'Gotta Dance': Who decided a group of seniors had to dance hip-hop?

Catching up with the new musical "Gotta Dance, with a senior cast of dancers including Stefanie Powers.

It's a cold fall morning at New 42nd Street Studios, the maternity ward for most new Broadway musicals. Choreographer Nick Kenkel is standing facing a mirror, leading a crucial warmup. "Juniors!" he shouts.

A familiarly typed group of young Broadway dancers — lithe, enthusiastic, spring-loaded, ready for prime time — immediately leaps into action.

But Kenkel, who sports an exceptionally well-toned body, even by the lofty standards of New 42nd Street, already has turned his head toward another part of the studio.

"Seniors!," he barks, sounding not unlike Dame Edna Everage.

Wait. Actual seniors in the room?

Seniors dancing on Broadway? On the street where one study placed the average retirement age for a dancer at 34 years old? Where the average age of a dancer walking through the doors of the organization euphemistically known as Career Transition for Dancers is all of 29 years old? Where research shows that your typical dancer not only retires from Broadway in his or her mid-30s, but from professional dance altogether?

But there are indeed seniors in sweats — and even a few pensioners in leotards — in this particular studio on this particular morning, where the show in rehearsal is "Gotta Dance."

"Gotta Dance" will begin its pre-Broadway tryout performances in Chicago at the Bank of America Theatre on Dec. 13, likely landing on Broadway in the spring or fall.

Limbering up in the corner is the genuinely incomparable Andre De Shields, once "The Wiz" and now aged 69. Seated at the rear is the five-time Emmy nominee Georgia Engel, who was born in 1948. Ready to go is Lillias White, who first danced on Broadway some 34 years ago. Looking a little sheepish is Lori Tan Chinn, a legendary performer now well known for her work on "Orange is the New Black," but whose Broadway credits actually date to "Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentleman" in 1970. (The year 1970, incidentally, came and went well prior to the birth of one of the leading "juniors" in the show, Haven Burton).

And in middle of the studios stands Stefanie Powers.

Powers played Jennifer Hart on the 1980s TV show "Hart to Hart." In 1965, she worked opposite Tallulah Bankhead. She campaigned for Robert F. Kennedy and was, for at least two decades, one of the most glamorous women on American and British television. In her 2010 autobiography, Powers spoke of beating back cancer, and of her grand love affair with William Holden of "Sunset Boulevard." She has, by any standards, lived life to the full.

Living, clearly.

Online fact-checking via a concealed smartphone reveals Powers to be 73 years old. But the eyewitness evidence strongly suggests otherwise.

Toned and ready, Powers looks — and, more importantly, moves — like a dancer in her 30s. Her extraordinary body seems entirely untouched by age.

The paternalistic director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell is lurking. "Isn't she incredible?" he asks, sotto voce. "Unbelievable. Superhuman."

A few days later, Powers will laugh at that. But she'll also make clear she's on something of a mission.

"This whole ageism thing these days is really becoming ridiculous," she will say. "There is this enormously stupid idea that because you reach a certain number, you are forced to retire from what you are doing. Yes I am 73. Whatever. It is just a number to me. Whatever I feel is whatever I feel. And I think that applies to everyone over 40. Are we to discount half the population?"

After all, that is the half with most of the money.

In 2006, the marketing minds at the NBA franchise then known as the New Jersey Nets came up with an idea. Why not hold auditions for a hip-hop dance team made up entirely of people who had passed their 60th birthday?

Inarguably, the idea for what would become the NETSational Seniors came with some implied condescension, especially the notion of the dancers, who would come from the local community, having their actual ages emblazoned on the back of their shirts (something, say, that the 73-year-old Paul McCartney is not generally asked to do). It's incontrovertible that the Nets thought they'd have some fun with the wriggling and jiggling of bodies that have been around a few blocks. But the plan went ahead — and the auditions made it into the New York Post gossip column penned by Cindy Adams.

At that point, documentary filmmaker and theatrical producer Dori Berinstein decided to pick up her camera and head to New Jersey to see who showed up. She said that the Nets weren't especially pleased to see her.

"But I talked my way in," Berinstein said, a few weeks later, in an interview in a separate room at New 42nd Street. "These were not professional dancers who showed up. They were saying things like, 'I'm just living my life.' "

None of the auditionees had any idea that the plan was for them to dance hip-hop. But that is (mostly) what the NJ NETSational Seniors became, and Berinstein put out her documentary in 2008, chronicling a dozen women (and one man) moving all the way from auditions through training to the first performance of the NETSational Seniors during a halftime show at the Meadowlands Arena. Berinstein said she knew from the start this would be a great idea for a musical, especially since her camera recorded some interactions between the NETSational Seniors and the (conventionally aged) professional dance team already employed by the Nets. In fact, two of the oldest women in the senior team had granddaughters who were dancers for the Nets.

The new musical, which has been in development virtually since the film came out and that Berinstein is producing alongside Bill Damaschke, is not intended to be a precise documentation of the NETSational Seniors, nor a staging of the film, although the dancers who appear in the documentary have been hired as "consultants" for the musical, and some have showed up at rehearsals in New York to dance for the cast. The charge for the bookwriters, Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin, and the composer, Matthew Sklar, Berinstein said, was to write a story inspired by the real NETSational Seniors, whose exploits have been copied by numerous other NBA teams.

Damaschke said, rather, that the central charge involved understanding that the NETSational Seniors could become a collective metaphor "for the idea that age does not matter."

"This always was a musical waiting to happen," Mitchell said. "It's uplifting to see people of a certain age doing something that it outside of their realm. It is inspiring for us all. And, of course, dance is such a metaphor for life itself."

Early drafts of the show, Mitchell said, were overly focused on the young dancers whose travails make up a good portion of the plot (as you might expect, each group has something to teach the other over the course of the show). Eventually, and following a workshop in New York, the creative team decided that the focus needed to be more firmly on the older dancers — all of whom have their challenges in the show, ranging from dodgy knees to a partner suffering from dementia. They also realized that while individual motivations for the actual dancers showing up may have varied, they could all be boiled down to some version of "get out of the basement," and thus the idea was born that "Gotta Dance" would, at its core, be an affirmation of life. It would be an exhortation for seniors to stay active and remain involved.

The cast of "Gotta Dance" is, of course, not the first group of seniors ever to dance on a Broadway stage (although the list of dancing roles for seniors is not long, John Kander and Fred Ebb's "70, Girls, 70," notwithstanding). And the art form of the musical comedy is known for its veteran stars from Carol Channing to Chita Rivera (who danced on Broadway last season ) to Ann Miller. Mitchell worked with Miller on "Follies," the Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman musical about former burlesque dancers revisiting their old venue and their youth.

"Ann just couldn't come down the stairs," Mitchell said, "until she said to me, 'Jerry, I'm coming down the stairs.' And then she came down the stairs."

Of course, "Follies" is a melancholy piece that focuses on memory (or the lack thereof), the ghosts of the past and, to some degree, regret. "Gotta Dance" has been written as a musical comedy very much in the present.

And instead of listening to Sondheim's heartbreaking "Losing My Mind," the idea is that you get seniors funking it up.

The score to "Gotta Dance" was first assigned to Marvin Hamlisch — who wrote songs about the travails of dancers for "A Chorus Line" in 1975, the very kind of dancers who might have found themselves in "Gotta Dance" today.

But the famed and widely beloved composer died in 2012, before he could finish his work on this show. So Sklar, a 42-year-old former Hamlisch protege, took over the assignment (the credit is to read "music by Matthew Sklar with additional music by Marvin Hamlisch"). "Marvin had really written three songs," Sklar said. These last Hamlisch compositions, as yet unheard by the public, including one song titled "The Prince of Swing" (written for the De Shields character) and another titled "There You Are." Sklar, of course, went on to write several more numbers for the work.

"In the show, Sklar said, "each character has his or her own sound. So we have a variety of musical styles, as befitting the various characters."

And did he make any allowances for the ages of his singers?

"Well," he said, "it's true that some of the women's voices are a little lower than you find in most shows. But there were no constrictions."

Of course, singing is one thing and dancing is another. The aging of the physical instrument — when used eight times a week to move at the Broadway level — is an unhelpful fact of life. It's easy to claim that age does not limit the dancer, especially when promoting the show predicated on that very premise. But can that really be the case?

"Look," Mitchell said. "Everyone in this cast has physical obstacles. If someone has a bad right leg, then we put what we are doing on the left leg. We're learning what they all are good at and not good at. To be honest, I don't worry at all about their ability to deliver. I worry more about their ability to get the information inside their heads in order to deliver."

As if to make Mitchell's point about the stress of the process, Powers has suddenly found herself in a rehearsal invaded by a reporter and a photographer, wherein she is being asked to work on a song written barely 48 hours before.

And that comes in the middle of all the hip-hop — a style which she admits is difficult for her.

"For young dancers, hip-hop is in their bones," she said, a few days after that moment. "It tends to be alien to my generation because it is nothing like what we think of as dancing, or at least not when your body is trained in ballet, modern, Jerome Robbins. Our brains are trained and conditioned to do something else, so this never is going to be totally natural for me. But I am doing the best I can. And when I'm done with rehearsal, I don't then go out and hit the clubs."

But you get the overall sense in the room that "the best I can" means something to prove.

"You know," Powers said, without waiting for a question, "when I first saw 'A Chorus Line' in 1975 there were lots of ages in that line. Old ones. Young ones. All shapes and sizes. But the last time they revived it, they all just looked so perfect and so young that when they sang, 'I really need this job,' you could not believe it. There was no patina."

Nor desperation.

Powers hits her mark. The dance rehearsal continues.

"You know," says Mitchell. "They really do all have something going on. But when the music starts it all disappears."

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@tribpub.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

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