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Crazy for Dance : As a child, Susan Stroman left marks on the ceilings with canes and shovels. Today, the Tony-winning choreographer is making Kander & Ebb's 'World' go round at the Fonda.

October 15, 1992|BARBARA ISENBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Family night at Susan Stroman's house in Wilmington, Del., was an evening spent huddled around the TV watching old movie musicals. Enamored of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, she was taking dance lessons and imagining dance numbers in her head by the time she was 6.

It didn't stop with imagination either for Stroman, who often danced from room to room with canes, shovels and other objects she found around the house. "There were marks on the ceiling," she remembers, "from me tossing objects or balancing on furniture that my mother could never quite explain to the neighbors."

What might have been bizarre behavior in other households was apparently job training for Stroman. Dancing professionally by the time she was 10, Stroman today is a prominent successor to Astaire, Hermes Pan, Gene Kelly and other dance stylists she's admired--and often emulated--all her life.

There could well be ceiling marks at Broadway's Shubert Theatre where the smash musical "Crazy for You" is playing, for instance. In that show, which won Stroman this year's Tony for choreography, her dancers tap out Gershwin standards on rooftops and car hoods, and her prop list includes pickaxes and mining pans.

She had a dozen women playing Japanese taiko drums in Liza Minnelli's show at Radio City, then set Minnelli herself atop a piano tap dancing in this summer's Carnegie Hall tribute to Stephen Sondheim. Her limited budget for the Off-Broadway hit "The World Goes 'Round"--which just opened for seven weeks at the Henry Fonda Theatre--didn't stop her from using everything from crutches and baby carriages to banjos and roller skates as props.

She honed her craft in community theater, summer stock and touring shows--she once danced in "Chicago" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion--until she felt she was ready to choreograph about eight years ago. "I knew I couldn't come to New York and just take over," she says. "I had to come as a song and dance gal first and sort of assess the situation."

That's how Stroman, who's in her 30s, talks--matter-of-fact and candid. Whether during breaks in Los Angeles auditions for the touring company of "Crazy for You" or chatting in her cozy apartment near New York's Lincoln Center, she weaves her own life tale in the same efficient, straightforward style she uses to explain her dances.

There she was choreographing industrial shows, country & Western shows and such when pal Scott Ellis hooked her back in 1987 into choreographing a revival of Kander and Ebb's musical "Flora, the Red Menace" at New York's Vineyard Theatre. She'd worked Off-Broadway before, and her expectations were minimal. She figured she'd make maybe $200 for the run of the show, the theater held just 50 people and nobody would come to see it anyway.

She obviously underestimated the draw of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composer-lyricist team also responsible for "Cabaret," "Zorba" and "Chicago," not to mention a string of tunes immortalized by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Minnelli. The audience glittered with celebrities.

One of those celebrities was director Harold Prince, who was on the phone to Stroman the next day asking her to choreograph the "Don Giovanni" production he was doing at the New York City Opera. Her work with Minnelli could also be traced back to that showcase, and so could what has become a solid friendship with Kander and Ebb.

Everybody had so much fun on the "Flora" revival, in fact, that director Ellis, choreographer Stroman and book writer David Thompson wanted more. The three reviewed Kander and Ebb's stockpile of 200 songs from nearly a dozen musicals, TV shows and film scores, then restaged 30 of them as "The World Goes 'Round."

"The World Goes 'Round" puts a new spin on old favorites. Ebb says nobody wanted a traditional "and then I wrote" revue, but nobody wanted watered-down copies of Minnelli show-stoppers either. To avoid competing with familiar renditions of such hits as "New York, New York," the choreographer and her co-creators decided to rethink each tune.

On "Me and My Baby," for instance, they wanted rhythmic instrumentation and settled on everyone playing banjos. But once everyone learned how to play the banjo--no small task, Stroman points out--they still hadn't addressed the issue of what playing the banjo had to do with the song. "The answer was nothing," confesses Stroman, who had to come up with a prop to tie them back to the song. The solution: Banjos made their entrance in baby carriages.

She dragged out skates for "The Rink"--after banjo class every morning, the five cast members had skating lessons--and made the most of some paper cups in the tune "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup." Each time the actors take a sip of coffee from the cups, they get more caffeine in their bodies, the number gets faster, and their movement becomes more erratic.

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