When Choreography Makes(or Breaks) a Great Show
OnStage Connecticut Columnist
When an audience goes to see a musical – whether it’s Broadway or off-Broadway, a major regional theatre or a local community theatre – they aren’t just watching any form of theatre. What they are treated to is a mixture of theatre, music and dance that all comes together to form one grand spectacle unlike any other art or entertainment. When the actors rehearse for these shows, the process is very intense. Perhaps the most intense part is rehearsing for the most dance-heavy musical numbers in the show. It requires a great deal of focus and dedication – as well as some very talented dancers – in order to pull off the high-quality performances that audiences come to shows expecting to see. However, the amount of dancing that is often included in these productions – particularly when it comes to community theatre – might not always contribute to the show as much as the individuals involved in the production would expect.
To be clear, I am not writing this with the intention of degrading any dance choreographers who may be reading this. I’ve worked with many great choreographers over the years, and all of them contributed a great deal of talent to the productions that each of them were involved in. My issue is not with just any kind of dance or choreography in shows. That said, I have personally seen a good deal of productions here in Connecticut where choreography is often added into certain musical numbers that weren’t previously intended to be dance-heavy numbers. Whatever the intentions may have been, they all too often come across as more of an unnecessary distraction and addition for the sake of making the shows bigger than they need to be. Not that there’s anything wrong with big spectacles, as that’s what musicals ought to be. But even in musical theatre, there is such a thing as “too much”. If anything, it turns out to be more of a grand mess than a grand spectacle in these cases.
Some of the people reading this are probably wondering why I would make such a big deal out of this. Well before writing or commenting on why I bother to point this out, or why I even believe this to begin with, let me ask you these two questions: Would you agree that the main focus of the show should be telling its story? Isn’t the dancing, in addition to the acting and the singing, just a means of telling this story to the audience? I would say that the answer to these questions – especially in the case of musical theatre – would be “yes”, and I think many people would agree with me. If we were talking about a more experimental, avant-garde show that is entirely different from the kinds of shows I’m referring to, I might have answered those questions differently. But when it comes to musicals such as the ones often performed in theatres right here in Connecticut, and across the rest of America, I do believe that storytelling should play just as much of a role as acting, music and dance. In many cases, it often does. But sadly, there are too many theatres that either don’t share this view, or seem to have lost sight of it along the way in the rehearsal process.
Most of the local productions I’ve been involved in – for example – have stayed true to the original Broadway musicals, which have been able to balance the respective arts of dance and storytelling. However, some others have been less successful in achieving this goal.
Some theatres have decided that it is a good idea to take shows, and add additional choreography to scenes in which they are not originally included. Often in musicals, scenes may be intended for the entire ensemble to come out – usually at or near the beginning, middle or end of a show – and perform a magnificent dance number that brings the audience to its feet. But more often than that, there are scenes intended for a small group of lead actors – maybe two or three, at maximum – to sing together and do a minimal amount of dancing in the process. It is in these scenes where I’ve seen large amounts of choreography that were added that prove to be completely unnecessary, and it showed. It was this element of the shows, in my opinion, that tended to be the most unnecessary change that had been made from the original shows, and had ultimately made them mediocre productions of what were once great musicals.
The degree to which it matters to others might depends on why they go see musicals in the first place. If you’re someone who is going to a show just to cheer on a friend or family member, or maybe to just sing-along to the irresistibly catchy music, perhaps you wouldn’t care much to see some additional big dance numbers added to a show. But if you like to go and pay attention to what the musical is supposed to be about, and are entertained by stories and characters that make you either laugh or cry, then what exactly is the point of the extra dance numbers other than for the sake of giving choreographers more work to do, and for giving more time on stage to the entire ensemble? This doesn’t seem to be what the writers of theoriginal musicals intended, and it’s probably not what many audience members intended to go see either. So here’s a word of advice to talented local theatre artists across the country from someone who has seen a lot of these community theatre productions before: If you don’t want your show to end up being a total mess on opening night, I’d recommend just rehearsing for only the dance numbers that are originally intended for the show. They are in the scenes that they are in for a reason. Rehearse and produce the show that way, and believe it or not, you still will likely get the same standing ovation at the end of the show that a Broadway theatre might get at their productions, and that’s really all that matters once the curtains have closed.