TWYLA THARP

  
Twyla Tharp has created some of the most innovative and popular work in contemporary dance since she formed her first company in 1965. She has always been interested in choreographing to pop music. She shook up the dance world in 1973 when she made Deuce Coupe for the Joffrey Ballet featuring the music of the Beach Boys, and sheĎs set dances to music by David Byrne, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Supertramp. A few years ago, while working with her five-member company on some Billy Joel songs, Ms. Tharp hatched the idea ďto do a big production.Ē She ended up conceiving, choreographing, and directing Moviní Out, a dance musical based on 31 songs by pop star Billy Joel, which opened on Broadway in the fall of 2002.

Tharp had been on Broadway before. Her company has played short engagements in Broadway theaters, and she directed a 1985 stage version of the movie musical
Singiní in the Rain that ran for 367 performances. But the latter experience was, as she wrote in her autobiography Push Comes to Shove, ďmy worst nightmareĒ that left her ďhumiliated by the horrible reviews.Ē It clearly hasnít deterred her from trying again. To her, being on Broadway simply means more people will see her work than if she stuck to two-week engagements at City Center or The Joyce. I spoke to her in late July over breakfast at her hotel in Chicago, where Moviní Out was having an arduous seven-week pre-Broadway tryout. The Chicago reviews had been quite negative, yet Tharp, a small 61-year-old woman with owlish glasses and a no-nonsense demeanor, calmly talked about her work in the midst of completely re-doing the first act of the show.

What is it about Broadway theater that attracts you?
The audience. Reaching a broad audience has always been one of my concerns for dance. A restricted audience is not a healthy thing -- not just commercially but emotionally. Itís extremely important for the art form to reach out. Since Deuce Coupe premiered here in Chicago, it was exactly the same concept, making dance relevant to our culture in our time. Take it on. Deal with it. Bring in the broad spectrum of people, not just those who can afford to support the ballet and the opera, whom I also love and value. But I also want to know about what does the guy in the street think, how does his mind work, and the farmer, who comes into these shows here and says Oh, I see, ABCD. 

Do Broadway theater audiences really seem very different to you than the audiences for dance?
No, there are just more people in the audience. To me, an audience is an audience. I have great respect for them, every single audience, wherever, whenever. I want more of them.

I was fascinated to read in Push Comes to Shove that you conceived Deuce Coupe by studying the Joffreyís audience. What did you see?
I saw an audience that wanted more ďentertainmentĒ than what we used to call high art. In the early Ď70s, that was a big dialogue: high-art/low-art. And Iím going ďOK, nobody does higher art than The Fugue, say.Ē I donít know if youíre familiar with that.

One of my all-time favorite pieces of art. Iíve seen it about 12 times.
Thank you. Nobody does higher or better art than that in dance. You donít have to print the better part. Letís just leave it at higher. Iím going, ďOK, this [Joffrey] audience didnít come to be challenged. The house is too big. The production componentís got to be overblown. It canít be the intimate house The Fugue works best in, with absolutely no production whatsoever, stripped completely bare. Thatís not what works here. Letís go for presenting dance of high caliber in an envelope that works here, with the accoutrements, the music, the structure of the piece.Ē

Iím curious if there was some similar experience with this show of studying Broadway audiences.
No. By now Iíve had a career with audiences. Iíve done feature films, Iíve done shows, Iíve worked in commercial situations. Deuce Coupe I had never. That was my first commercial audience. This is a way down the pike. I think one of the huge gratifications for all of us working on this show is that we have very supportive audiences, enthusiastic, up on their feet yelling audiences, which is something you donít often get with dance. Which has always been frustrating to me. Iíve always wanted a rock & roll audience when Iím onstage.

I always felt like I was at a rock & roll concert seeing your company.
We always wanted them to stand up and scream. Get up! 

Moviní Out is an unprecedented hybrid of rock concert and story ballet in some sense.
What do you think we should call it, darling?

Good question. Tell me what your original vision was, what it looks like now, and what if anything itís going to change into.
Right, beginning, middle, and end. The first workshop was obviously in the studio. The band was off to the side.

Even before the workshop, was it originally something that started as a project for your company, or was the intention to do a Broadway show?
The same as Deuce Coupe. My company was in Deuce Coupe. This is the same way. The six dancers whoíve been on the road as Twyla Tharp Dance for the last 2 Ĺ years theyíve also been working on this show. We were working on the original material. The idea was to do a big production. Rather than go to a ballet company to mount this or the Met, I decided weíll go to Broadway to mount this because I think thatís where the audience will feel more comfortable, in that kind of house.

