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Dancing For Your Votes

Date: Jan 30, 2013


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In the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, currently at Studio 54 in a revival from the Roundabout, it's crucial for the audience to have a good time. After all, they're the ones writing the ending.

The premise is this: A troupe of actors greets the audience, thrilled to share the most ambitious project of their careers---a retelling of Dickens' unfinished murder-mystery, which centers on the disappearance of a man named Edwin Drood. After watching Dickens' incomplete story, the audience chooses how the mystery ends. Librettist-composer Rupert Holmes has written dozens of final scenes, and the cast is prepared to perform any of them, depending on whom the audience votes for.

When it clicks, Drood crackles with mischief, and that's what hooked Warren Carlyle, who choreographs the current revival. "I responded to the humor of this show," he says. "And the involvement of the audience in the actual plot is so special. The audience is almost another character, and that felt original to me."

Because the audience is integral, the British-born Carlyle started with the idea of "friendly availability" in his work. But this is not always his approach. "Sometimes I create choreography, like in Follies, that's unavailable," he explains. "I want the audience to say, 'Wow that's so beautiful. I could never do that. But in Drood, I wanted the audience to feel like it could join in. Plus, the premise of the actors of the troupe being trained actors---not dancers---informs the movement."

Jubilant line dances, flea hops, box steps, and kick lines give this production a "meat and potato feel" for Carlyle. "I was constantly looking to elicit a smile and response from the audience. It all had to feel easy and natural. And none of the actors should look like they're reaching to do that choreography."

Only when appropriate does Carlyle add a few doses of the sublime and unattainable. For instance, when bipolar Uncle Jasper takes an opium trip at a brothel, Carlyle uses the leggy Broadway veteran Shannon Lewis and fellow female dancers to suggest his otherworldly delirium: The women cartwheel and slide over a suffering Jasper, all sinew, slink, and balance. "I wanted the ballet to be completely different, out of space and time because it's Jasper's nightmare," Carlyle explains. "Since Jasper is attracted to his student Rosa Bud and is a very sexual man, the women in his dream have their legs open without being crude. When Shannon's walkover is the first thing the audience sees at that point, they know they're going somewhere strange and wonderful."

Carlyle also took full advantage of working with one of Broadway's greatest icons, Chita Rivera, who plays the feisty Princess Puffer. He even added choreography to her number "Settling Up the Score," where the original production had none. "I wanted Chita to move, dance, and do what she does!" he says.

Working with Rivera proved to Carlyle why she's legendary. "I went in with a clear plan of the choreography because I wanted her to trust me," he says. (Sometimes he goes in with full choreography, other times simply landmarks and ideas). "At first, she did exactly what I asked immediately. Then, slowly, it became a conversation about specifics. And then it became hers and not mine, which is what it should be. Just as this show becomes the audience's."


Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York City

Photo by Joan Marcus