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Always Gonna Dance: An Interview with Noah Racey

If Webster's put an illustration next to the word joy in the dictionary, they could use a clip of Noah Racey performing "Once in Love With Amy" in Goodspeed Opera House's current revival of Where's Charley? Racey dances—and interacts with the audience—with such infectious glee that you realize you're not just watching a career-making performance. You are looking at a man who enjoys his job.

"I love it, I love it, I love it!" Racey says of his vocation, confirming the impression. "It's so easy to criticize musical theater as the bastard of the fine arts," he says. "But moving a dramatic story through music is no small feat, and to do it right and really honor each moment and try to feed it into music and into the dance, it's so hard. That's why I love it."

Some may be surprised that Racey's still operating at maximal enthusiasm after the potentially deflating experience he had eight months ago in his first starring role on Broadway. Never Gonna Dance, in which Racey took on Fred Astaire's role from the movie Swing Time, was one of last season's shortest-lived musicals. Labeled "spiceless" by the New York Times and reviewed just as coldly by many other publications, Dance sputtered out after two months.

But Racey spoke about it without bitterness during our recent pre-matinee interview at Goodspeed. "What I'm dealing with is the fact that it happened at all, not that it closed," he says. "Look what I did: I starred in a Broadway show. It was extraordinary, staggering."

And proving the old adage—okay, the modified adage—that dancing well is the best revenge, Racey has won over audiences and critics in the title role of Where's Charley?, running through Sept. 25 at Goodspeed in East Haddam, Conn. Portraying an 1890s Oxford student who poses as his aunt to chaperone his own dates, Racey spends half the play dressed as a woman and in some scenes continually runs off stage to change in or out of drag. He also tumbles, pratfalls, climbs up to the balcony and does assorted other physical stunts—plus tap dances on top of a piano and soft-shoes his way into everybody's hearts with "Once in Love With Amy."

All in a day's work, Racey says. "Ballet, jazz, flamenco, all types of dance, physical comedy: To me it all becomes the same kind of energy," he says. "It feels so neat to express a certain kind of emotion through your body. It's such an amazing playground."

With the lead in Where's Charley?, Racey is once again filling the shoes of a beloved hoofer of yesteryear: Ray Bolger, who originated the role in 1948 and was forever thereafter associated with "Once in Love With Amy." By inheriting roles from Bolger and Astaire, as well as from contemporaries like Jim Walton and James Brennan—whom Racey calls "my heroes" and who had both been Bobby Child in Crazy for You before Racey played the role last summer at the Muny in St. Louis—Racey is carrying on a tradition he loves. "I like the word hoofer," Racey says. "It's been kind of taken aside by this idea that there are different kinds of tap dance. To me, hoofer is a dancer. Hoofer is somebody who uses their hoofs. And that's how I like to use the word. I'm a hoofer. I tap dance, I do classical ballet, I do partnering, I do theater dance."

Racey's admiration for his predecessors is one reason he's proud of Never Gonna Dance despite its commercial failure. "People would say, 'So do you feel the weight of trying to live up to Fred Astaire?'" he reflects. "Turning my love for what Fred Astaire did and my appreciation of what Fred Astaire was and what I learned from him and how much I adored what he did—turning that into a weight, into an expectation. It's like speaking two different languages. It doesn't make any sense. It's not a weight."

Prior to Never Gonna Dance, Racey's last Broadway appearance was in the original ensemble of Thoroughly Modern Millie. On tour and in regional theater, he's done many of the great dance shows—West Side Story (he was Riff), Oklahoma (Will), On the Town, 42nd Street—and though his resume is filled with revivals and reworkings of older material (like Never Gonna Dance and Millie), Racey insists tap dancing is very much of the moment. "It is such a phenomenal field right now," he says. "We have had the can opener that is Savion Glover blow the lid off of what we knew about tap dancing and how we thought it could be used."

