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Who rules the musical?

Daring storytelling that integrates song and dance is rare. But a few auteurs strive for the elusive formula.

March 05, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

BROADWAY has always prized director-choreographers who could deliver hit musicals with an individual stamp on them -- masters such as Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Michael Bennett and Tommy Tune. Even when an individual project failed, they brought a special excitement to the Great White Way: that Broadway rhythm long celebrated on stage and screen.

Building on the achievements of their predecessors, these theater artists explored subjects that musicals had always avoided and found ways to make dance integral to a show's narrative thrust rather than just a diversion. Moreover, nearly all of them addressed show business itself as a metaphor for the superficial values and obsession with celebrity that plague American society.

Of this distinguished company, Tune is the last man standing, someone who won nine Tony Awards and pretty much owned Broadway in the 1980s. He remains active at age 67 but now thinks of himself, he says, "as an anachronism," dismayed by the conditions under which musicals must currently be created.

"You used to have one driving force behind you," he said between performances of "Doctor Dolittle," which plays two final times today at the Pantages Theatre before moving to the San Diego Civic Auditorium and then the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

"But there aren't any individual producers anymore -- they're all committees. Or corporations. When you sit down with them, sometimes you have as many as 12 people at the table and they each voice an opinion. And you watch your work dissolving into shreds, with so many people pecking at it."

Tune finds that the musicals surviving this kind of creative process don't really need the kind of star director-choreographer that used to dominate musicals. Instead, they require people adept at what he calls "that environmental theme-park-ride kind of thing."

"Do you notice that in those shows the audiences lean back in their seats while in the shows that I have always admired they sit on the edge of their seats and lean forward? Audiences don't have to listen now because it's cranked up. They don't have to imagine anything because the staging shows it all. It's a different time.

"I used to call what I did a theater of nuance, and that is like saying 'kindness.' People shrug and say, 'Huh?' "

Although Tune hasn't given up hope, he doesn't believe that Broadway is currently the right place for an innovative name-above-the-title director-choreographer: "That time has passed." But some of the highest-profile inheritors of the great tradition he speaks about refuse to apologize for staging musicals.

Susan Stroman describes a contemporary audience hungry for connection. Graciela Daniele says that the word "musical" no longer suggests light entertainment but a whole range of performance experiences. Kathleen Marshall suggests that America has produced musical theater classics that ought to be brought to the stage as often as plays by Shakespeare. And Matthew Bourne declares that whatever the musical can or can't do in the millennium, the real action for him is in dance.

Dropping in on them in London and New York, you find them eager to take musical theater beyond anybody's expectations, while respecting the artifacts of the past -- whether a beloved movie, an unforgettable piece of choreography, a daring play or a body of work ripe for revival. Watch them fly -- as long as the daunting conditions for staging musicals don't clip their wings.

**

MATTHEW BOURNE

"Super-cali-fragi-listic-expiali-docious..."

ONSTAGE at London's Prince Edward Theatre, the entire cast of "Mary Poppins" is singing -- and spelling out in some secret sign language -- the ultimate Last Word from the 1964 Disney film.

But this stage adaptation (now in its second year and opening on Broadway in November) isn't your nanny's "Mary Poppins." No, it manages to deliver the most beloved Sherman brothers songs from the film -- creatively re-contextualized -- while adding new ones by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe that help support episodes from P.L. Travers' original stories that Disney deemed too dark 42 years ago.

The unlikely choreographer and co-director (with Richard Eyre) is none other than Matthew Bourne -- the same Matthew Bourne who gave the world male swans in the decidedly provocative "Swan Lake" that won him two Tony Awards and returns to the Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday in its 10th-anniversary production.

He also turned Bizet's "Carmen" into "The Car Man," the story of a bisexual drifter who shakes up a small American town, and adapted Joseph Losey's 1963 film "The Servant" for an experimental class-conscious dance-drama titled "Play Without Words."

True, Bourne has choreographed major productions of "Oliver!," "South Pacific" and "My Fair Lady" in his native England. But his role as co-director of "Mary Poppins" allowed him to enrich the project with the same offbeat humor and edge found in his alternately witty and powerful dance dramas.

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