When you were envisioning a big production, it was...what? A dance concert, a book musical?
All of the above. It was a narrative that could build to a second act that would not just be a revue. Didnít want to do a revue. Wanted a through-line so that I could have an emotional journey.

As opposed to something like Jerome Robbinsí Broadway or Fosse.
Right. I wanted to have something that could have big production with it, if we needed it. I probably structured it more closely to opera than to traditional musical comedy.

How so?
Mozart is a dear, dear favorite of mine, a real relative, if I may say so, a cousin. How he did Figaro, the way the narrative functions in that, or The Magic Flute, is very interesting to me. When the characters are introduced, when they have arias, when thereís recitativo, when is the action offstage, when is the action offstage, where are we going to, where are the choral passages. That kind of structure was always in my mind as a format for this. It wasnít your standard musical comedy crossover number, the 11:00 number, that kind of thing.
One of the things I tried with this, which Iím now altering, was introducing the entire cast and then the lead players would have arias right at the top of the show. Thatís what I tried. WRONG! OK. Get into the action. Get into the action. Get into the action. 

Meaning that it seemed too slow to stop and introduce all the characters. It needed action you could follow story-wise.
Forget the word story. Letís come back to the word story. Itís an interesting word, but in this context let me just say action instead. Story involves adjectives and adverbs. We donít have adjectives and adverbs, we can do action. As Balanchine so famously said, ďThere are no mothers-in-law in the ballet.Ē That would be called story. Action would be called whoís standing center stage and why. Iím striving to get all the mother-in-laws out of the first act. 

I hadnít thought about opera structure -- itís an intriguing way of understanding this show. Iím curious about the relationship to the song lyrics.
Iíll come back to the song lyrics, but while weíre talking about the opera component, let me say that itís deep background. Thereís also another one, which is music videos, the three-minute non-literal emotional context that that genre has developed. If it were a video, each scene would be different, would be realizable as a self-contained music video, which again is very different from musical comedy. It would be a string of these and they would hold themselves together. 
Iím interested in perception. How do people communicate and how do people receive information, alright? So thereís a woman who was seated next to a very good friend of mine, and my friend was watching her alternate between covering her eyes and covering her ears. At intermission my friend goes, ďWhatís happening?Ē She goes, ďOh, Iím loving it, but I donít know whether to look at it or listen to it. Iím trying both. I think Iím liking looking at it better.Ē

People have trouble taking in left-brain and right-brain information simultaneously. What weíve found here, which has been a BIG BIG piece of information, is that people will not easily connect what they see with what theyíre hearing. Iíd assumed that people would look at two people onstage, [bandleader Michael] Cavanaugh is up there singing about Brenda and Eddie, theyíll know this is Brenda and Eddie. WRONG! Wrong! Wrong! What youíve gotta do is forget about Cavanaugh, Brenda and Eddie, forget about naming these people, and just take them to the audience as principal players and give them the materials to develop your own visual story. Donít feed in Billyís language, because then you become too literal, and dance does not work well literally.

If you listen to the words, itís sometimes related to the action, but not always. And if youíve been trained to listen, youíre still listening.
Exactly. What you have to do, which we did in the second act, is just go emotionally. Cuz by the time I got to the second act in the workshop, I went, ďOK, all you guys out there wanting story and narrative and character, youíve got Ďem, now leave me alone while we do what we do, we go through emotion and give you the second act.Ē The audience here is going, ďLetís get to the good stuff, letís get to the gut.Ē Now Iím backing up and taking out the information given by language and going more strongly to the emotional condition realized through action. 

So now let me go back to the other thing we obviously have, which is the ballet. Probably my favorite 19th century ballet is Giselle. Two acts. First act is betrayal. Second act is redemption. Weíve got two acts. First act is betrayal. Second act is redemption. End of story.

I want to ask you about audience again. There are a handful of shows that have been successful on Broadway in recent years that paved the way for this kind of experiment. The ones that people talk about are Contact and Mamma Mia, but I think it goes back to The Lion King, Matthew Bourneís Swan Lake, The Whoís Tommy.
I never saw Matthew Bourneís Swan Lake. You see, thereís a big difference between someone who takes a creative masterpiece of another epoch, whether itís Shakespeare or Petipa, and gives it a contemporary spin. Thatís a very different situation than if youíre starting from scratch and concocting your own elements of story. 

Right. Iím just wondering if the success of those shows with audiences provided any inspiration or encouragement.
No, see, when Iím doing any commercial work, I donít go to market research. I donít go to ďWhoís our target audience and how do I reach them?Ē I go to ďHow can I get to the most people possible?Ē

And how do you know that?
You donít know that, you have to trust what you believe in. Iíve been fortunate to find that if Iím interested in something, chances are the audience will be. 

