21 February 2015

Little Dancer, Inspired by Degas Sculpture, Premieres at Kennedy Center, 2

[I recently posted a collection of three Washington Post articles on the Kennedy Center première of a new musical, Little Dancer, inspired by the famous wax sculpture by Edgar Degas.  The Post’s extensive coverage of this new musical provides an inside glimpse at how a new musical is mounted, what goes into the production, and how it’s promoted and scheduled for viewing.  I’ve chosen a half dozen pieces from the paper to present on ROT because I think the blog’s readers would be interested in this phenomenon.  The first three articles—an examination of star Boyd Gaines’s efforts to develop the character of artist Degas, the review of the art exhibit built around the original statue planned to coincide with the opening, and the review of the musical’s presentation—were posted a few days ago.  (I urge readers to go back and read the first installment, before or after reading the selections here.)  Below are three other articles discussing the preview-performance practice, the treatment of the female characters in the play, and how set designer Beowulf Boritt was inspired by Degas paintings.]

by Rebecca Ritzel

[This article was first published in the “Style” section of the Washington Post on 19 November.]

There’s a splashy party planned in the Kennedy Center’s upstairs atrium Thursday to celebrate opening night for “Little Dancer.” That news may come as a surprise to anyone who has already seen a performance of the musical’s world premiere, noticed advertisements or read glowing endorsements of the show on social media.

There have been no formal reviews of the musical about artist Edgar Degas and his ballerina muse because the production is still not officially “open.”

Since Oct. 25, the cast has been performing nightly in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. But technically, the show is in “previews” – an extended period during which the creative team continues to make changes and the press is not allowed to attend. (Post theater critic Peter Marks’s review will appear Thursday night online and Friday in print.) The musical will close on Nov. 30 after just 10 days of official performances to allow the Kennedy Center plenty of time to prepare for holiday programming.

Ticket prices for “Little Dancer” range from $65 to $120.

While a month of previews is typical before a show opens in New York, the lag time between “Little Dancer’s” first performance and its opening is a record in Washington for an “out-of-town tryout,” a commercial production of a show with Broadway aspirations.

Max Woodward, the Kennedy Center’s longtime vice president for theater programming, said director and choreographer Susan Stroman and her creative team told him upfront that they were starting from scratch, and they made their decision to come to Washington only after he agreed to an extended preview period.

“This is the longest we’ve ever had,” Woodward said. “I don’t think it’s a trend.”

And yet, long preview periods could become the new normal as unions continue to differentiate between pre- and post-opening rehearsals and producers keep Washington on the list of just five cities in North America that can support a pre-Broadway run.

The other four, according to a panel of producers who spoke at a recent American Theatre Critics Association conference, are Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto. Each city has its pluses and minuses: Chicago offers a tax break, Toronto offers slots on a subscription series and D.C. offers willing partners at the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre, which has comparable dimensions to a Broadway house.

Kristin Caskey, president of Fox Theatricals, a co-producer on the D.C.-launched musical “If/Then,” blames rehearsal logistics for the extended previews. With two shows on most Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and an off-day on Monday, creative teams have just three weekdays to tweak the show and implement changes in rehearsals. Three or four sets of changes are reasonable for a new musical, said Caskey. “So, basically, that puts you at 31/2 weeks right there.”

The rehearsal rules are set by Actors’ Equity Association, the union that negotiates Broadway contracts for the Kennedy Center and shows like “If/Then” at the National. According to Equity, the actors can initially rehearse for 81/2 hours a day, counting breaks.

The week before the first public performance, known as tech week, that work period extends to 12 hours, with up to 10 spent rehearsing. After the first public performances, the total working hours for performances and rehearsals is capped at 10. But once the show is finally open, actors can only rehearse for a total of eight hours per week.

As recently as Friday, the “Little Dancer” cast was called for five hours before its evening show. Cast members have needed the extra rehearsal time, Woodward said. More music has been added, and some dance numbers have been cut.

It is possible, however, to get a new musical off the ground in fewer previews than the Kennedy Center has allowed. “If/Then,” began previews on Nov. 4 of last year and opened on Nov. 19. In Chicago this year, Sting’s musical ran in previews for 13 days. (“The Last Ship” has since opened on Broadway.)

The only recent new musical that appears to rival “Little Dancer” when it comes to lengthy out-of-town previews is “Aladdin,” which ran for 17 days last year before opening in Toronto.

