BWW Interview: Broadway Director/Choreographer Randy Skinner Gets Tap-Happy with DAMES AT SEA
Dames At Sea is currently in previews at the Helen Hayes Theatre where it will officially open on October 22, 2015. The musical originally debuted Off-Off Broadway in 1966 and starred newcomer, Bernadette Peters. The show, which celebrates the golden era of movie musicals, is now being given the full Broadway treatment.
Dames at Sea has a book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller with music by Jim Wise. In short, it's a valentine of a musical that tells the backstage story of a girl from a small town becoming a star on Broadway. The production is being directed and choreographed by three time Tony Award nominee Randy Skinner, whose dances sparkled in the Broadway revival of 42nd Street and Irving Berlin's White Christmas.
I sat down with Mr. Skinner to discuss his work on the show.
Congratulations on this new production of Dames at Sea. How did this show come into your life?
"I first discovered the show in 1973 while I was attending Ohio State University. I choreographed the show and played the role of Dick. Since then I've directed, choreographed and performed in the show several times.
About three years ago, I was hired by producers Anna Roberts Ostroff & Alan Ostroff to stage the show at Infinity Theatre Company in Annapolis, MD. The show was such a critical success that I suggested they look into the first class rights as it had never played Broadway. They're a young, bright couple that is very methodical and they had the rights within 8 months."
That's terrific. So you really put the ball in motion.
"It came at the right time. I was thinking about what is out there today that is dance-driven and would allow me to do my thing. I didn't want it to be something huge. It had to be something where producers would have a better chance at raising money on something smaller."
How considerate of you to have the producers interest at heart.
"I'm David Merrick trained! He was a master at producing and I was with him from 1979 to 1996. Working with him and Gower Champion on 42nd Street during the early days of my career was an education you couldn't buy. Since then I've always thought creatively, but I've always had that other part of my brain that reacts to the side of the producer."
One of the gimmicks of the original production was to have the cast of 6 imitate Busby Berkley type numbers on a postage stamp size stage. How has the show been reimagined for your production?
"I tried to capture the essence of the original production, but make it a new experience for the audience of today. It was important to me to pay respect yet make it bigger and more dancey. The show is 48 years old, so those who have seen it before will be surprised at our additions and how we've framed this production.
Rob Berman, our music supervisor, has come up with all new dance and vocal arrangements that are much longer in length. This is also the first time that New York audiences will hear the score played by an orchestra. Formerly, the show was done by just two pianos, but we have wonderful Jonathan Tunick orchestrations to complement the songs."
I've been a fan of your tap dances in many shows, including your work in the revivals at New York City Center Encores! Can you describe your style of tap?
"I think most people would describe it as the Hollywood style of Tap. I like to take solos, duets and trios and cover a lot of ground rather than standing in one place and making incredible sounds.
I have vivid memories as a child of being transfixed by watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance. Somehow they spoke to me. I'm also built like Fred, slender and lanky. He was also a great turner and I loved how he had the ability to travel the floor while he tapped. I think often you pick role models that you feel in touch with and how they physically look.
My goal when choreographing a show, unless it's a specialty trick, is to create every step and be able to dance it full out myself. I want to know how it feels inside my body and to know if it works or not. It's also important to know if the material I'm giving can be done 8 times a week."
Considering there are only six cast members I imagine they all have to be triple threats.
"Since the show doesn't have a chorus, the dance demands for the six principals were a key factor in casting. The six people that we've hired are all amazing talents. It makes my job very easy and fun when I have performers with this level of technique not only as singers and actors, but also as dancers. It gives me the freedom to use my imagination and give them whatever type of material is on my mind. Partnering skills are also very important to me as I've had a lot of training in ballroom and incorporate that into my work."
As far as directing goes, how did you set the tone for the piece?
"I'm choosing to play the show for truth as opposed to sending up any of the material. I've directed it with a more honest approach through the delivery of the lines instead of commenting on them. To me the beauty of an audience is when they laugh because the actors are innocent of the joke. Two of our leads, Eloise Kropp and Cary Tedder, both naturally possess a very open, fresh and youthful presence that delivers just that quality. I find it incredibly appealing to watch.
I was very close to Ginger Rogers in her later years and we worked together twice. I think to present day audiences there is an image of what the 1930s looks and sounds like. Ginger once told me "not everyone did pin curls in the 1930s. We wore our hair down, loose and with scarves." In essence, she was trying to say there was a lot of variety in real life during that time and it went way beyond what the movies and Hollywood represented. I've always remembered that and kept that in mind when doing period shows."
Are you still tinkering with the show while in previews?
"We are definitely making adjustments to the physical production, as well as tightening scenes, fine tuning comic moments and trying new steps.
I learned something from David Merrick during my days with him working on 42nd Street. He used to canvass the audience during previews and listen to what everyone had to say. That included the bartenders, the ushers, and the people in the lobby at intermission. Many creative teams rely on what other professionals have to say, but Merrick wanted to listen to what the public had to say."
Well, David Merrick was certainly one of the greats. Did you take his advice?
"I was especially curious of how the younger generation would relate to it. After one of the previews some kids were walking up the aisle and noticed me at the production table. They figured I had something to do with the show so I asked them if they "got it" and had a good time. They were extremely positive so that made me very happy."
Thank you, Randy. It's obvious that this show has a special place in your heart and I wish you the best come opening night.
"Well, thank you! It's always nice to talk to another dancer and I'm thrilled that you've taken an interest in our show. Ginger Rogers once said to me " It's so difficult to talk about dancing to non-dancers. Dancer to dancer is who really understands how to verbalize dance, the images, the steps and the dialogue between dancers. Dancer to dancer is how you can really communicate about the art form."
DAMES AT SEA stars John Bolton as The Captain/Hennesey, Mara Davi as Joan, Danny Gardner as Lucky, Eloise Kropp as Ruby, Lesli Margherita as Mona Kent, and Cary Tedder as Dick. It's playing at the Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY. Tickets at Telecharge