Do you go to rock concerts at all?
Not a lot. I donít go to a lot of anything a lot. I read a lot.

How did you come to making a show with this music?
Iíve known Billyís music all along, as itís come out album by album. And Iíve always responded to it. I started hearing it differently probably around three years ago, and I started by responding to the energy of it. Billyís interest in classical music seemed to me a very useful leaping off point. I thought he might really be interested in seeing his music in movement. Composers love to see their music in movement. Beethoven loved to write dance music. Mozart wanted to be a dancer. All the classical composers have had an interest in movement. I thought, gee, Billyís probably going to be receptive to the idea. But Iím not going to go to him empty-handed. Letís make sure we have something to say with it and that it really dances. Some music dances, some doesnít. I went into the studio with six dancers and started working on some songs out of context. I developed about 20 minutes of work. We looked at it together, he said, ďYeah, I think this is something.Ē

Did he have any input on songs you used, or any restrictions?
Not a one.

ďPiano ManĒ is an obvious absence.
By the end of that first meeting, I said, ďBilly, Iím going to need ALL the music.Ē He said, ďOK. Fine, you can have it all.Ē He didnít hold anything back. At the end of our one-hour meeting, it was ďGo!Ē It wasnít, ďMy lawyers will call your lawyers, letís talk, oh maybe, if itís developed this way....Ē None of that. It was Go! Which is extraordinary, and which always gets a relationship off to a good start. 

In terms of ďPiano Man,Ē it is in the subtext. The vocalist is the narrator of the show. What I felt was that the simple spine of the show was one line: ďSing to me, muse, of the rage of Achilles.Ē Do you know what it is? 

Thatís the first line of The Odyssey.
The Iliad.

Of course, The Iliad. ďΜήυιυ άειδε, Θεά, Πηληιάδεω ΆχιληοςÖĒ
Go, man! Go! I envy you! 

So that was to me clear. ďSing to me, muse, of the rage of Achilles.Ē Achilles is the men of the Vietnam War in our time. Me is the audience. Whoís the muse? Muse is The Piano Man. Itís so much about the narrator as a repository, as Homer was, of so much cultural information. Now Iím not equating Billy to Homer -- letís not go there -- but in my world of imagination, where Iím looking for constructs, thatís a big component. That tells you something about who your characters are and how to focus the material. 

Was it always thought that the music would be live?
Yes. Live music is so much fun and creates so much energy. Iíve always liked big energy.

Ever had a live rock band before?
No. We played all the old American music live -- the Fats Waller music [Sueís Leg], the Beiderbecke with a whole swing band [The Bix Pieces], the Morton [Eight Jelly Rolls] was done live, that was an eight-piece band. The energy you get from live music is so different from the recordings. 

To what extent do you have a sense of this piece as pulling in or revisiting stuff from your past work like Hair and Short Stories?
Of course. I see this as encyclopedic, definitely.

Tell me about that.
First of all, Iíve been doing a lot of talking. You tell me what you saw last night, and then Iíll return to talking. 

What did I see? You catch me unprepared to say what I saw. Let me see if I can put words to what I saw. I want to answer your question but I have to shift my brain.
OK, so flip. And donít censor.

All right. For me, the very beginning was tricky. It seemed to assume an audience connection to the music or something that wasnít there. So the first 20 minutes was too much information and not enough information at the same time. ďMoviní OutĒ particularly, being the title song, didnít give me what I thought I would get from that. The core dancers are amazing, John [Selway] and Keith [Roberts] and Elizabeth [Parkinson]. I went in and out of connecting with the lyrics and letting them go. I was more interested in the dancing and the music. I was sometimes surprised by how much feeling I had for some of the songs. I donít always love Billy Joelís songs. Some had a huge impact on me.
Like which?

I was really touched by ďJust the Way You Are.Ē The song that had the most emotional impact of me in the show was ďJames.Ē
Oh, good for you! Excellent! We like that. These are good points. I totally agree about ďMoviní OutĒ -- it doesnít tell you whoís doing what here and it needs to. Thatís the next change.

