Elusive formula

Photograph of dancer Ashlee Wilcox. (Mel Melcon / LAT)

Daring storytelling that integrates song and dance is rare. But a few auteurs strive for the elusive formula. Broadway has always prized director-choreographers who could deliver hit musicals with an individual stamp on them — masters such as Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Michael Bennett and Tommy Tune. Even when an individual project failed, they brought a special excitement to the Great White Way: that Broadway rhythm long celebrated on stage and screen.

Building on the achievements of their predecessors, these theater artists explored subjects that musicals had always avoided and found ways to make dance integral to a show's narrative thrust rather than just a diversion. Moreover, nearly all of them addressed show business itself as a metaphor for the superficial values and obsession with celebrity that plague American society.

Of this distinguished company, Tune is the last man standing, someone who won nine Tony Awards and pretty much owned Broadway in the 1980s. He remains active at age 67 but now thinks of himself, he says, "as an anachronism," dismayed by the conditions under which musicals must currently be created.

"You used to have one driving force behind you," he said between performances of "Doctor Dolittle," which plays two final times today at the Pantages Theatre before moving to the San Diego Civic Auditorium and then the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

"But there aren't any individual producers anymore — they're all committees. Or corporations. When you sit down with them, sometimes you have as many as 12 people at the table and they each voice an opinion. And you watch your work dissolving into shreds, with so many people pecking at it."

Tune finds that the musicals surviving this kind of creative process don't really need the kind of star director-choreographer that used to dominate musicals. Instead, they require people adept at what he calls "that environmental theme-park-ride kind of thing."

"Do you notice that in those shows the audiences lean back in their seats while in the shows that I have always admired they sit on the edge of their seats and lean forward? Audiences don't have to listen now because it's cranked up. They don't have to imagine anything because the staging shows it all. It's a different time.

"I used to call what I did a theater of nuance, and that is like saying 'kindness.' People shrug and say, 'Huh?' "

Although Tune hasn't given up hope, he doesn't believe that Broadway is currently the right place for an innovative name-above-the-title director-choreographer: "That time has passed." But some of the highest-profile inheritors of the great tradition he speaks about refuse to apologize for staging musicals.

Susan Stroman describes a contemporary audience hungry for connection. Graciela Daniele says that the word "musical" no longer suggests light entertainment but a whole range of performance experiences. Kathleen Marshall suggests that America has produced musical theater classics that ought to be brought to the stage as often as plays by Shakespeare. And Matthew Bourne declares that whatever the musical can or can't do in the millennium, the real action for him is in dance.

Dropping in on them in London and New York, you find them eager to take musical theater beyond anybody's expectations, while respecting the artifacts of the past — whether a beloved movie, an unforgettable piece of choreography, a daring play or a body of work ripe for revival. Watch them fly — as long as the daunting conditions for staging musicals don't clip their wings.

Kathleen Marshall

The audience at the American Airlines Theatre in New York can't get enough of Harry Connick Jr. in Kathleen Marshall's revival of the 1954 Richard Adler and Jerry Ross musical "The Pajama Game." Making his musical theater debut as Sid Sorokin, the show's lovelorn factory supervisor, Connick sounds like the young Sinatra, adding exciting jazz riffs to such standards as "Hey There" as well as "The World Around Us," a song cut before the original Broadway opening but now restored just for him.

However, director-choreographer Marshall must confront the ghost of Bob Fosse in her staging — specifically, his treatment of "Steam Heat," which she calls "probably the most famous piece of musical theater choreography ever created." It's familiar not only from the original stage "Pajama Game" and the subsequent film but performances in the recent compilation-musical "Fosse" on stage and TV. So how do you erase, replace or supplant all that?

Marshall starts by delivering exactly what you expect — the iconic Fosse image of two men and a woman slouching in black suits and bowler hats. But as soon as that image and tribute resonates in your consciousness, the men strip to shirt sleeves, the woman to a chorine costume, and Marshall takes the number in her own direction.

Her showstopper is "Hernando's Hideaway," which pushes mock-seduction and the stalk-tango about as far as they can go, then switches gears entirely with Connick playing feelthy-piano variations on the tune, launching an invigorating jazz-dance ensemble utterly unlike anything in the original show.

A Tony Award winner for choreographing the revival of "Wonderful Town" (which she also directed), Marshall says she rejects what she calls "this crazy expectation that a Broadway show must run for five years in order to be successful and have international companies and national tours that run forever."

"Trying to create something like that can be a huge burden — and it also makes it hard to shape shows for individual personalities. When something is going to run for years and years and years, you have to create roles that many, many, many people can play."