I first became aware of Nora Ephron when I read Heartburn – her autobiographical novel about her marriage and divorce from Carl Bernstein. I thought it was brilliant. Then I came to love her screenplays – Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle. She wrote wonderful dialogue and had a dry sense of humor. I was in awe of all her work – journalism, screenplays, books.
Imagine my delight when I got a call from her personally inviting me to come talk about her new movie based on the classic film The Shop Around the Corner – or as it’s known in my world, the musical She Loves Me.
The movie was set to star Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks and the title would be You’ve Got Mail. This time instead of books, poetry, and letter writing, it was about the internet and emails between two unlikely lovers.
We met at her apartment in The Apthorp. I had never been inside, but as an Upper West Sider, I walked by it almost every day. The Apthorp was famously built by the Astor Family in 1908 and occupies the full city block at 79th Street and Broadway. I entered through the old front gates and walked into a courtyard of fountains and a garden filled with hydrangeas. I felt like I was stepping back in time, into old world New York City. I figured even of this meeting didn’t go well, at least I had gotten inside The Apthorp.
Nora opened the door and said, “So, you’re the hot new choreographer!” I laughed and she immediately gestured for me to come into her large apartment. I was honored to be in her presence. She offered me a coffee and we sat at her kitchen table. We started by talking about our neighborhood, we spoke a lot about Zabar’s. It was the place we both frequented most – “Zabar's is the ultimate West Side institution. It perfectly embodies New York's most basic emotion: unrequited love. I love Zabar's more than Zabar's loves me.”
I gushed at one point, congratulating her on all she had accomplished as a woman. She commented that I was also in a position to find myself in a male-dominated world. She said, “If you want to be a successful woman in a man’s world, you have to be ready for some hard times, but you must keep moving forward.”
I fancied I’d be learning many words of wisdom from Nora Ephron as we shot the movie. Little did I know, as this was my first film, that there is no time for conversation, let alone words of wisdom, when shooting a movie.
My role as choreographer for this movie was to create a handful of dance moments in several locations – a mother and young daughter twirling in a bookstore, ballerinas spinning on stage during the Nutcracker, ice skaters turning on the ice at Rockefeller Center, and young men and women circling one another.
There is a character in the movie played by Parker Posey who hooks up with a rabbi. We were scheduled to shoot a “Singles Night” at a temple on West End Avenue – an evening when young Jewish men and women have the opportunity to meet while dancing the Hora. Nora wanted to set up the shots like a Busby Berkley number, shooting from the balcony overhead as the hora line began spiraling and moving through its formations. The men would pull single women out of their seats to join in – the entire congregation would be dancing. Parker Posey would be picked and pulled into the line by the enthusiastic rabbi.
This all sounded like fun to me. I could not wait to get started.
About three months later, we started shooting. I felt lucky that my first movie adventure was going to be with Nora. Every outside location was designed beautifully by the production designer – flowers in the planters, leaves added to the trees, store fronts perfectly dressed. It made the Upper West Side look like Oz. It was clear this movie was going to be a real valentine to New York City.
The shooting days were long and involved and Nora was too busy to really have an involved conversation again. She was directing a big movie – no time to chat. I was so impressed by how everything was run, how hard everyone worked and how different it all was from the theater. I did feel a bit out of my element – unsure of where to stand, who to talk to, no introductions. It certainly wasn’t like in the theater, where the director and choreographer were inseparable.
When I was called upon, I felt like a wallflower finally asked to dance. I would go onto the ice or onto the stage or into the bookstore and teach someone to twirl. I watched the playback with Nora each time and she seemed very happy with what I had created.
When we got to the synagogue, you could feel the whole crew was excited. The cameras were set in the balcony. I taught the congregation of extras how to grab onto each other as the Hora line passed their pew. We rehearsed a few times and when Nora called “Action,” all the extras hooked up and everyone was having a grand old time. Men pulled women from the pews as they passed by and Parker was pulled right out of her seat by her handsome rabbi. That night we shot for about six hours and captured some terrific footage.
At the end of that evening, I had completed all my dance duties. I never crossed paths with Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan. Too bad there was no dance at the end – had this been a musical, they would have had a final romantic slow dance that lifted them magically high into the air!
That night Nora thanked me profusely for doing my job well and hoped we would do something else together. About seven months later, I got a call from Nora apologizing, saying the studio heads wanted her to cut out any scenes that did not feature Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan. They had gathered from their focus groups that the audiences only wanted Tom and Meg’s story. Not even poor Parker Posey was going to have a man – the rabbi character was completely cut out.
The only choreography of mine that remains in the movie is the character of Meg Ryan’s mother twirling her daughter around in the bookstore. Nora kindly had the editor make a DVD of all the outtakes for me and sent it to my home. As I watched the footage, I felt a huge wave of disappointment – it looked so good!
However, when I finally saw the movie, I loved it. I understood the point that it needed to be about the main couple, especially this main couple. And the story was not all about the internet and online dating, it was how important the written word is and how expressing your thoughts on paper or on a computer can be incredibly transformative – you give them life in a different way and you never know where that might lead.
Although I missed seeing all my twirls and turns, I was very grateful to have been a small part of the film. I did learn a lot from watching Nora direct and understood what a day on a film set entails. I was able to apply all of what I had learned to my next film, Center Stage, where this time, the choreography and dancers were the star. It’s interesting how one’s career is like a line of stepping-stones over a raging creek. Each stone is another experience that just makes you stronger for when you reach the next stone.
Music by George Fenton
Book by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron
Based on the play Parfumerie by Miklós László
Direction by Nora Ephron
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Susan Bode and Ellen Christiansen
Costume Design by Albert Wolsky
Musical Direction by George Fenton