On the Phone With Randy Skinner

On the Phone With Randy Skinner

Director/choreographer Randy Skinner

Randy Skinner, director/choreographer of Dames at Sea on Broadway (previews began Sept. 24 for an Oct. 22 opening night), has been nominated for the Tony Award for Best Choreographer three times: Ain’t Broadway Grand (1993), 42nd Street (revival, 2001) and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (2009). Dames may finally see him sail away with the prize. Here he talks about the show, his approach to dance, what inspires him and his love affair with movie musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

As it happened, on the night of our interview, Turner Classic Movies showed MGM’s Born to Dance from 1936. After talking to Skinner, I watched the movie with new eyes, spellbound as his beloved Eleanor Parker danced her way into James Stewart’s heart and arms. Skinner’s right: They don’t make movies (or dancers) like that any more. And that goes for Skinner, too.

Francis Lewis: Why did you want to take on this project?

Randy Skinner: I first discovered Dames in 1973 when I was at Ohio State University. It has been a big part of my life. Even the first time I did it back then, I thought, “Wow, this is really a very clever show and it’s so full of wit and humor.” And, of course, the score: It is such a wonderfully tuneful score. The interesting thing about Dames, why I’m drawn to it and want to revisit it, is to see again if people will respond to a show that is an ensemble piece. And it’s never played Broadway. And with economics the way they are … I’ve been thinking these last few years: What is out there that would allow me to do the kind of dancing that I love so much but is not a huge show for cost effectiveness. Dames has always been in the back of my mind. Everyone in the theater world knows that it’s the show that made Bernadette Peters a star. But I like the fact that a lot of people who have not seen the show want to see the show. It’s a lot of fun working on a show that feels new and fresh even though the original was 45 years ago.

FL: So, you’re an audience’s best friend for bringing the show back, but you’re also a producer’s best friend because you’ve very much aware of the bottom line.

RS: Also we’re in the perfect theatre, the Helen Hayes. I remember talking to [director/choreographer] Gower Champion about [finding the right theater for a show]. Today, the way real estate is, you often don’t know what theater you’re going to get. Sometimes a great show in the wrong theater has a hard time. I feel so lucky that the Helen Hayes became available. It worked out in our favor. I feel that everything has come together to support the size of our show and that it will explode off that stage which is so intimate.

FL: You brought up Gower Champion’s name just now. What did you learn from him when you were his dance assistant on 42nd Street in 1980?

RS: I only had that rehearsal period with him. We were going to go on and do another show together, but, of course, that didn’t happen [Champion died just hours before 42nd Street’s opening night]. Working for him and [42nd Street’s producer] David Merrick was really an education you couldn’t buy. I learned so much about the business aspect from David. I am very conscious about budgets, and that’s why producers like working with me because I truly understand [the business side of show business]. I think things through very carefully so we don’t have waste. Often budgets skyrocket and money is spent that didn’t have to be, if things had been thought through. From Gower, I learned about shaping the show and the overall arc of what makes a great musical. Beginning, middle and end. How you place the numbers. How each number has its own individual arc. That was a really wonderful thing to experience: Watching a show the size of 42nd Street take shape. With Dames, we don’t really have to worry about that because the show is written and has proved itself. Rehearsing the show keeps reminding me how well constructed it is, from beginning to end. It’s really well thought out and put together.

FL: Is tap the major dance motif in Dames?

RS: We have every kind of dance in the show. Dames has a lot of tap in it, but what really makes it different is we have a lot of individual tapping going on because there are just six people in the cast. What I love about Dames is you’re really seeing all six of these of these people do what I call principal dancing. And that’s reminiscent of movie musicals. That to me is what the movies were about. You have big ensembles, of course, but when you study MGM, RKO and, of course, Warner Brothers musicals—Dames is based on particularly three Warner movies: 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade—the background people are always in motion, but the leads are really carrying the dance numbers. And that’s what I really love about Dames at Sea. You see six people step forward and do that kind of sophisticated dancing, whether it is ballroom or tapping. This is going to be such fun for an audience to see six actors truly, truly doing the kinds of rhythms I’m giving them and the sophistication of the steps and the patterns that they’re carrying.

FL: Do you want to take tap forward in Dames? Are you coming up with new things, discovering new things that you can bring to tap?

RS: Whenever I’ve done a show, no matter what era or period it was in, because I’m a well-trained tapper, I’ve always found places where there would be tap numbers. In Dames, we’ve really blown out the tap numbers. They’ve become much more involved, with much more extensive dance arrangements. That’s going to be a surprise. For people who know the show really well, there are going to be quite a few surprises. As long as I’m making good choices. There’s nothing worse than trying to do something to an older show that doesn’t work. Putting twists on a show, and it backfires. You have to be very careful when you take an old show that has worked really, really well. This will be the first time Dames will be heard in New York with an orchestra! Instead of two pianos.

FL: Can you tell me something about your process? Is most of your work done in your head or in the rehearsal room?

RS: A lot of my colleagues go into a studio way up front and map everything out with assistants. On a big musical, some of that does need to be done just because of the time restraints. But I tend to do a lot of it just on my own. I’m somebody who still dances a lot, so I’m very active. I am very fortunate that I have danced many, many years but I’ve been injury-free. I don’t have pins in my legs like so many of my friends do. And a lot of my friends have gone through joint replacements and all sorts of things. Since I still dance a lot, I often find myself in a studio on my own or in my apartment and I can knock things out. And then I bring them into the rehearsal room. Often my assistants are really learning the show right along with the kids who are in the show. Everyone is learning together. I do a lot of individual work, but then I keep very odd hours. I get creative at 3 in the morning. It’s a little hard to have your assistants meet you at 3 in the morning! I tend to be a very late-nighter. And that’s when I’m sitting in my living room playing the music or just letting it come to me in my head. And I get up and try things and make notations. That’s kind of how I do it. I still create every step. That’s always been my goal: to come in and actually demonstrate every single step. Someday I’m going to have to let go of that, though.

