BWW Interview: Choreographer JoAnn M Hunter Talks JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT
JoAnn M Hunter has choreographed for Broadway and West End shows like School of Rock, Disaster and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. Her current project is the London Palladium revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, starring Jac Yarrow, Jason Donovan and Sheridan Smith.
What was the first musical you saw that inspired you?
The first professional show that I saw was the national tour of A Chorus Line that came through my home state of Rhode Island. I remember thinking how I wanted to be on "that line." To be one of them, telling a story while dancing and singing. That's all I know how to do.
Where did you train?
I grew up in Rhode Island, where I was lucky enough to have the most incredible mentor, Nancy LeFebvre DiCicco. She exposed me to all styles of dance. She did this by bringing in teachers from all over the country to teach masterclasses for her students. I then received a scholarship to study in NYC between my junior and senior year of high school. Needless to say I never went back home. I fell in love with the city - it was where I felt I belonged.
What was your first professional job?
My first professional job was at a theme park called Opryland USA. I met this choreographer named Jean Whittaker, who is still a friend to this day. At this particular theme park, we would do four shows a day - all live singing, live music. It was such a great training ground for me in professionalism and continuity. Then I moved back to NYC and booked the national tour of West Side Story with Jerome Robbins. It does not get any better than that.
When did you decide to transition to choreographing, and was that an easy leap to make?
I'm not sure if I decided or it was possibly a trajectory in my career that I was unaware of. By that I mean I had tunnel vision - I just wanted to perform. I was an associate choreographer on four Broadway shows that I loved being a part of in that way. It was others in my life who said to me that I should choreograph.
I wasn't sure - it scared the ... out of me. I then had a terrible accident, which put me out of commission for almost a year. It was during that period that life changed course. I think I resisted for a bit, but now here I am.
What was it like working with the young cast on School of Rock?
Hard! But I do like working with young people - I find them so invigorating. Watching young kids come to life, finding joy in what they are doing...it's thrilling. I really don't treat them differently from adults, except I do try to NOT swear as much. I speak to them as I would older actors - I think they rise to the occasion when you do.
You're back on another Andrew Lloyd Webber show now - what is it about his work that you particularly enjoy?
Melody. ALW is a huge part of contemporary musical theatre. His music is melodic, storytelling. And he makes me laugh.
Had you seen past versions of Joseph, and what new element did you want to bring to the show?
I saw a production of Joseph on Broadway about 25 years ago. I can honestly say I do not remember it. I approach everything I do as a brand-new piece of material. So for me, I loved not knowing the show prior. I had not one preconceived thought about Joseph. It was thrilling to be able to create with Laurence Connor, our director, a new version, a fresh take on this beloved show.
How would you describe your style of movement in the show?
Oh my, well this show allows for so many styles. Many of the songs have a pastiche quality to them, which allows me so much freedom.
There's a lot of story to convey quickly (and different locations etc.) - is that a challenge?
Yes, there is. And all sung. It's tricky, for the show must continue to move. The music doesn't stop, so the show can't. Transitions are key. Our set, designed by Morgan Large, is quite beautiful. It's a wide open space, and filling it, keeping it flowing, has been a challenge.
How have you found it working with this cast?
Jac is a joy, Jason is a dream, and Sheridan is a rock star. Three leads who conduct themselves with grace, professionalism, kindness, and willingness. That's what leaders in a cast should do, and they do it in spades! I've enjoyed every second I've spent with them.
Are you enjoying working in London, and is it particularly special being in the Palladium?
I do love London. I love a big city. I love being surrounded by so much culture and diversity. The Palladium is spectacular. What a beautiful theatre, and I'm honoured to be able to enter that building.
After this, which other shows would you love to work on, or people to collaborate with?
Oh my goodness. There are so many brilliant shows out there, but in all honestly, I prefer working on new pieces. Taking a blank slate and filling it with ideas, movement, is such a challenge, but it's what gets my blood flowing. Years ago, I saw a production of The Audience here in London and then again on Broadway. I would love to be a room with Mr Stephen Daldry. His work, his vision on that show - I was mesmerised.
Which other choreographers do you admire?
My greatest inspiration is Jerome Robbins. I had the honour to work with Jerry twice in my life. There is no other to me. He was a genius - difficult, but a genius. His use of dance to tell a story is unparalleled.
What advice would you give to someone else looking to choreograph?
Study with as many creators you can get in the room with.... and listen. Then get on your feet.
Finally, why should people come see this new production of Joseph?
Well, it is so loved, and I do understand why. The music, the lyrics - I mean, it's fantastic. This particular production is very special. We've created a new way of telling the story of Joseph while staying true to its story. The show is full of joy and laughs. It feels like a rock concert with heart. And Sheridan Smith, she will knock your socks off!
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium until 7 September
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton