BWW Interview: CAGNEY's Joshua Bergasse - A Smash With Students & HONEYMOONERS Alike!
The hit musical CAGNEY, direct from the Off-Broadway boards, will tap their tapping feets at the El Portal Theatre beginning October 5, 2017. This story of Hollywood legend James Cagney receives its complementary accentuations and punctuations from the double pullbacks, the shuffle ball changes and switching wings of award-winning choreographer Joshua Bergasse. Josh took a break from his time-stepping to answer our digging (another tap term) questions.
Thank you for taking time out for this interview, Josh!
Does anyone call you 'Joshua' now? Your parents when they reprimanded you? Your inscription on your Emmy you won for Smash? Your billing on marquees?
I go by 'Joshua' in print only. Everyone calls me 'Josh.' Yes, the Emmy says 'Joshua' and billing on marquees, as well... but 'Joshua' just seems so serious!
You've been with CAGNEY since its Off-Broadway production in early 2016. How did you originally come to being attached to CAGNEY?
Actually, I did three productions of CAGNEY before the 2016 Off-Broadway run. I think the first was at the Drayton Festival in Canada, then another production down in Florida, then a production at The York Theater in NY in 2015. It was my good friend and long-time collaborator, director Bill Castellino who brought me on to the project.
Have you and Robert Creighton crossed tap shoes in all The Combined shows you've done?
Actually, Bobby and I have only worked together in one other show besides CAGNEY. It was the Encores production of LITTLE ME starring Christian Borle. I was the choreographer and Bobby was in the cast playing a bunch of different hysterical parts.
Bobby Creighton won the Astaire Award last year for "Outstanding Male Dancer Off-Broadway" dancing your choreography. You had won the year before for "Best Choreographer" for ON THE TOWN, with Tony Yazbeck winning for "Best Male Dancer." To a dancer, the Astaire Award must be pretty special to actually hold in your hand, right?
The Astaire Awards were always very special because it's one of the few times that so many members of the dance community are together under one roof. When I was a dancer, I wished I could win an Astaire Award. I never did. So, it was really wonderful to receive one as a choreographer. They don't have the Astaire Awards anymore. Now they have the Chita Rivera Awards.
Do you have to make any tweaks to your choreography to accommodate the El Portal Theatre stage? Do you envision adjustments for any of the other venues of CAGNEY's 2018 tour?
I'm sure there will be slight adjustments for the El Portal stage. Most we won't know about until we actually get into tech rehearsals there. I'm also re-choreographing a section towards the end of the first act that I was never really happy with. I have a new idea and I'm really excited about trying it out with the cast.
Describe the first time James Cagney made his impression on you? Were you already interested in dance?
I grew up at my mom's dance school, so I started dancing really early. My first impression of James Cagney was the famous Yankee Doodle dance from the Yankee Doodle Dandy movie. It was so stylized and so athletic. I was mesmerized!
Lots of tap dancing in CAGNEY. Was tap one of the first dance styles you learned starting out?
I had my first pair of tap shoes when I was three years old. I remember my mom teaching me shuffles in our basement. It's one of my first and clearest memories as a child.
You are the first person I've interviewed that's certified by the Jerome Robbins Foundation to teach the choreography of WEST SIDE STORY. What did it take to earn that certification?
Well, it's not quite as official as that. I believe, it's more like, I'm on a list of names that the foundation will reference when someone asks them for a recommendation for a choreographer who is familiar with the original Robbins choreography for WEST SIDE STORY. I learned the choreography from my mentor Alan Johnson, who was in the original production back in 1957. He cast me in a production as Baby John. I also became the dance captain. I then started assisting him in other productions.
You started teaching in your mid-20s. Besides choreographing and dancing, was teaching another form of your artistic expression? Or a natural progression for your artistic energies?
Teaching was a true gift for me. It allowed me to practice creating choreography and convey ideas to dancers. And it gave me an opportunity to watch many different types of dancers and how they relate to different styles and methods. I believe it helped me to become more effective and clear as a choreographer. It also was a great way to earn rent money during the slow times!
What is your classroom mantra to your students?
Study as many different styles as you can. Musicals are created with many of the classic styles we know and love, but there's so many contemporary influences. The best chance for a successful professional career is to be really well-rounded.
As the choreographer in a TV show, how much input do you have with what the camera captures for the television viewing audience?
At the beginning of Smash, I was still learning how the camera worked with the dances. But I quickly learned what camera shots and choreography was most successful. I could steer the dances and dancers towards shots that I knew would be better for the camera, as well as, explain my thoughts and ideas to the director and DP.
With the camera focus specifics in mind, do you have to formulate/highlight accented moves for the camera, as opposed to choreographing for the full theatre stage in full view of a theatre audience?
You really don't. If you know what the specific shot is going to be, and you know what's not going to be seen, then you don't have to worry about it. You can really focus your attention to what the shot is. Very unlike theater, where you have to focus on every detail on the stage.
You've choreographed three musicals on Broadway (so far) if I'm not mistaken. Would you share a funny incident or wonderful memory from each:
ON THE TOWN:
ON THE TOWN was truly a wonderful experience. It was a huge project for me because there was so much dance in the show. Dance was a large part of the storytelling and the Bernstein score is stunning! A dream to choreograph to!
GIGI started at the Kennedy Center. We had always hoped that we'd move to Broadway after D.C., but we didn't have a theater when we started the run. Waiting for the news of whether we were going to get a Broadway theater was excruciating!
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY:
When I was in rehearsals for the original Broadway company of HAIRSPRAY as a swing, I would watch the creative team and wish I could be a part of it. Fifteen years later, I find myself working alongside director Jack O'Brien and composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (all from HAIRSPRAY), choreographing CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. It was literally a dream come true.
Any old musical chestnuts you'd like to crack choreographically?
Hmm? Good question! I got a chance to do IT'S A BIRD... IT'S A PLANE... IT'S SUPERMAN! at City Center Encores a few years ago. I'd really love to do a full-blown production of that show some day.
You're now working on THE HONEYMOONERS. Can you share with us how it's going and what audiences can expect to see?
THE HONEYMOONERS is going really well! We're in previews now and we open at Papermill Playhouse in NJ on the same day that Cagney opens in L.A. It's a really funny show, with clever writing, great songs and more dance than you might expect. I think audiences will have a great time, whether they're familiar with the original TV show or not.
What advice would you give to dancers auditioning for you?
I'm not always just looking for amazing dancers in a dance call. I'm often looking for character actors who move well, understudies etc. Just because you feel like you're not the best in the audition, doesn't mean you're not being seriously considered for a part, whether in the ensemble or as a principal. So stay focused and positive through the audition.
Any no-no's you would suggest auditionees never do at an audition?
Try not to put on your "game face." Sometimes that just makes you look mean or cranky. I'm looking to hire people that I want to be in a rehearsal room and theater with for long periods of time. It's important to come off as someone who's happy to be there and ready work.
Anything new you've learned about yourself from your CAGNEY experience?
CAGNEY really did get me back in touch with my tap roots. It was great to dust off the tap shoes and rediscover that part of my training and take it to a whole new level.
Thank you again, Josh! I look forward to seeing (and hearing) your choreographed tap, tap, tapping in CAGNEY!
For available tickets at the El Portal through October 29, 2017; and CAGNEY's 2018 touring schedule, log onto www.cagneythemusical.com