On Dec. 9, previews begin in Arlington for another regional theater musical with Broadway aspirations: singer Sheryl Crow’s adaptation of the Barry Levinson film “Diner.” Actors will be paid less because they are not working on a Broadway contract, and the Signature Theatre’s agreement with Equity allows for 50-hour workweeks once performances begin, making no distinction between before and after the Dec. 27 press opening.

What the runs of “Diner” and “Little Dancer” have in common – besides the hope of good things to come – is a dilemma that puts them at odds with a Helen Hayes Award regulation requiring voters to see a show during the first half of its run. In Toronto, Broadway tryout producers feel strongly that such advanced viewing for award voters is not appropriate.

“We want them to see a show that is set and finished, like the press,” said John Karastamatis, a spokesman for Mirvish Productions. Signature Theatre concurs and will also not allow Helen Hayes voters to see previews.

But the Kennedy Center appears to have forgone a polished production in favor of buzz from the theater community, and that wager may have worked.

“Word of mouth has been very, very good for us,” Woodward said.

Regardless of whether Signature successfully launches “Diner” to Broadway, the theater has other springtime plans about which to be excited. On March 30, celebrated director James E. Lapine will come to town to accept the theater’s sixth annual Sondheim Award at a black-tie gala to be held at the Italian Embassy. Lapine has been at the helm of the original productions of “Into the Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and many other musicals. He is also the screenwriter of the forthcoming “Into the Woods” film.

“James has been my good friend and collaborator over the course of 32 years, and it’s about time I thanked him ostentatiously,” Sondheim said in a statement.

In the District, the Shakespeare Theatre Company – with its rush ticket promotions and $35-and-under cheap seats – has long been one of the most accessible venues in the District. Monday, the theater announced it will open its doors even further by offering 1,000 no-cost “Free Will” tickets to every show. Although some tickets will be distributed to specific “community partners,” an average allotment of 150 to 200 seats will be available every Monday at noon and distributed in person, online and over the phone.

[Ritzel is a freelance writer.]

*  *  *  *
by Sarah Kaufman

[The following piece appeared in the “Style” section of the Washington Post on 24 November.]

For all its glamour and luxury, the Belle Époque had an ugly side. The decorative arts and haute cuisine were flourishing in Paris in the late 19th century, but the era’s booming opportunities did not extend to its slums – nor to the majority of Frenchwomen.

The narrowness of women’s lives at that time gets expansive treatment in Susan Stroman’s new ballet musical, “Little Dancer.” In unraveling the back story of the once-scandalous sculpture by Edgar Degas, titled “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” director-choreographer Stroman, collaborating with writer-lyricist Lynn Ahrens, fills this production with strong-willed and outspoken women of all ages.

These are sharply drawn characters, witty and wisecracking and sometimes utter messes. They evoke the little-known wretchedness of an age celebrated for its beauty. But in the optimistic and ultimately uplifting view of this show, they are survivors.

As Broadway veterans, Stroman and Ahrens are a couple of survivors themselves, and in “Little Dancer” they betray a bit of a rebellious touch. They are unafraid to address a poetical and feminized subject – the ballet world – and make it appropriately woman-centered. In so doing, they give voice to many who have gone through history unnoticed and unsung. When was the last time laundresses, embittered alcoholic single moms and hard-working ballerinas got to belt out their dreams?

There are so many ways in which “Little Dancer,” finishing its world-premiere run at the Kennedy Center this week, is a corker. It features the ravishing Tiler Peck of New York City Ballet as Degas’s young model, Marie van Goethem, for one thing. The clear, open style of her dancing is a marvel, particularly the way she lingers at the height of her movements, conveying all the power and ease, authority and transcendence of a great star.

Then there’s the stagecraft, which, while relatively simple (no explosions, no outsize costuming, no flying effects), is transporting and magical. The songs, the music by Stephen Flaherty: I could go on. But one of the most striking elements of this show, and the least talked-about, is the wide lens it focuses on women’s existence in a society where they were easily swept into the gutter.

Paris of 1881, when “Little Dancer” takes place, was bracing itself against the onrush of modernity. Grim realities – poverty, child labor, girl sex slaves – were best ignored. Nothing epitomizes this better than the firestorm of ire Degas ignited when he exhibited his sculpture, daring to place a lowlife and potential strumpet on a pedestal.

In Degas’s day, as polite society fretted over the moral decay it saw in so many artists, ballet wasn’t seen as a high-minded pursuit. Degas stepped on a lot of toes in bestowing his snub-nosed adolescent with an insolent grandeur.