Also itís a very catchy song, and if it has a special meaning because itís the title of the show, then the scene should have a special meaning.
Totally totally totally totally. I was trying to do something character-wise, which was misguided, rather than getting into action. These guys are doing yeoman duty. They come in at 10:00, rehearse 10 to 5, the same music but completely different action, sometimes not even with the same cast, then at night they have to go out and perform the socks off something they know is being changed and that they have a second version of going through their heads that theyíre trying to remember from today! Itís a hard job. Theyíre fantastic.
The reason Iíve been able to do it -- these last 3 Ĺ weeks have been amazing -- we did our 50th or 51st show, we always get a standing ovation, spontaneous, generous, complete. The energy that gives to the performers is phenomenal. Theyíve only been able to do it because the audience is up yelling and screaming. 

Were you aware of the problems as soon as it went up in Chicago or did the reviews tell you something you didnít know?
I was aware of it when it went up. The problem with a machine this big is that you have to do a lot of planning before you can make a change. The wheels are spinning in one direction. The first thing youíve gotta do is stop the machine, get it to move backwards, and then start it up again. You canít do this overnight.

It wasnít until it was all on its feet with lighting and set in place here that you could really see, ďThis isnít what I envisioned.Ē
Remember, youíve been in the studio, itís got a mirror and three bare walls. You sit there very close, there is no wardrobe, there are no lights, itís broad daylight or horrible neon light like in an underground parking garage. You have no sense of scale. None. You try to project it. You get better at projecting it. But then you get into a theater. You pull back. For the first time you can see the whole picture simultaneously, ícause youíre not just on top of it. You see these elements in real scale. You see, holy shit! The feeling is very different.

And the audience is being stunned by this onslaught of visual information all at once.
Itís very very different.

I understand youíre working on changes. Any sense of what itís going to be when it opens on Broadway?
Itís going to be a much more straight-through line. There will be more dancing in the first act. Iím not adding any new songs. 

So let me ask you another slightly different question. Thinking about Mark Morrisís experience with The Capeman and your experience with Singiní in the Rain, Iím wondering if thereís something about the Broadway musical form or the industry that is unfriendly to outsiders or makes it difficult for outsiders to do a Broadway musical.
Listen, you know what, I donít go there. Iím much more practical about it. I have an opportunity here. If I have problems, theyíre my problems. Iíve got to get to work and address them. Itís not about the industry. Somethingís not working. Make it work. So I canít help you out with that sort of political issue. Itís not one that I look to. I never look at myself as being on the defensive or victimized. 

Hereís the situation with us. People respond to our second act. Our first act troubles them. There are real reasons. Not that weíre breaking format or being unconventional. We have real problems that keep it from working in our terms, not in somebody elseís definition of a musical comedy, which weíre not doing anyway. We have problems in our own terms, and itís our responsibility to address them. This other issue is not my business. Thatís politics. Iím doing this show, not politics.

Letís go back to something I asked earlier, before you turned the tables and started picking my brain. The relationship of the material to some of your earlier work. Before I even saw the show I was thinking of Short Stories, a dance I really love because I love the Springsteen music, and itís about relationships in turmoil. Some of that gets pulled in here. And also the Vietnam material, which figured in Hair. You mentioned this being encyclopedic in some way, I wonder if youíd say a little more about that.
We are obviously the sum total of our experiences.

May I quote you on that?
You may. I canít help myself. Both in terms of structure and movement and characters and action, these are areas where Iíve been. I have more arrows in my quiver now than I did before, and Iíd be foolish not to use them. So I could go through there and point out references and specific movements that are not just lifted from but borrowed and expanded on from probably 40 dances. Iím not going to do it sitting here right now. Sometime I might do it as a lecture with references on the side. 

The other big lesson was to clarify the genre. We were straddling the fences. Thereís a horizontal line that divides the space. Above: sound. Below: visual. Never cross the line. We had been crossing two things -- we have got a full-length dance narrative evening that has lyrics. Swan Lake and Giselle didnít have lyrics. Thereís not a major dance narrative that has had lyrics behind it -- itís like opera in that way. Now Iíve separated the lyrics from the dance, you never have to untwine them. Downstairs the narrative is told in movement. For something thatís been trying to call itself a musical, people expect a narrative in book-musical form, and weíre never going to do that. I donít know if thereís ever been a show that completely invested its narrative in movement. Iíve gone about my business to clarify that we have, as opposed to tiptoeing around the edges. The whole reason I do what I do is thereís a truth in action that words sometimes belie. The Times called it a dance musical, which is probably the best definition. 

I was thinking about your question. Does Broadway want to change? I donít know, and I donít see myself as a missionary or a proselytizer. Iím affording entertainment and an experience to move people. Itís not outside the ken of what Broadway mandates. Iím just doing it in a slightly different way. I think thereís room for everybody.

Interviewed in 2002 for the New York Times -- see article here