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What Is a Dance Arranger?

Date: Jul 05, 2011


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As a young man, David Chase told a Broadway dance arranger he wanted to move to New York and become a dance arranger himself, even though he didn’t really know what a dance arranger does. Very few people do, although dance arranging is an essential part of a Broadway musical.

Despite what the title may suggest, dance arrangers do not arrange steps or routines. They work with music.

"There’s a very simple explanation" says Chase, who is the dance arranger for the current revival of Anything Goes The dance arranger is the go-between between the songs and the choreography.  I address whatever needs the composer has, and the choreographer has, and I literally arrange the music in a way that both honors the music and helps the dancing."

When he says "arrangement," Chase means everything but the melody: "All other elements of a piece of music are what might be termed its arrangement---the accompaniment, the tempo, the melodic variations, the key, the style, the length and content of the intro, the harmonies,  the number of verses and choruses, etc."

Take the song "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" from  Anything Goes: Written by Cole Porter, it's a playful gospel-blues number performed by the nightclub singer Reno Sweeny and her backup singers, the Angels.

The joke, of course, is that Reno is hardly an angel, and in this production, director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall quickly transforms a proper performance in choir robes into a showstopping celebration in sexy outfits. Eventually, the onlookers catch the fever, and almost everyone on stage starts dancing with joyous abandon.

Chase has arranged the music so that Reno and the Angels move center stage to a "Louis Armstrong-style trumpet call," rip off their choir robes to "a great fanfare," slink around to "a bluesy slow drag," and then kick their legs in the air accompanied by blasts from the brass section.

The men sitting around cabaret tables leap out of their seats after jungle toms establish "a fast swing beat," and then they take to the dance floor accompanied by "a Benny Goodman-style clarinet solo with brass punctuations." As the dancing gets faster and more vigorous, "the beat speeds up, becomes more explosive, percussive."

While Chase honors Cole Porter's original music, there are moments in "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" that also pay homage to Duke Ellington and other musicians from the period. He says that researching the style and period of a score in its historical context is a significant part of his work. "I go home and listen to a lot of music, and play around with the music, based on the Cole Porter melody," he adds. "That's [the sort of thing] a dance arranger does."


Jonathan Mandell is a critic and journalist covering theatre for such publications as The Faster Times , Back Stage and American Theatre. He is on Twitter as @NewYorkTheater