Interview: Theatre Life with Debbie Allen and Vivian Nixon

By: Oct. 25, 2016
L-R- Debbie Allen and Vivian Nixon

One of the neat things about writing a column for Broadway World is that you get a chance to interview some folks whose work you've been enjoying and admiring for many years. One of today's subjects first came on my radar way back in 1980 with the Broadway revival of West Side Story. Debbie Allen played Anita in that production and her Her performance deservedly garnered her a Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk Award. A few years later she wowed me again playing the lead role in Sweet Charity, which resulted in yet another Tony Award nomination.

The stage hasn't been Ms. Allen's only home though. Some probably know her as Lydia Grant, the dance teacher from the TV series Fame as. Her work on that show resulted in a Golden Globe Award for acting and three Emmy Awards for her choreography. Ms. Allen hasn't disappeared from television. She can currently be seen in a recurring role on Grey's Anatomy where she serves as an executive producer.

Ms. Allen's stage work isn't over though.

With Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness, playing from October 27th through October 30th at the Kennedy Center, not only do you get to see Debbie Allen back onstage, you also get to see her dynamic work as a director, choreographer and co- writer.

One of the cast members in Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness knows Ms. Allen better than anyone else - her daughter Vivian Nixon. She is an accomplished performer in her own right. Her Broadway credits include Hot Feet, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Memphis.

The show features all original music by such giants as Stevie Wonder, James Ingram, Rickey Minor, and many others. All of these talents, some of which Ms. Allen has known for years and years.

As you will read, Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness has been in the works for a while, and who better to bring it to life than the multi-award-winning, actress, director, and choreographer Debbie Allen. The fact that her daughter Vivian Nixon and son are associated with the project makes it a real family affair..

My brief encounter with these two ladies came in the form of a phone interview while they were on a 15-minute rehearsal break in Los Angeles, right before they were to do a run through of the show. That's what I call multi-tasking. We discussed a variety of topics, lot in 15 minutes including Ms. Allen's experience working on the infamous Broadway musical Carrie. I can't thank Debbie Allen and Vivian Nixon enough for this interview and hope you all get a chance to see Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness. Debbie Allen and Vivian Nixon are living the theatre life and both are doing it with class and grace. Brava ladies!!

Debbie- Was there one specific incident or news story that prompted you to create Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness, or were there a number of different things that helped fuel your decision?

Yes, a number of things. I'm from Houston. I was a kid when Kennedy was killed and was shocked by that the black divide in schools in the south. The guy in the tower at University of Texas in 1966 that shot multiple pedestrians shocked me. When I moved to Los Angeles during Fame I saw plenty of violence, including the Rodney King incident. Dance is the universal playing field and changes lives. I was looking at the gun culture and was compelled to create. I've been working on it for over five years. Unfortunately, the gun culture keeps going so I keep rewriting the show.

Debbie Allen and the company of Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness. Photo courtesy of the production.

Debbie- The music in Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness features a pretty eclectic mix of works by some very famous, plus up-and-coming, composers. How did you go about choosing the music for the show?

It's all original music. Grammy Award winner James Ingram wrote a few pieces with me. My son loves music and I knew he could create the beats I wanted, including the title song. Stevie Wonder loved the show and his song glorifies women over the years. Rickey Minor, a dear friend over the years, created a film-like score for the show, which is one of the things he does so well.

Vivian- Knowing what your mom did for a living, did you know you were going to become a professional performer?

The arts have always been a part of my life. Although I enjoy other things like horseback riding, arts were always my favorite.

Vivian- As a dancer, what's it like working for your mom? Is it hard to separate the professional and personal side of things when rehearsals get intense?

When I was younger it was, but as I got older it became easier to separate the two.

Debbie- Can you please talk about your development process from idea to final product?

I did a bunch of workshops for the music and the dance, which is always helpful. The process is always a discovery and you always come out with your hands full.

Vivian- You were a part of a musical called Hot Feet which tried out here in DC before going to Broadway. Can you talk about your experience working on that show?

It was one of the luckiest experiences of my life. Maurice Hines saw me in school and asked me to audition. I went from dancing at Alvin Ailey to a potential Broadway lead. That show made me friends for life and is my greatest experience to date.

Vivian Nixon and the cast of Hot Feet. Photo by Paul Kolnick.

Debbie- I first came to know your work as a Broadway performer in West Side Story and Sweet Charity. In both cases, the original choreographers staged the productions. Can you please tell us what some of your fondest memories are from working with Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse and what did you learn as a dancer from both experiences?

They were two incredible experiences, but very different. Jerome Robbins called me Anita before I even got onstage for my audition.

Fosse was so precise. He was amazing and there was nobody like him. He allowed me to find my own Charity and not mimic Gwen Verdon who was still with us at the time.

Top- Josie de Guzman and Debbie Allen in West Side Story. Bottom- Debbie Allen at center in Sweet Charity.

Vivian- Can you please tell us a little bit about the Debbie Allen Dance Academy?

It is a nonprofit that specializes in bringing arts to the community. We offer programs for all ages, such as early bird programs for the teeniest ages, all the way up to classes for seniors. It's an epicenter for arts culture from out of the womb and onwards.

Debbie- Here's one I have to ask about because the show is so legendary. You were the choreographer for the musical Carrie.. There are plenty of stories about what happened to this show and why it opened and closed the same night on Broadway. What do you think was the biggest issue with Carrie ?

There were cultural identity issues. The fact that there was an English director who didn't understand American culture was the biggest problem, I think. The costumes were all wrong and we needed more time for the sets. It just didn't read when you have American kids dressed as Greeks.

Vivian- What do you want audiences to know about what they can expect when they come to see Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness?

Audiences can expect to be inspired by the story. It covers every aspect of urban life. Everyone can relate to the story. It's a wildly entertaining ride for all and runs the gamut of all dance and vocal styles, which is very indicative of our academy.

Special thanks to Brittany Laeger at the Kennedy Center for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.