With a canon that includes "I Feel the Earth Move," "You've Got a Friend," and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," Carole King is one of rock's most iconic singer-songwriters. Now her journey from Brooklyn girl to Grammy-winning superstar is being shared onstage in the new Broadway musical Beautiful, which is in previews at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
And while you might not automatically equate King's style with dancing, her music was indeed produced amidst a swirl of movement (think of the pony, the twist, and those gentle side sways during ballads). As they developed their material for Beautiful, choreographer Josh Prince and associate choreographer Alison Solomon worked to create moves that would both honor this era and make sense on the Broadway stage.
"The story of Carole is that of a composer at the piano, so the dance is clearly about singers who move well; the dance needs to support their vocals and be, most importantly, true to the period," says Prince. "I wanted to avoid anachronistic aspects, but still explore a romanticized, theatricalized version of the era."
Before rehearsals began, Prince tested a variety of moves through his own project, The Broadway Dance Lab. (Founded in 2012, the Lab offers choreographers time and space to bring in dancers and create work without the pressure of looming deadlines.) "The more you practice, the more you can explore different elements, like timing, vocabularies of movement, and patterns," he says. "You learn your own sensibility, and then when you're working on an actual project, you have a technique and perspective you can rely on. I'm a big fan of simple gestures making a strong statement. I was able to investigate that at the Lab, and I've used that repeatedly in the show."
To manage Beautiful, Prince needed an associate choreographer like Solomon. Responsible for everything from writing the "bible" (a written record of all the movement in a show) to giving dancers notes and training the dance captain, the associate is essentially the choreographer's right hand. "The best associates get into your head and guess what you want," Prince says. "For instance, during [one performance], Ali and I went into the lobby <i>during</i> the show and re-choreographed a number in the mirror. She adds ideas and also reminds me, for example, everyone on stage right is on a different foot. Sometimes I can just look at her and know it's not right from her input. That's invaluable."
A petite, sassy dynamo, Solomon has performed at Lincoln Center and on the tours of Billy Elliot and In the Heights. She's also assisted some of the industry's hottest rising stars, earning a reputation as an insightful second-in-command with a knack for remembering choreography, communicating with cast members, and easily adapting to the choreographer's style.
Solomon has danced for Prince before, and their current collaboration is fueling her interest in assisting choreographers. "I love the creative process of brainstorming, making something that's never been done before and working as a team," she says. "You can find so much more when you have two or three minds exploring. Then when you put your vision on the entire cast, it's magical."
The result in Beautiful? A show whose dancing mirrors the varied score, which includes King's ballads and upbeat anthems as well as other vintage hits like "On Broadway." Within this diversity, Prince says he was challenged to create unified movement with clear lines and synchronized formations---as was the style of the pop groups of the time---while still encouraging individuality.
Additionally, Prince and Solomon made sure that the mostly non-dancer ensemble understood the importance of specificity. "Whether the palm is up or down, whether the hand is cupped or flat, whether the foot is beveled or straight: All of these elements tell a different story depending what you choose," Prince says. "If you don't make particular choices, the movement can all end up looking alike, so we stress that. Specificity is everything."
Both Prince and Solomon enjoyed working on "The Loco-Motion," a song about a dance craze that strangely never had a specific dance. "In this number, we had the room to be very 'Broadway,'" Prince says with a laugh. "It didn't have an identity, so it was fun to breathe life into it with freedom, which we did by using versions of the twist and the pony, adding locomotive arms. It's in keeping with the era, but jumping with energy, too."
Solomon adds, "It's this type of spectacle you don't expect. Though we have a lot of laid-back, ballad-y pieces that you'd expect of Carole, we have exhilarating moments in the show, too. And we created them together."
Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York City
Photo by Joan Marcus