Interview: CHOREOGRAPHERS ELLENORE SCOTT & AYODELE CASEL GIVE FUNNY GIRL'S SAGA FLAIR, FUN & FINESSE

Interview of Choreographers for the revival of Funny Girl and the first national tour.

By: May. 28, 2024
Interview: CHOREOGRAPHERS ELLENORE SCOTT & AYODELE CASEL GIVE FUNNY GIRL'S SAGA FLAIR, FUN & FINESSE
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Interview: CHOREOGRAPHERS ELLENORE SCOTT & AYODELE CASEL GIVE FUNNY GIRL'S SAGA FLAIR, FUN & FINESSE

VJM: Thank you both for giving of your time to answer my questions.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard of two Choreographers being hired for the same Broadway show, not even a revival, that I can think of.  How did that come about for both of you?

Ellenore Scott:  Funny Girl was my Broadway debut as a choreographer. I was so happy when I got a call from Michael Mayer (the director) asking me to work on this revival with him. He knew I was NOT a tap dancer and was aware of the multiple tap routines in the show and asked if I would be down to share the billing with Ayodele Casel. Ayo is an extraordinary artist so I was thrilled to be by her side as she made her Broadway debut as well. Michael first met me initially at Head Over Heels on Broadway where I was an associate choreographer to Spencer Liff. In 2019, he asked if I would choreograph the Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors and we opened the show October 17th, 2019. I have loved working with Michael and feel as though he keeps his people close and I’m grateful he thought of me for this historic revival.

Ayodele Casel:  I met Michael Mayer in 2016 when he directed a New York City Center Encores! show I performed in.  Later that fall he invited me to perform that piece in a Broadway for Hillary fundraiser he was also directing. We'd kept in touch over the years and in 2019, after seeing a show I’d premiered at The Joyce Theater, he asked if I would be interested in providing the Tap choreography for a revival he was working on. Like Ellenore shared, Michael wanted to work with us both to deliver the full choreographic vision of the show. I believe it was a very progressive vision on his part and I’m really thankful that I was able to make my Broadway debut with this team.

VJM:  I saw Funny Girl at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles quite recently.  It’s a powerhouse show full of excellence in every department. The Choreography is outstanding and so much fun to watch!   It ties in so well with the storyline and gives much life and energy to each plot point.  Could you each explain how you came up with the ideas and choreography for the production numbers?  And how did the choreography differ from the original production since portions of the show have been updated? Did you work individually, always together, or a little of both?

Interview: CHOREOGRAPHERS ELLENORE SCOTT & AYODELE CASEL GIVE FUNNY GIRL'S SAGA FLAIR, FUN & FINESSE Ellenore Scott:  So much of how I work is by looking at the social dancing during the time of the story. There are many different styles in Funny Girl and I wanted to make sure to highlight the very classic and long lines of the Ziegfeld Follies to the vaudeville acts of burlesque houses, the smooth moves of Jack Cole dancers in Temporary Arrangement and then right down to the slightly inebriated social dancing on Henry Street in Brooklyn. Research was important to me but without being fully influenced by the original production. It is a revival, but I wanted to make sure I put my own spin on it (pun intended). Ayo and I were in charge of certain numbers in the show, but did collaborate together for an amazing piece called, “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?” Working together on that piece was exciting — because typically for the pieces Ayodele would choreograph I would watch from the side in awe!

Ayodele Casel:  I had a great opportunity to provide a historical context and rhythmic voice to Eddie Ryan and the production numbers the character “choreographs” in Funny Girl. I immediately thought about John Bubbles and The Nicholas Brothers, tap dance artists who were part of the Ziegfeld legacy. For Eddie’s Tap, I was clear that this was his “Greatest Star” moment. I wanted to create a tap dance that would allow the rhythm and musicality of his feet to take the lead and I worked with Carmel Dean, one of our dance arrangers, to create brand new music for this moment. I was really inspired by Baby Laurence with Sammy Davis Jr. at The Palace Theater so we worked together to create music that was very sparse so that the tap dance footwork was featured prominently. I also had an opportunity to expand “Rat, Tat, Tat, Tat” to include a tap duet where the dancers, similarly, take us on a complex rhythmic journey over a simple drum cadence. I was inspired by the many tap dance duo acts in the 1940’s and 1950’s like The Condos Brothers or Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor.  Interview: CHOREOGRAPHERS ELLENORE SCOTT & AYODELE CASEL GIVE FUNNY GIRL'S SAGA FLAIR, FUN & FINESSE                                          

 VJM:  What a wonderful project to be sharing accolades with.  It must have been such an amazing experience. Could you recount some of the most memorable moments while you worked on assembling the production numbers and staging the scenes with the cast for the show?