Racey believes the theater can learn from popular music in creating new material for song-and-dance men like himself. "Videos do it well. People like Usher, Justin Timberlake—these are song-and-dance men. They're amazing dancers, the physicality they use. And that's where I think we can go. It doesn't have to be just Cole Porter, Gershwin, Jerome Kern or our dear Frank Loesser [who wrote Where's Charley?]. They set the stage with a respect for lyric to music to dance with a format that you don't have to bypass when you get into contemporary music."

Innovations in musical theater can go as far as the bottom line allows, according to Racey. "There is a whole bunch of talented people who are ready to grab hold of contemporary music and cross-media exploration, multimedia presentation, and it doesn't have to be flying rudely in the face of classic musical theater. It can abide by, and learn from, what we've been taught by Abbott, by Fosse, by all the greats who came before us," he says. "It's just a question of finding people who are willing to back it, people who are willing to investigate the ways of using movement."

Given Racey's dedication—and virtuosity—you'd think he's been dancing since he was in diapers. But as a child and teen, drumming was his thing. "My father bought me a snare drum when I was 3," Racey says, "and he said I played along with a John Philip Sousa album front to back within a week. He said I understood rhythm in some way."

Racey had an unorthodox childhood—"we were hippies," he says—moving around the Northwest and living for a while on a commune in southern Oregon before landing in Seattle for high school. But his upbringing served him well: "My parents were the type of people who were encouraging me to get over hang-ups and be expressive and cry at music and do all the things that matter to you. That was the main block, if you will, that wasn't in my way [as a performer]." He also learned from his commune-mates. Acting and dancing require "being comfortable with your body," he says, "and that's something hippies were really good at. They didn't mind their bodies. I was around a whole bunch of people who were just relaxed and didn't have many hang-ups."

Late in high school Racey started tagging along with friends to drama class. The teacher, he recalls, told him, "'You have some natural, raw something there.'" That teacher, Reuben Van Kempen, is "why I'm here," Racey says. "He opened the door and said this is something you might check out, and became a mentor and a friend." He also guided Racey to the Boston Conservatory, where another influential teacher, Sam Kurkjian, made a full-fledged dancer out of him. "He gave me individual instruction, like 10 years of technique in a couple of years, and worked me so hard, got me so understanding about ballet and about technique and about using your body in a way I hadn't understood," Racey says. Kurkjian was prepping him for a career in ballet, but "eventually I had to come to terms with the fact that I would have to not speak and I would have to not tap, to the extent that I like to," says Racey. "I love language, I love putting forth information with your voice and creating character that way, and I didn't want to lose that."

In addition to his "triple threat" performing, Racey has a choreography career going. He was associate choreographer of Thoroughly Modern Millie and co-choreographer for the national tour of Swing! and will choreograph the Japan production of Never Gonna Dance. The duet he choreographed for himself and Sara Brians was a highlight of June's Broadway Musicals of 1963 show at Town Hall (he's also appeared in the 1935 and 1949 editions of the "Broadway by the Year" series). And he's started to direct too, including the From Brooklyn to Hollywood revue at Town Hall earlier in the year.

For a role model in multitasking, Racey doesn't have to look any further than his Where's Charley? director, Tony Walton, who also designed the show and has won three Tonys (and an Emmy and an Oscar) for set design. Working with Walton, a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame, and stopping the show as he does in Charley with a number long considered someone else's signature tune, Racey shows he was anything but cowed by his Never Gonna Dance experience. "It affirmed for me what I'm doing, the fact that I can be in this business, I can be involved in something that I can pour all of my heart into, and love so dearly, and meet so many wonderful creative people, and work in a capacity that I never knew I had until I did it," Racey says. "It made me realize I have places to grow too. It's so much a learning process."

As long as musical-theater fans get to be in the "classroom" with Racey, nobody will be complaining.

From top: Noah Racey performs "Once in Love With Amy," dances with Greg Mills (left) and frolics as his "aunt" in Where's Charley? [photos by Diane Sobolewski]. 

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