Some have baskets, trays and deluxe polyurethane tires. Others have ergonomic release buttons and sturdy seats with flexible backrests. And then there's the basic, no-frills, old-fashioned walker a Midwestern granny might use.
To Susan Stroman, Tony Award-winning choreographer and director of "The Producers," it's that simple aluminum walker that has become one of her most guffaw-inducing props.
Twenty-six of them, to be exact. That's the number of walkers Stroman's "little old lady" dancers use in the Act 1 finale at the Pantages Theatre. Indeed, the eight-minute routine gives new meaning to the phrase "break a leg."
Weighing less than 4 pounds, these standard-issue medical supply house walkers adjust to the dancers' heights and have been reinforced with bars and welding. They also have metal plates on the bottom of each of their four legs to create a tapping sound.
"I was amazed at how the walker was so accessible to musical comedy," Stroman says. "They're very light but can hold up to 400 pounds. We were able to do all sorts of acrobatics on them. They have great balance, and we could suspend ourselves in the air on top of them. Since everybody loves a good tap number, the sound of 26 of them sounds like a line of Rockettes.
"And," she adds, "the most amazing thing was Mel's suggestion of doing a domino fall with the walkers."
Jennifer Lee Crowl, one of the show's dance captains who maneuvers a walker in the showstopping routine, says there's an art to working the walkers. "Having a light touch helps, because the tenser and stiffer you are, the less likely you can keep the rhythm and stay in time with the music. We're fan-kicking and straddling over, or dangling below the walkers."
So just what was the inspiration for the madcap number?
"When you choreograph a show," Stroman explains, "you need to immerse yourself in either the decade or the geographical area. For 'The Producers,' you immerse yourself in the world of Mel Brooks, where a lot of Mel's humor comes out of cliches. When he talks about Max Bialystock raising money from little old ladies, I thought, 'What better way to show that than to give them a walker?' Then ... 26 of them."
Stroman said she's never personally used a walker and didn't know their, well, terpsichorean capabilities. She ordered three kinds and -- voila -- discovered she'd struck the mother lode of props.
At $75 a pop, 30 walkers were ordered (four for swings, or in case of emergency, though none has ever occurred). There's also the rolling walker that Jason Alexander, who plays Max, uses in the number to make his entrance. "Not only does he ride out on it, but one of my biggest men leaps on top of it and does a belly flop, before rolling off the stage," Stroman says.
Even off the stage, the props leave a lasting impression. "If I see a nice little old lady on the street with a walker," Crowl says, "I want to tap her on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, let me show you what I can do with that thing.' "