He wasn’t the only rebel, of course. That same year, a feminist named Hubertine Auclert published La Citoyenne, France’s first suffragist newspaper. Going beyond voting rights, La Citoyenne also looked at how women were treated in primitive cultures across the world and argued that Frenchwomen’s lives were not always better.

Auclert had a point. Rich wives may have had comforts, but they were essentially decorative property, without a voice. And poor women stayed poor, or got poorer.

In “Little Dancer,” the art of ballet becomes a cruel example of how civilization and oppression were entwined. A delight for the audience, it was often harsh behind the scenes. Ballet was a last resort for poor girls, who in some cases were a step away from streetwalking. If a dancer was not already a prostitute, she had a good chance of becoming one. Leering male patrons, such as the top-hatted gents in so many of Degas’s ballet paintings, haunted the Paris Opera Ballet’s hallways.

This hard lot was surely on Degas’s mind as he created his figure in wax, with her tough, muscular neck, strong spine and faraway gaze.

In fact, the real-life Marie van Goethem didn’t have much of a future. Her older sister was a prostitute. Her widowed mother was an alcoholic washwoman. Marie’s little sister eventually had a dance career, but as for Marie? She made it into the Paris Opera’s lowest rank, then vanished from history.

Stroman crafts a dream ballet to propose some possibilities about what happened to Marie. We can make our own guesses from the role models around her throughout the show. There is Marie’s older sister, whose fortunes rise and fall with the attentions of her johns. There are impoverished laundresses like her mother. There’s a ballet teacher with warmth but no power in the company’s male hierarchy; there’s a well-married and overbearing dance mom. Degas has an elderly, humpbacked, maltreated maid, and there are other young ballerinas, all but pushed by company officials into the arms of wealthy men. A grown-up version of Marie serves as a narrator, looking back on her youth, although we never discover what kind of life she grew into.

There is but one independent, self-supporting ray of hope: painter Mary Cassatt, who was Degas’s friend in real life. (She was also a noted clotheshorse, and a character ideally gift-wrapped for costume designer William Ivey Long, who dresses her as if she’s just unpacked the fashions of Paris’s top designers.)

At other key points in “Little Dancer,” Stroman makes the bold, brave choice to tell the story in dance terms. She lets movement speak what the characters – who are mostly unschooled and unsophisticated – do not have the words to express. Peck’s first solo tells us about the lighthearted joy and freedom that dancing brings to Marie; these notes only deepen and become more urgent as the story proceeds.

In the song “Laundry,” Marie’s mother and her laundress co-workers muse in the wash house about how they, too, once had dreams like Marie does, and they slip into a ballet-style reverie of roughened, weighted, wistful grace.

“C’est le ballet,” as the recurring song by that title makes clear with its quarrelsome, keening notes, takes on a sardonic meaning, along the lines of “business as usual.” The business of hustling for money, that is. This hasn’t changed much. Nowadays, donors/sponsors are a critical force in ballet companies. Some company Web sites and printed programs list who each dancer is “sponsored by,” turning an artist into a billboard for a benefactor’s name. Dancers are expected to turn up and schmooze at parties for funders; I’ve even heard of company members being required to serve tables at donor dinners. No matter how it’s framed, this is all in the name of easing money out of bulging wallets.

“Dancers are determined and never quit,” sing Marie and her younger sister, played by Sophia Anne Caruso with the magnetism of a future CEO tucked into a little girl’s body.

It’s all so ineffably poignant. Marie’s harshest treatment is dealt by the ballet company she loves – and by her own mother. Degas’s attentions, artistic and paternal, seem to do Marie little good in her own lifetime.

Yet through him, she left a mark for posterity. And in the musical about her life, others like her get to make a mark, too. They give us a lot to think about.

[Sarah Kaufman is the dance critic for the Washington Post.]

*  *  *  *
by Rebecca Ritzel

[This article was originally published in the “Backstage” column of the “Style” section of the Washington Post on 26 November.]

In Edgar Degas’s most famous paintings set in a dance studio, three two-story windows spill light into an otherwise gray room where ballerinas in white tulle stretch and strike balances before a ballet master. There’s often a violinist in a corner, or a worried stage mother preening on the sidelines. The French impressionist would continue to paint that scene for decades, even after that studio burned down and the Paris Opera relocated to the Palais Garnier. Like Degas, set designer Beowulf Boritt was deeply attached to those windows, and when he was charged by director Susan Stroman with creating the sets for the new musical “Little Dancer,” there was never even a discussion or a question.

