BWW Interview: Choreographer Jonathan Cerullo on LISA AND LEONARDO at NYMF
Choreographer Jonathan Cerullo returns to the New York Musical Festival (NYMF) with the new musical, Lisa and Leonardo. His mentor, acclaimed choreographer Patricia Birch, first introduced him to the festival in its inaugural season. Cerullo had been assisting Birch for thirteen years, and moved into the role of executive producer with her NYMF production of Orphan Train. Subsequently, he went on to stage two other musicals at the festival and also became an evaluator reading new scripts.
In Lisa and Leonardo (opening July 21st), Cerullo once again employs his choreographic skills to integrate dance within the back-story of one of the world's most famous painters, Leonardo Da Vinci.
I caught up with Jonathan to talk about his creative process with this new work.
"I had seen an earlier version of the piece and I know the composer, Donya Lane. I'd met playwright and lyricist Ed McNamee many years ago, so I was already friendly and familiar with the authors. I was intrigued by the subject matter and the way the story was being told, and at the time, offered some insight. So when Donya asked me to be involved as choreographer I jumped at the chance. I had seen director Michelle Tattenbaum's work so I knew I was dealing with masters in their craft. Just combine all of that with the chance to create and originate new material and I'm glad I accepted the gig," said Cerullo.
When it comes to collaborating with a new director, he has to feel his way into the relationship. "It's like a marriage. I like to get 'tickled' here, but not there. You really find the way to communicate with each other through respect of the job at hand. Sometimes the relationship works, sometimes not and that's okay," he said. Thankfully, in his evaluation of the creative process, this relationship worked. "Michelle is a smart director. She's thorough in her dramaturgical preparation and skilled in a rehearsal room. It's been great."
Given the limited rehearsal schedule at NYMF Cerullo, credits his time management to a thorough pre-production process and having a great assistant. "We worked many hours doing research and working things out beforehand and I came to the room with ideas to try out. Having a clear direction, which Michelle had, is essential," he said.
From a choreographic perspective, he considers Lisa and Leonardo to be more of an actor/singer type of show. It doesn't use dance like West Side Story or Oklahoma use dance. He had to find his vocabulary through Donya's score, which makes use of different genres including pop, opera, and musical theater. "It was a choice to hire actors/singers who move well, and we've been fortunate in having a company that's not afraid of trying things out. We are working with references to paintings and we sourced inspiration from those works to serve the story in a modern way. Although I've drawn from the period, I'm not being a slave to Renaissance dance. I've peppered the movement with a contemporary wink and theatrical quality. However since it's in Italy, there is a tarantella and we use tambourines. That's about as period we get," explains Cerullo.
In creating choreography for non-dancers Cerullo focuses on character -driven material. "In my work the character and storyline come first and then I try to fill out that expression physically. This is the exploration process in rehearsal, which, for me, is the challenge of it all. I tried very hard to give them material they can excel at, feel they could achieve, and look good and have fun doing. During our run- through I think we have served the story in a delightful way," he said.
With opening night of Lisa and Leonardo right around the corner, he remains very optimistic about its future prospects. "I know we all would like this to move on and have a commercial run. I have to say there is no expense spared on this NYMF production and I feel in very safe hands with the entire management team. It's a tough schedule to fully vet the work and you have to make decisions based on time given. I would hope for a proper development period, perhaps a workshop so we can really spend the time exploring how dance informs the story, said Cerullo."
As an evaluator who reads new works, Cerullo realizes the significance and potential of being involved at NYMF. He found a charming musical, Windywoo and Her Naughty Naughty Pets by Wendy Ann Gardner, and developed a reading last year. Tony Award winning producers Greg Nobile and Jana Shea of Seaview Productions have since optioned it. When asked about the importance of NYMF, Cerullo responds, "OMG, it's vital to our industry and commerce. I am thrilled to see how NYMF has grown under the leadership of colleagues, Isaac Robert Hurwitz and now, Dan Markley."
Lisa and Leonardo will begin performances July 21st and run through July 28th at the Duke on 42nd Street, a NEW 42ND STREET project (229 W 42nd Street). Tickets are $27.50 and can be purchased by visiting nymf.org or by calling (212)-352-3101.