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How Casey Nicholaw shapes the new Broadway musical
As a director and choreographer, Casey Nicholaw is understandably known as a man who can keep the laughs coming. His recent Broadway hits like The Book of Mormon, Something Rotten!, Aladdin, and The Drowsy Chaperone have all been praised for their gut-busting setpieces, like musical numbers about dancing omelets or scenes with genies who sing Whitney Houston songs.
But hijinks aren't exactly appropriate for Tuck Everlasting, the musical adaptation of Natalie Babbitt's classic children's novel. The story – about a young girl who discovers a family that can live forever – is richly emotional and often deeply moving, filled with questions about the endurance of love and the necessity of loss. To bring it to life, Nicholaw, who is directing and choreographing, must use a different vocabulary than the one he employs for comedy.
This is particularly true of the dancing in the production, which begins previews on Thursday at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre. "I have to choreograph what's right for the show, and when something's a comedy I have to choreograph with comedy in mind," Nicholaw says. "You can't live in dance for that long if it's a comedy because you can't stop the momentum to just dance. So I always have to think of comic hooks. It's almost like changing channels: You have a section that has an idea, and then you do another one that has a different idea and you keep it all moving forward."
But Tuck Everlasting, he says, requires movement that's more lyrical, romantic, and narrative-driven. "We're using dance to convey [the show's theme of] time, as well as the tone and feelings of the show."
There have been some changes since the musical premiered last year at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, with the script getting tweaked and one song being replaced. (The score is by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen, while Claudia Shear and Tim Federele wrote the book.) "We added dance in a couple of other places, too, so dance is more of a throughline in the overall piece," Nicholaw says. "At many times the characters are conveying their emotions through dance while hopefully still continuing to tell the story and moving the narrative, culminating at the end of the show."
One moment that seems destined for discussion is an extended dance number near the finale, when Winnie, the girl who encounters the immortal Tuck family, must decide if she wants to live with them forever or return to her mortal life.
"So much of the show has changed over the years, but that one section has not changed one lick," Nicholaw says. The inspiration for that particular dance goes back 15 years, when he was a performer and choreographer's assistant. At the time, he created a dance presentation to use as a sort of "calling card" for people in the industry who might want to hire him. "That dance presentation is very similar to what we ended up doing at the end of Tuck," he notes. "I've always wanted to extend that, and here it totally fits."
Asked to describe the emotional tone of this earlier choreography, he says, "It was basically about life and death, which is what the show is about."
To that end, the climactic story ballet takes a sweeping look at the lifespan of one of the musical's characters. It's appropriate, Nicholaw says, because "the show is very life-affirming, about living life while you have it, about the 'wheel of life,' where there's a beginning and an end."
Wheel imagery appears throughout the production. "Everything is sort of circular in the show," the director says. "There's a turntable on the set and a lot of circular motion in the dances. Everything flows around, like life."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Tuck Everlasting. Go here to browse our current offers.
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Photos by Greg Mooney. Top photo: Broadway cast members Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Sarah Charles Lewis perform in the Atlanta production.