They would replicate those windows onstage.

More than a dozen Degas paintings and sketches – from big-picture settings to scraps of background wallpaper – are mirrored in the musical. Nearly all are works Boritt saw in person during the more than two years he spent working on his designs for “Little Dancer.” (The show closes Sunday at the Kennedy Center; limited tickets are available.)

“Every scene in the play is a sketch that he could have done,” Boritt said. “I had taken a course on Impressionism in college, but I actually spent the first three or four months trying to learn more about him. I looked at what was shown in the paintings and what we wanted to copy.”

In every city where he worked, he would visit museums and take pictures of the Degas works, covertly if necessary. And Boritt, 44, has worked in many cities. The son of an opera singer and history professor who weren’t worried about burdening their child with a literary name, he’s away from his New York base working on high-profile shows about three months a year.

He designed the current touring productions “Annie,” “Rock of Ages” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which opens at the Kennedy Center Dec. 16. Other recent projects include “Chaplin” in St. Petersburg, which allowed for a side trip to the Hermitage, and the West End production of “The Scottsboro Boys,” his first collaboration with Stroman, dating back to a 2010 off-Broadway production.

“He is a true artist with the heart of a storyteller,” Stroman said via e-mail this week. “I knew that was exactly who we needed to bring the world of Degas and ‘Little Dancer’ to life.”

A few of the many Degas works featured in the show include his paintings of laundresses washing and ironing, sketches of debonair men with dubious intentions lurking backstage at the ballet and “The Absinthe Drinker.” (Although historians know the despondent woman in this painting is actually an actress friend of the artist’s, in the musical she’s the Little Dancer’s alcoholic mother.)

Not all of Boritt’s projects require museum-quality replications. His big break came a decade ago, when “Putnam County Spelling Bee” became a surprise hit. Now on Broadway, Boritt’s work is featured in the revival of the Bernstein musical “On the Town,” with sets that are more simplistic than those in “Little Dancer” but much more vibrant. His central idea was to focus on the silhouettes of the Manhattan skyline and create images that remind theatergoers of how shiny and big New York must have looked to sailors docking on the East River.

“These guys were supposed to be a bunch of hayseeds who show up in New York for the first time,” Boritt said of the three sailors who look for love onshore in the musical. “It’s a sleek, magical place to them.”

The link between the two shows, besides the designer, is their ballerina stars: New York City Ballet principals Tiler Peck in “Little Dancer” and Megan Fairchild in “On the Town.” And therein lies a special challenge. The average Broadway or touring-show stage floor is a maze of grooves and tracks to aid in moving scenery. Going up on pointe with a toe stuck in the middle of a track would be disastrous at worst and less than pretty at best.

For “On the Town,” Fairchild ended up deciding to dance in rubberized pointe shoes, which limits her mobility slightly, but is safer, and also allowed for Boritt and his team to use a shinier, more reflective flooring.

For “Little Dancer,” though, Boritt challenged himself to use as few tracks as possible. The major set pieces are five giant rotating panels kept off to the sides, and the flooring is marley vinyl, buffed and treated daily with a coating called “Slip No More.” The major obstacle that Peck and the other ballerinas must avoid is the trap door at center stage, “We worked forever trying to make that as smooth as it could be,” Boritt said. “There are still slight cracks, but Tiler learned to dance around it.”

That trap door allows for a replica of the Little Dancer and a pedestal for Peck to stand on to be raised and lowered. The musical’s finale finds her at center stage, re-creating a scene you can see every day the National Gallery, where tourists admire Degas’s original statue. Marie van Goethem, Degas’s real life model, never became a star dancer, but she’s inspired many a museum-goer to hold her shoulders back just a little straighter.

“That statue is so stunningly beautiful,” Boritt said. “In all likelihood, [Marie] didn’t come to a very happy end. I’d like to think that maybe we are giving her a happier afterlife, because she’s become such a symbol.”

[This concludes my series of Washington Post reports on the new musical Little Dancer.  Should the Post run more informative coverage of the play and its production, I’ll be sure to bring it to the attention of ROTters.  I do have in reserve the New York Times’s review of the première, but I’m holding it in reserve against the possibility that Little Dancer makes it to a Broadway stage.  In that event, I’ll run some of the New York reviews of the new play and I’ll include the Times’s review of the Kennedy Center pre-Broadway presentation as part of that package.  I expect that’ll be an interesting comparison if it comes about.]

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