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By Sylviane Gold
Encores! expands into the steamy season to showcase off-Broadway revivals.
Encores! revivals like Finian’s Rainbow, above, have transferred to Broadway.
Photo: Joan Marcus, Courtesy Encores!
It reads like an honor roll of contemporary Broadway choreographers: Rob Ashford, Andy Blankenbuehler, Warren Carlyle, Kathleen Marshall, Casey Nicholaw, Sergio Trujillo. But it’s a list—a partial one at that—of dancemakers who have plied their art at Encores!. And now that roster is set to grow longer, with the series expanding into the summertime and into the realm of off-Broadway.
Every year since it began in 1994, Encores! has blown the dust off three or four vintage Broadway musicals with meticulous, note-for-note, semi-staged productions that have acquired a devoted, perhaps even fanatic following. Occasionally, an Encores! show will outlive its intended four-day stay at New York’s City Center to move on to a longer run on Broadway—like Chicago, Wonderful Town, and Finian’s Rainbow, among others. Far more regularly, an Encores! production will propel a new or newish choreographer into the next phase of his or her career.
“My first solo outing as a choreographer in New York was Call Me Madam at Encores!,” says Tony winner Kathleen Marshall (who also won a Dance Magazine Award in 2011). She returns this month to direct and choreograph the 1978 off-Broadway hit I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road for Encores! Off-Center, as the new summer series is called. “I had done some regional things, but it was my first time putting any of my choreography in front of a New York audience. And Encores! is such an industry event that it can really launch you.”
Marshall, who later helped run Encores! as its director-in-residence, sees the series as “an incredible showcase.” To begin with, the older musicals that provide the series’ bread and butter tend to include extended dance numbers, allowing a choreographer lots of room to make an impression. In addition, she says, “There aren’t a lot of opportunities to do musicals in New York except for Broadway and off-Broadway. So now Encores! is this new form—it has been able to feature on-the-rise choreographers and give them an opportunity to really shine.”
Matching shows with choreographers can be tricky, she notes. As in any musical, an Encores! choreographer has to mesh well with both the director and the material. But in addition, Marshall says, “When you do a show at Encores! you’re following in somebody else’s footprints, then making it your own. So you look for people who can do both.”
Whatever the skills choreographers bring to Encores!, they depart with even more. “One of the challenges is that you have to use the original arrangements and orchestrations,” Marshall says, “unlike when you do a new Broadway production. It’s, ‘Here’s what the music is,’ and you have to figure out how best to use it.”
The other element that augments a choreographer’s toolbox is the tightly compressed rehearsal period of 10 days. “You have to really be prepared before you start rehearsals,” she says. “You kind of have to take your first instinct and go. You don’t have a lot of time to go back and rethink or readjust.”
With Off-Center, Encores! will give choreographers even more to worry about. Off-Broadway theaters often have tiny stages and seating for 300; City Center can accommodate a full orchestra and chorus onstage and more than 2,000 spectators. Musicals intended for the first are necessarily limited to small casts, spare instrumentation, and minimal dance. But Marshall isn’t worried. “It’s a different event,” she says. “You know that it is not trying to compete with the size and spectacle of the big shows during the regular Encores! season.”
In any case, the first Encores! Off-Center offering skirts the issue—it’s the legendary, large-scale 1937 show The Cradle Will Rock, running July 10–13 with choreography by Chase Brock. It will be followed on July 17 by a one-time presentation of Violet, by Off-Center artistic director Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley, with Sutton Foster in the title role. Marshall closes out the series July 24–27 with I’m Getting My Act Together.
The musical, inspired by what was then called “women’s lib,” centers on a singer rethinking her life and her relationships. “It’s interesting to explore a show that really, really hit a nerve when it came out,” Marshall says. “It was even a bit divisive at the time.”
With a small onstage band and only five characters, she concedes, “There’s not going to be a lot of choreography. It’s not that kind of show.” Why take it on? Marshall doesn’t hesitate for even a nanosecond. “I love it,” she says. “I love the music. I saw the original off-Broadway and I wore out my cast album.”
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.