Ellenore Scott:  My favorite number I created in the show is called Henry Street. It is one of the few times that the full company gets to dance all together onstage and just have fun! 

I made some changes from the Broadway production for the Tour production, adding even more to the scene in terms of dancing and action. There is one moment I have both the principle actors and ensemble doing the same choreography coming downstage towards the audience. A memorable moment for me was being on a break during rehearsal and seeing the ensemble dancers review choreography with the principles on the side. This cast absolutely adores each other and wants each other to succeed, so any time I could catch a peek of them reviewing the Henry Street choreography my heart would grow bigger and I would smile. I love watching them all doing that dance together onstage. 

Ayodele Casel:   For me, as a performer and choreographer, I have loved seeing the way each cast member delights in the challenge of learning and performing the work. They have expressed on various occasions that they enjoy the performance of it and also feel like they are also growing as artists throughout the practice of executing the work. I have loved how throughout the rehearsal process they are curious, and disciplined, and meet each other with support, and joy. We have been so fortunate to work with such talented and committed artists.

VJM:  Who inspired each of you to dance and pursue choreography?

Interview: CHOREOGRAPHERS ELLENORE SCOTT & AYODELE CASEL GIVE FUNNY GIRL'S SAGA FLAIR, FUN & FINESSE Ellenore Scott:  I feel very lucky to have dancing parents! My mother, Michelle, was a ballet dancer and my father, Michael, was a hip hop dancer. Growing up watching them perform definitely inspired me to pursue this as a career. As I got older, my mentor Christian Von Howard really showed his support for me and being a part of his dance company was a unique opportunity to be in a professional setting. He is a fabulous teacher, choreographer and dancer and he has always inspired me. 

Ayodele Casel:  I remain very inspired by one of my mentors, Gregory Hines. I have been in love with tap dance since I first put some tap shoes on at age 19. I remain curious about its musical sophistication, depth of expression, and ability to move people joyfully and thoughtfully. It is an art form with a rich Black American history and I am grateful to be on the continuum of its legacy. 

VJM:  How do each of you feel your choreography has enhanced this production?

Ellenore Scott:  The beautiful thing about this production of Funny Girl is that everything is a flashback to Fanny Brice, our main character. The audience is going on a journey to see “how did we get here?” I hope my choreography lets you feel like you are getting transported back in time and feel as though you are sitting in the audience of the Ziegfeld Follies show or drinking a pint on Henry Street. I also loved working with Michael Mayer creating these “ghosts” who appear throughout the show. These ghosts are reminders that this show is all taking place in Fanny’s head, and they are here to help tell her story. I love that my choreography can help with that beautiful narrative. 

Ayodele Casel:  My intention was to provide a jolt of joy to the show and an appreciation and awe for the art of tap dance through the characters. I feel like the audience is invited to enjoy the journey early on in the show when we see Eddie’s showmanship, virtuosity, and welcoming calls.

VJM:  Being a dancer, I know the dedication and hard work it takes to become successful. What do you base your ability to maintain working and growing as an artist on?

Ellenore Scott:  I believe that I am where I am today because of my foundational training. Learning as much as I could when I was younger really shaped me into the artist I am now. I studied ballet, modern, jazz, hip hop and more and all of those techniques influenced how I create. I also believe that always being a student allows me to challenge preconceived notions I may be holding on to. Recognizing that I am always learning allows me to gain more knowledge, see more art and do different shows that will help me grow in so many ways.  

Ayodele Casel:  I believe sustained success, whether commercial or personal, is attributed to my ability to remain curious about the art, disciplined in my practice, living in a constant state of gratitude, and being fiercely protective of my joy. I think it’s a wonderful privilege to live my life as an artist. I’m so grateful every day for all that I have learned as a result of my practice and all of the wonderful experiences and people that it has connected me to. Working on this show has been a testament to that practice.

VJM:  Ayodele, of course I loved all the tap sections in the show. Especially in the first act when the fabulous Izaiah Montaque Harris entered on stage and started tearin’ it up out there, with precision and crispness to his rapid-fire tap articulation - to the absolute delight of the audience and especially me.  Nothing like a sharp, rhythmic song-and-dance man to bring up the energy level and wow the audience!  He was just terrific, and instantly reminded me of Gregory Hines and the Henry LeTang style of tap.  Had you worked with him before, and what was it like, collaborating with him?  

Interview: CHOREOGRAPHERS ELLENORE SCOTT & AYODELE CASEL GIVE FUNNY GIRL'S SAGA FLAIR, FUN & FINESSE Ayodele Casel:  Thank you so much for the generous reflection of your experience. I love that. I’d worked with Izaiah about a year ago for a show I choreographed at New York City Center. One of my missions has been to instigate a return of performers like Gregory Hines, excellent tap dancers, singers, actors. I saw a showcase a few years ago where Izaiah sang and danced beautifully and my spidey senses activated immediately. We actually called him in to audition for our Broadway production and he did really well. Everyone loved him but alas the role at the time went to the brilliant Jared Grimes. However, as soon as this tour opportunity became available I thought of him immediately and he booked it! I was so excited for him. Working with him on this was joyful. He’s an excellent tap dancer, a bright and generous performer, with a wonderful personality. He’s a joy to work with, a hard worker, and we are lucky to have him with us on this tour.

VJM:  Ellenore, the Ziegfeld audition section was so creatively done. From where Fanny begins to learn the choreography to and through her audition for Mr. Ziegfeld, and then her actual opening night performance, there are many sections that are woven together with your choreography and Fanny’s scenes with lines and her movement throughout, and the interaction with the other performers.  They all blend simultaneously to establish the atmosphere of the Follies with what is happening story wise. Could you speak to how you created such a wonderful choreographic flow through that whole section?Interview: CHOREOGRAPHERS ELLENORE SCOTT & AYODELE CASEL GIVE FUNNY GIRL'S SAGA FLAIR, FUN & FINESSE

Ellenore Scott:  Thank you so much for that compliment! I am very lucky that I have a director who has a vision. Being able to show the audience where Fanny starts to where she ends up is crucial to the arc of her story, so for me showing her being A TOTAL MESS learning the material then smashing it when she actually performs it shows that she really is the Greatest Star. Then setting up her next goal of the Follies was so exciting — her being surrounded by the showgirl butterflies while she “negotiates” with Mr. Ziegfeld is so hilarious to me. That moment then justifies her decision to come out with the pillow under her dress and take her power back! I wanted the audience to be surprised by how Fanny would perform this number so I choreographed a very traditional Follies number with beautiful costumes, long lines and calm gestures so Fanny could come in and ruin it all in the most hilarious way thus making her a star!

VJM:  Ayodele, The Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat production number was an exuberant display of inventive choreography, at a fast tempo, cleanly performed, costumed in all silver attire very effectively, with some “gun-ography” to boot.  How did you choose the style and steps you did to make the number so exciting and pertinent to Fanny’s story?

Ayodele Casel:  Thank you. RTTT was a lot of fun to work on. I drew inspiration from famous tap dance duos, and the National Guard performances. I am in awe of their focus and precision. I also wanted to create a highly organized and fun frame around Fanny once she enters to take the lead. She becomes the conductor of these “soldiers”. It was also great to create a num  ber that included the entire dance ensemble and the lead of the show. As long as I live, I think I will always remember this choreography in my body. We rehearsed A LOT.                                            Interview: CHOREOGRAPHERS ELLENORE SCOTT & AYODELE CASEL GIVE FUNNY GIRL'S SAGA FLAIR, FUN & FINESSE  

VJM: All the production numbers contained many styles of dance, including acrobatics and aerial work. Obviously, the dancers had to be extremely versatile as well as excellent tappers. What were the auditions like, and your decisions based on, as to who to hire?

