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BWW Interview: Ann Reinking of CHICAGO at Théatre Mogador

A Broadway Legend in Paris.

BWW Interview: Ann Reinking of CHICAGO at Théatre Mogador

On December 12th of last year, Ann Reinking, one of the true legends of Broadway left us during her sleep while visiting family in her hometown of Seattle, which she had left almost 50 years ago to pursue her dancing career in New York, where she became Bob Fosse's girlfriend and muse instantly after auditioning for him for Pippin. Even though she did explore different territories as the lead dancer in The Andrews Sisters musical Over Here in 1974, choreographed by Patricia Birch, then stepping into the shoes of the great Donna McKechnie as Cassie in Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line and starring as Joan of Arc opposite Joel Grey in the short-lived musical Goodtime Charley in 1975, she remained true to her mentor although he didn't always make life easy for her when she was again his principal dancer in the hit musical review Dancin'. Just after replacing Gwen Verdon as Roxie in the original production of Chicago in 1977, Reinking then ventured into Hollywood, eventually becoming the only character to play herself in Fosse's Cannes Film Festival winning, semi-autobiographical, and at the time controversial movie All That Jazz. She went on in Hollywood, playing Daddy Warbucks's secretary in the first movie-version of Annie, directed by John Huston in 1982, and the lead in Blake Edward's Micki & Maude opposite Dudley Moore in 1984. She did quite a few TV shows in the early 80s, notably Julie Andrews's Invitation to Dance starring Rudolph Nureyev, in which she did a special extended version of "Me and My Baby," which I had the privilege to watch her rehearse for with her fellow Fosse assistant, Kathryn Doby in some bygone Manhattan halls!

Going back to Broadway, Ann Rienking filled the shoes of the great Gwen Verdon one more time, following Debbie Allen in the Broadway revival of Fosse's Sweet Charity just before the master's untimely death in 1987. After some stints teaching theater dance class at Steps On Broadway, which I was lucky enough to attend, she focused on maintaining Fosse's legacy, choreographing what would become the first revival of Chicago, starring Juliet Prowse, another Charity veteran, as Roxie and Bebe Neuwirth as Velma for the first time in Los Angeles in 1992, paving the way for the sensational concert for the Encores! series four years later, which established Chicago as the longest running American musical on Broadway, winning a Tony in the process. Although she played Roxie for a few months on Broadway when the Encores! revival transferred to the Shubert Theater and briefly joined the cast of the musical Fosse, for which she initially came on board as choreographer, joining her Dancin' colleague Chet Walker, her performing career then came second to her work as a choreographer. In 1995, she choreographed the TV version of Bye Bye Birdie, which she had already starred in with Tommy Tune during the 1991-1992 tour.

Her last efforts during the beginning of the new century included an off-Broadway Kurt Weill show called Here Lies Jenny in 2004, choreographed for her Chicago co-star Bebe Neuwirth, and the original version of the last Kander and Ebb Musical The Visit, starring Chita Rivera, at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 2001 and the Signature Theater in Arlington in 2006. Unfortunately, after the Actor's Fund Benefit concert version of The Visit that she had choreographed in 2011, she wasn't associated with the show when it finally reached Broadway in 2015. Apart from choreographing Patty LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, Reinking left Broadway to collaborate on ballet productions for Thodos Dance Chicago, before retiring to Arizona in 2017.

She temporarily left retirement in 2018 when she came to Paris to train the cast for the French-language version of Chicago. All of the French performers were in awe of her talent, as well as her humility, kindness, and warmth, but above all of her dedication to her craft. That was 2018, and I had the great pleasure to chat with her at the time. Below are excerpts from our interview. I had the privilege of seeing you as Roxie in 1977 original production of Chicago, the first Broadway show I'd ever seen. How does it feel to have been connected with this show for over 40 years?

Ann Reinking: Having the honor of working on Chicago for so many years has been wonderful and inspiring. Throughout all the years, I have never lost interest in the show. Fosse, Kander, and Ebb created a show that is incredibly well structured and entertaining. They were truly brilliant.

In Mr. Fosse's original fully staged production, was the dancing more restricted because of the presence of a scenery? Do you think there will be another fully staged production one day?

AR: The dancing in the original show [back in 1975] was purposely staged "down in one", meaning dancing way downstage in the area of the first wings. It is a classic vaudeville style, creating choreography that goes primarily from side to side. Chicago was originally titled Chicago, A Musical Vaudeville, meaning that the pace of the show was a bit fast with mostly short scenes and announcements for the next numbers that come one right after the other. We followed the same structure and style because Chicago was originally done for Encore! Series at City Center, where the mission statement was to try to evoke the intent of the original creators. That is why the choreography is credited "in the style of Bob Fosse."

Can you tell us more about the new "Spirit of Fosse" character, brilliantly conveyed by Alex Frei, in the Parisian production? Were you instrumental in its design?

AR: There has always been a Spirit of Fosse in some way, shape, or form. However, Alex Frei is such an amazing dancer and a natural at Mr. Fosse's style that I couldn't help but feature him as much as I could! Alex is brilliant, inventive, and perfect.

Did Bob Fosse think about bringing Chicago to France in his own lifetime? Why or why not, in your opinion?

AR: Bob Fosse would have loved doing Chicago in Paris. He would have gotten all the sensual elegance and chic that he wanted and needed from the dancers. I don't know if the original producers thought of doing the show in Paris. At that time, Mr. Fosse was already creating the script for the movie All That Jazz.

Is this the first time you've personally recreated your choreography since the 1996 Encores! revival? Did you change things a lot while revisiting it?

AR: This is not the first time I have recreated Chicago, but it has been years since I have done a show with a completely new cast.

I really wanted to do it in Paris! Like Mr. Fosse, I love the natural elegance that exists with the dancers in Paris.

There are never two Chicagos that are completely alike when I stage the show. I like to tailor the work to the performers. It is special to them and they become an integral part of the work.

This company is so talented and creative. I couldn't wait to go to work each day. I made quite a few changes so the performers really own this show - it is theirs. I adore them!

Can you describe your experience working with a French cast? How does it compare with Broadway or London?

AR: I loved working with all the different casts, but this cast is special to me. They remind me of the original Broadway performers in 1996. I'm a very sentimental person and the Paris Chicago will always and forever be in my heart! Ann Reinking, whom I proud to list as one of my dance teachers, will be missed not only for her immense dancing, acting, and choreographic talents but also for her trade-mark husky singing and speaking voice, as well as her warmth and humanity. She will live on in the Bob Fosse legacy, which she contributed so much to.


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