and away — suggesting indifference. I always thought it was Degas’ way of warning people that the abonnées were getting too close to the young dancers.
Little Dancer is a true cross-fertilization of classical ballet, visual arts, and musical theater. I love the idea of these three mediums coming together. In the Golden Age of Broadway, many musicals would feature a dream ballet, something rarely, if ever, found in today’s American musical theater. I jumped at the opportunity to create a new kind of dream ballet motivated by Marie’s inability to put words together that expressed her anger, her confusion and desperation as the limitations of her age and gender come down upon her.
The choreography in Little Dancer, besides classical ballet, also has musical comedy staging and a big can-can dance. I needed a cast who could do it all – sing, dance, act, be funny, and do classical ballet. It is a rare performer who possesses the ability to sing and act while en pointe. Talented people like that are very special and it’s that heightened quality that makes it across the footlights and affects an audience. It’s thrilling. The wonderful casting director Tara Rubin and her team were brilliant at finding these extraordinary actors and dancers.
Of course, at the center of all this was our Little Dancer and true star – Tiler Peck.
Tiler is a principal dancer at New York City Ballet and has also performed on Broadway, television, and film. She is an outright marvel – she sings and dances throughout the entire show, portraying Marie as a scrappy, funny, charming young girl who is passionate about dance. The choreography is highlighted by Tiler’s extraordinary technique. Tiler has more musicality than any dancer I know. She brings a sense of joy to the character through her dancing. At the top of the show, we see Tiler as Marie, exuberantly dancing a solo, relating Marie’s love for dance and hope for her future.
My connection with Tiler Peck goes back to my production of the Broadway revival of The Music Man. Tiler was only eleven when she took over the role of Gracie Shinn, the mayor’s daughter. She lived in Los Angeles and flew in for the audition. When she got the part, she moved to New York with her loving grandmother, Princess. Even as a kid, I could tell Tiler was special. She stood out from all the other dancers. She had a focus and light about her that corresponded to a knockout stage presence. As an eleven-year-old, it was jazz dance that seemed to be her true passion.
One day, Tiler and her grandmother came to ask me where in the city Tiler should take class during the day. I knew she had the chops to push herself, so I suggested the School of American Ballet, which is the associate school of New York City Ballet. I didn’t think about it much more after giving that advice. After The Music Man closed, about five years later, I picked up Dance Magazine. There, on the cover, was Tiler Peck described as one of the youngest dancers ever to be accepted into the prestigious New York City Ballet. I said to myself, “Wait a minute – is that the little girl from The Music Man?”
Tiler rose quickly to the top rank of principal dancer at New York City Ballet. Now she is my leading lady in Little Dancer, with her powerful presence, unmistakable technique, and true fearlessness – what any Broadway star needs. Rehearsals were a joy due to an amazingly talented company and the inspiration of Tiler Peck in the lead.
We opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to sold out performances and standing ovations. When Tiler came out for her bow, it was like Mick Jagger had walked onstage – a real rock star.
The National Gallery of Art – which holds Degas’ original wax sculpture – joined us in celebrating this radical work of art. The museum invited the cast to see the original work and hear more about Degas. The sculpture is a wax figurine with real human hair, a real bodice, a tulle skirt, and ballet slippers. All but the hair ribbon and the tutu are covered in wax. With this sculpture, Degas was breaking new ground as an artist, somewhere between classical art and modern art. A surprising fact for me to learn was how terribly the work was received when he unveiled it at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881. Degas got the worst reviews he had ever received. His critics hadn’t seen anything like it and were afraid of something this innovative. Degas was so incensed that he immediately removed the sculpture from the exhibit and it was never seen again until after his death forty years later – and then was it hailed as a masterpiece.
That led to another theme for our musical – “art not recognized in its time”. We have all been through that!
Four years and some tweaks later, we once again traveled out of town to Seattle’s fantastic 5th Avenue Theater. Lynn and Stephen rewrote several songs and we made a few changes to the book. I must say, Lynn and Stephen love to work and are extremely collaborative, so I adored every meeting discussing the profound changes and applauded them for wanting to make the show even deeper.
“You must aim high, not in what you are going to do at some future date, but in what you are going to make yourself do today. Otherwise working is just a waste of time.”
– Edgar Degas
As it had at the Kennedy Center, the show again received a rousing response, with Tiler Peck earning superb accolades. Throughout the show, the sculpture is spoken of but never seen until the very last scene. When it is finally revealed, the audience gasps. It happened every night. I found it extraordinary that, as it remains onstage after the curtain call, many audience members can’t seem to leave their seats – they just sit and stare at it.
I find Little Dancer to be a life-affirming piece of theater. It was certainly inspiring and uplifting to create. To me, the show is beautiful, entertaining, interesting, but, most importantly, poignant. Just as the sculpture struggles for a measure of dignity – head held high, chin proudly thrust forward – so does our Marie as she struggles to balance life and art.
Degas found himself in between Impressionist and modern art, and Marie, too, hovered between worlds:
SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN
A LAUNDRESS AND A QUEEN,
AND COMIC’LLY CRUDE,
IN BETWEEN A GAWKY LITTLE MONKEY
AND THE WOMAN SHE’S BEGINNING TO BE
SUCH A DIFFERENCE IN BETWEEN
A THOUSAND LITTLE DANCERS
The real sculpture by Degas is a deeply felt work, as is our musical theater piece – we all have our hearts in this one. The uncertainty of being an artist rings true for all of us, as much as it did for Degas and young Marie.
Marie van Goethem inspired Degas and Marie van Goethem inspired me. I jetéd in and out of that rehearsal room every day, directing and choreographing life into what I felt was an important statement about the lives of women and the power of art.
Marie wanted to be a great dancer, and inadvertently, through art, became the most famous dancer in the world.
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics and Book by Lynn Ahrens
Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Beowulf Boritt
Projection Design by Benjamin Pearcy
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Ken Billington
Sound Design by Kai Harada
Musical Direction by Shawn Gough
Music Supervision by David Loud