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The challenges of choreographing the new musical The Hello Girls
Christine O'Grady has spent much of her career choreographing regional revivals, injecting familiar favorites such as 42nd Street, West Side Story and The Wiz with complicated, fun movement. So when Cara Reichel and Peter Mills of Prospect Theater Company asked her to collaborate on their new musical The Hello Girls at 59E59 Theaters, she jumped at the opportunity. Not only was it a chance to work on a world-premiere show, but she would also be choreographing a cast of actor-musicians portraying America's first women soldiers, who served as bilingual telephone operators on the front lines of World War I.
The history-packed production touches on still-timely topics like misogyny and nationalism. Some dialogue is in French, and the performers need to navigate a multilevel set while playing their own instruments. With all that going on, O'Grady realized that gestural movement would best serve this complex show, and she created it largely as they went along -- not her typical way of choreographing. "Usually, I work with my associate and we know the formations, what steps are going where, and the score is all marked up when we go into rehearsals," she says. "But because of all the different variables, this is the most open I've ever had to be. And while I continue to prefer to be more planned, now I know I have the ability to do more on the spot."
Although O'Grady had "done the actor-musician thing" before, this was the first time she was working on a new show in which the actors played the entire score. "Oddly, there was a lot of math involved and it ended up being like a word problem," she says. "If you need to get your instrument on this beat, and have to play this lick and sing this line on that platform, what are your options? In some cases, answers would jump out at me; for others, I would offer some options and we'd all go back-and-forth."
To solve the constant barrage of riddles, she frequently incorporated the performers' ideas. For example, in the boisterous "Je m'en fiche," when the ladies decide to take a night off from training, she took a suggestion from Cathryn Wake. "Cathryn, who plays the clarinet, said, 'All I want is to do is lie on the piano,'" O'Grady recalls. "That's how she ended up having that moment where she plays upside down, kicking her legs. That set the tone for the number."
For songs with space for more sparkle and standard moves, like the Andrews Sisters-style title tune, O'Grady enlisted everyone on stage, including the two pianists, Matthew McGloin and Ben Moss, who play facing each other. As the number ramps up to the final note, both men turn toward the audience, continuing to tickle the ivories one-handed, their feet and outer arms dancing along with everyone else -- a total showstopper.
"Cara [who co-wrote the book and directs] thought it was important to see them as a whole group, not separated as men and women," O'Grady says. "So when we got to the little march with Ben and Matt off to the side, I asked, 'Any chance you can play that and join in?' The outcome is a true representation of great collaboration."
There are also many sequences inspired by period research, like military marching drills, popular dances such as the fox trot and the turkey trot, and O'Grady's representation of the women working at imaginary switchboards. "I watched a lot of videos and looked at a lot of images," she says. "I had to figure out a way to depict that sense of pulling."
Her solution? She turned the action of connecting lines into a mesmerizing ballet of hands: a sharp twist of the wrist followed by a swift thrust of a make-believe cord into a jack, repeated in elaborate patterns. It's a simple yet effective way to evoke the urgency of the nonstop calls from the battlefield to headquarters.
Quoting one of the songs, O'Grady characterizes her The Hello Girls experience as the "fight of my life" -- and she's only half-joking. "I'm not going to lie, it was very challenging," she says. "I know the actors also felt that, too. This was one of the hardest things we've ever done, and we would chant that lyric sometimes. Every one of us had a day that was a breaking point, because just when you thought you had thought of everything, something else would come up. But then there were moments that just worked so beautifully, we kept saying we have to make everything feel like this."
Lauren Phoenix Kay regularly contributes to TDF Stages.
Lili Thomas, Skyler Volpe, Chanel Karimkhani, Ellie Fishman and Cathryn Wake in The Hello Girls. Photos by Richard Termine.