WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 2-3, 2012
Getting Gershwin Off the Ground
By Ellen Gamerman
In a recent rehearsal for her new musical, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” Kathleen Marshall showed actor Matthew Broderick how to propel both legs in the air with a flying kick while gripping two chorus girls alongside him. After a vague look of horror crossed his face, he gave it a try. Ms. Marshall beamed, then pressed on to the next sequence, instructing the dancers: “Now we’re going to start getting him undressed.”
As a director-choreographer with an old soul’s love of classic musicals, Ms. Marshall has built a reputation for taking material from a bygone era and getting it to resonate with modern audiences—whether that means throwing in a daring dance move, injecting humor into a scene or stripping off some costumes. The theater veteran, who started as an assistant choreographer in the early 1990s, is now embarked on “Nice Work,” an original musical about a 1920s playboy and a bootlegger, with a range of songs by George and Ira Gershwin. It’s set to begin performances March 29 on Broadway. The show follows her hit production of “Anything Goes,” which won the 2011 Tony Award for best musical revival and netted her a third best-choreography Tony.
The Smith College alum starts with research. For “Nice Work,” she and her creative team plunged into 1920s music, listening to tunes by big-band jazz innovator Fletcher Henderson and greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. She obsessed over the Gershwin songbook. “It feels like every night, there’s a different song that’s rummaging around in my head,” she said. She studied period speaking and singing styles, listening to recordings of Helen Kane, often cited as a model for Betty Boop, and Gertrude Lawrence, the first person to perform the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Ms. Marshall maps out the blueprint for each number weeks ahead of time. For “Nice Work,” she locked herself in a studio with collaborators, including musical supervisor David Chase, recording the choreography and putting the footage on her laptop. She also uses chess pieces to help block scenes involving lots of characters. She tracks other details, like calculating when performers can catch their breath, since actors can’t dance at full tilt at the same time they’re supposed to belt out a solo.
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