FL: From the YouTube videos I’ve seen of you in rehearsal, you’re very nimble on your feet.

RS: It’s inspiring when they see an older person in front of them doing what you’re asking them to do. If I can do it, and you’re 30 years younger, you can do it, too. It sets the bar on a high level, which I find exciting. There’s such energy when you have your leader up on his feet in front dancing. It makes sparks.

FL: Was Dames a difficult show to cast?

RS: It’s extremely difficult to cast when you’re demanding this level of dancing. A show like Dames requires a real period feel and you have the ballroom element, the partnering and the jazz and you’re asking that level of tap. It’s the level of tap that’s hard. You’ve got really great hoofers out there. They’re extremely good tap dancers, but if they haven’t had a lot of ballet or jazz training, then it’s hard to get them to do the other forms of dancing. I always tell the kids, particularly when I’m teaching in the universities, when they’re taking classes they owe it to themselves to get to a certain level of tap because they don’t want to get [booted] from an audition because they can’t do a time step or a shuffle. That’s just stupid to limit yourself. When you’re asking for what I call “movie tapping”—that Fred and Ginger, Eleanor Powell, Gene Kelly level of tapping—that’s when the casting can get a little difficult. I call it the MGM triple-threat dancer: When all those people back there went effortlessly from tap to ballroom to jazz. Dancing was their life. Look at those movies. They were not only dancing for their jobs, but they were dancing in real life, partnering, holding each other. We don’t have that world. It’s totally gone. So when you ask people to come together and partner, unless they’re a ballet dancer and have gone through that kind of training, you often have to teach them how to hold somebody and how to guide a girl across the floor.

When you’re doing a period show like Dames, which is set in 1933, there’s a look to it, there’s a flavor to the moment. Often you’ll have someone come in to audition and you’ll go, you’re too contemporary. They just don’t get it; they don’t get the feel of it. But we have six people that are so terrific at this. First of all, they love the material; they love the era that it comes from. I don’t have to tell them to go home and do research. They watch the movies. Eloise Kropp who’s playing Ruby told me, “My inspiration is Eleanor Powell.” “That’s why you’re here,” I said! The minute she walked into the room and started dancing, I saw a quality about her. She was new to me, but I thought, “This girl gets this, she really understands this kind of dancing and where this dancing comes from.” I can only come up with things if I have people who can do what I have in my head. By gosh, I have them.

The dames of Dames at Sea (left to right): Lesli Margherita, Eloise Kropp and Mara Davi. (Nathan Johnson, 2015)

FL: It sounds like Dames will provide a missing element on Broadway. Hamilton has hip-hop, An American in Paris has ballet, Chicago has jazz. But Dames will bring something that’s been missing for a while.

RS: It’s that breath of fresh air that lifts the spirits and puts that smile on your face. People just love tapping. It is the only art form besides flamenco that is both visual and auditory. That’s why people responded to drums in the big band era. Drums were the first instruments in the history of music. I’ve always gone under the assumption that that’s what made those big bands take off. Those drummers. Krupa and Buddy Rich. A lot of it is just that inherent excitement you get when you hear drums. Well, that’s what tapping is. Good tap dancing lifts you because of the rhythms you’re hearing. My tapping is based on how I was trained and my love of the great tappers: Fred and Gene, Eleanor and Ann Miller. They took tap dancing and they moved with it. We have wonderful people who do amazing things with their feet, but it might be more in one place. Rhythm tapping might be a little more centrally located so you’re not covering a lot of ground. What you’re doing is incredible footwork. But a lot of my dancing covers so much territory. We do so much turning with it, so that an audience is not only seeing the feet fly and make all those amazing sounds, it’s also seeing them cover some 14 feet of space while they’re doing it. And that’s reminiscent of the film world because, if you look at the old Fred and Ginger movies, they’re not only making these sounds and rhythms but they’re partnering each other while they’re doing it. They’re all over the place. In the old days, the camera stayed still on the full figure and the dancers did the movement. Now, we’re quite the opposite. The camera is moving. And, of course, we’re in an era where there are so many edits because I think people don’t trust stillness. But there’s nothing better than stillness, and the audience will be riveted by it, if it’s done well. I know it’s true because people wouldn’t watch the old movies. There wouldn’t be Turner Classic Movies and all the other channels showing them. The movie and television world is all about profit, so if something’s not making money, it’s yanked right away. So, obviously, people love this stuff. You just have to trust that an audience will sit still and watch something really good and done well.

FL: What, other than vintage movies, inspires you?

RS: When I really want to rev myself up, I either go to the ballet, see an opera, watch a really good sporting event or go to a really good play. You’re watching people who technically are at the top of their fields. I always say that pop culture is where mediocrity can rise to the top and stay there forever and brilliance can go undetected for a lifetime. You have no control over pop culture. It’s the flavor of the month. When I approach my work, I really try to go back to the roots of classicism. That’s how I rev myself: I go back to the roots. I have such a love for the people that I got to rub elbows with in my younger days, with Ginger and Ann Miller and Gower and Marge Champion. I worked with Cyd Charisse at one point. They all sat me down, I was in my 20s then, and they all said, “You have to carry this on for us.” Everyone to a T gave me that speech by looking me in the eye. “We know you love this, we can see it, we see it in your face, we see how you light up when we do this kind of dancing, and we want you to take our legacy and keep putting it out there in the world.” I think that’s why it was meant to be, why I got to work with all of them.

Dames at Sea, Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St., 212.239.6200, damesatseabroadway.com