Ellenore Scott:  Auditions for this show are probably one of the more difficult ones! My audition combo has an array of different dance styles so I can assess where people’s strengths are! I also loved to hire dancers who really perform in auditions as if they are already onstage doing the show. I love dancers who commit to what they are doing. 

Ayodele Casel: These auditions require the full triple threat package. They MUST be able to do all styles really well and that can be challenging. As far as tap dancing is concerned, I make decisions based on who has good technique, and understands rhythm and phrasing. Vocabulary alone isn’t enough, dancers have to understand how to keep time, have clarity in their sound, and of course, confidence in their performance. I have loved sharing with everyone who has come in to audition what a great investment a little practice will provide to their confidence when they enter the audition room.

VJM:  And lastly, what are both of your plans in new projects to come, solo performances, or a new direction altogether?

Ellenore Scott:  Thanks for asking!  I just finished co-directing a show in New York City called “The Lonely Few” which just received a NYTimes Critic’s Pick! I will soon be choreographing the world premier of “Empire Records” a new musical at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey this summer. I am currently working on a new play that I will be co-creating and directing called, “Monster.” Lastly, an Off-Broadway show I choreographed here in NYC is transferring to Australia, Canada and London so I will be traveling to reopen “Titanique” there! You can follow me on instagram @helloellenore to stay connected to what I’m up to next!

Ayodele Casel:  I just premiered a 28-minute solo at The Joyce Theater to the improvised music of legends Max Roach and Cecil Taylor that I’ll be performing again later this year.  I have a few creative residencies for upcoming projects and am currently writing a theatrical piece that I began while I was a fellow at Radcliffe Institute for the Arts at Harvard University. That will most likely premiere at the end of the year. Announcements to follow!  

VJM:  I love all your answers. You each answered with clarity, thoughtfully and thoroughly, and I learned so much from your comments.  I do believe you have succeeded in every endeavor you mentioned here. I loved hearing about your backgrounds, especially Ellenore, having both parents as dancers, and Ayodele, your respect and admiration for one of my favorite performers, EVER, Gregory Hines.  Your work ethics are proved abundantly as the show unfolds, and your comments about the dancers and their joy in performing your work is blatantly obvious, watching the performance.  And I am sure we’ll be seeing more of Izaiah Montaque Harris, who really delivers a spectacular performance, in many more Broadway shows.

The original Broadway production starred Barbara Streisand and Sydney Chaplin and opened at the Winter Garden Theatre March 26, 1964. It played 17 previews and 1,348 previews before closing July 1, 1967, earning eight Tony Award nominations including Best Musical.  Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Bob Merrill, and Book by Isobel Lennart; Directed by Garson Kanin.

In this revival, Funny Girl stars Katerina McCrimmon as Fanny Brice, Melissa Manchester as Mrs. Brice, Stephen Mark Lucas as Nick Arnstein, Izaiah Montaque Harris as Eddie Ryan, Walter Coppage as Florenz Ziegfeld, Leah Platt as Emma and Mrs. Nadler, Cindy Chang as Mrs. Meeker, Eileen T’Kaye as Mrs. Strakosh, and David Foley, Jr. as Tom Keeley.

The Book has been updated by Harvey Fierstein based on the original and this production is Directed by Michael Mayer.

The wonderful, precise, effervescent Dancers include Lamont Brown and Ryan Lambert who are featured as the Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat Men, Kate E. Cook as Virginia, Julia Grondin as Bubbles, Jackson Grove and Rodney Thompson featured as the Cornet Men, Alex Hartman as Vera, Dot Kelly as Maude, Meghan Manning, Kathy Liu, Sami Murphy, Jordon Taylor and Sean Thompson as Paul.

Photos courtesy of Ayodele Casel, Ellenore Scott & Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Funny Girl opens at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts tonight, Tuesday, May 28 and continues through June 9, 2024.

For tickets:  Funny Girl Event Dates in Costa Mesa, CA

   
 

Funny Girl Event Dates in Costa Mesa, CA

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