A Conversation with Susan Stroman
October 24, 2001
Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at LCT before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the October 24, 2001 Platform with Susan Stroman:
THOMAS COTT: Good evening, everyone. I'm Thomas Cott, Director of Special Projects for Lincoln Center Theater. Welcome. Tonight is the third and last of a series of Platform talks we've held this month in connection with our production of Thou Shalt Not, which opens tomorrow night at the Plymouth Theatre. The Platform series is made possible by a generous grant from the Rose M. Badgely Residuary Charitable Trust, and it's thanks to their financial support that we're able to bring these events free of charge to you.
And now a few words about tonight's guest. As the recipient of five Tony Awards, among her many honors, she has earned her place among the greatest and most influential directors and choreographers in the history of the American musical. She's actually gone and done them one better, by becoming the first director-choreographer to have four musical running simultaneously in New York: Contact, here at the Beaumont, The Music Man, a little show you may have heard about called The Producers, and of course Thou Shalt Not. To top that, these four will be joined shortly on Broadway by two more shows that she has choreographed: Christmas Carol, which is returning for its eighth year at Madison Square Garden, as well as the acclaimed Royal National Theatre's revival of Oklahoma! which arrives on Broadway this spring. As her friend Mel Brooks recently told CNN, "Nobody can hold a candle to her." And as another industry colleague put it: "There is Susan Stroman, and then there is everybody else." [laughter] Please
welcome Susan Stroman! [applause] So...how are ya?
SUSAN STROMAN: I'm a little nervous!
TC: Well, these evening are informal. I'm going to begin with some questions and then [to the audience] you be thinking about what you want to ask, too. Let's talk about Thou Shalt Not and how the idea of it came to you. Is this something you've been thinking about for a long time?
SS: I read the Emile Zola's novel years ago and loved it. Thérèse Raquin is well-known in Europe, though not as well-known here. And I thought it would make either a wonderful ballet or theater piece. And I started to mull it over in my head about how this could happen. I wanted to make Therese a dancer. One thing that I've never had the opportunity to do would be to dance 'guilt'. Usually that's not done in musical comedy! And I thought it would be wonderful if Therese started out as a beautiful, lyrical dancer. And then, after she commits the crime, the dance changes, it becomes percussive and almost modern. I wanted to try to do a piece like that, that would be very different. Yet I wanted it to be accessible to Americans, so I thought placing it in New Orleans would be a better place, while still retaining the French flavor of the novel. The novel originally takes place in Paris at the turn of the 19th century.
Setting it in 1946 seemed like a good time, because it was right after the War and New Orleans was filled with excitement and hope. The men were back and the music was back and Mardi Gras—which had been closed for years—was back. So it seemed like an exciting time. And I love the idea of dancing passion also, which is not done a lot either in musical comedy. We do a lot of love dances but never get to do passion, and I think everybody would like to be in passion or at least watch passion! [laughter] So in every way, the idea of making Therese a dancer was attractive to me.
I went about picking a collaborator, the writer Tommy Thompson—we've done several shows together: And The World Goes Round and Steel Pier and shows for television. And then we had to find a composer. I had been a fan of Harry Connick's music and felt the music he had written on a lot of his CDs was very poetic and sensual and he seemed the right man to do this. Plus he's from New Orleans so he brings an authenticity to the score.
TC: Okay, but even though you're the world's most famous director and choreographer, Harry didn't know who you were, right?
SS: [laughs] It was quite difficult getting a hold of Harry. I would call his managers and they would say, 'Oh, someone from the theater, sorry, he's busy.' [laughter] But I just kept at it, because I knew he was the right person. And it's funny—I had sent him a treatment and the book. And I didn't hear anything. And then he was on a talk show one day and I tuned in and they were asking him silly questions like 'what's your favorite color, who's your favorite singer' and then they asked 'what's the last book you read' and he said Thérèse Raquin! And I thought, 'ooh, I'm in!' [laughter] So I did another letter and said I had a show called Contact and would you please come and see it. And he came to see it and I attacked him in the lobby and I said 'I know you have this in you'—because Harry grew up singing Rodgers & Hart and Rodgers & Hammerstein and Gershwin. He also has a contemporary jazz sound. And I wanted the score to have a jazz base to it, because jazz is very dangerous in its feeling.
I had the opportunity to do a ballet with Wynton Marsalis about two years ago, for the New York City Ballet. It was my first experience dealing with 'jazz cats' and it was very different from dealing with musical comedy people. But I loved that feel. There's a lot of improv. If anyone's been to New Orleans, there's a dangerous feel in that town. When you go around the corner, you don't think you're going to get mugged, you think you're going to get your throat cut! [laughter] It has that kind of atmosphere. And I needed to bring that to the piece, I needed to have that dangerous quality. And Harry seemed like the right man to do it.
TC: Now I've worked in the New York theater for about twenty years and I've met a lot of folks, and I can safely say that you have one of the sunniest personalities I've encountered. And if you think about the shows you've done—Contact, The Music Man, The Producers—these are pure expressions of joy. So now you have, as Darth Vader would say, 'gone to the dark side.' What's that's about?
SS: [laughs] Well, I hang someone in Contact and there's an abusive relationship in Contact! What's wonderful about doing theater is you can do diverse things. People accept that. You can do something as outrageous as The Producers, something as family-oriented as The Music Man, and something as mature and contemporary as Contact…and I wanted to do something different. I wanted to take a chance.
TC: Fair enough. Now you've described Thou Shalt Not as a cautionary tale, about the consequences of a passion that spins out of control. You said in an interview I read: "It's about what happens when you break the rules. God help those who break the rules." I wonder if you think that the show has taken on a new meaning, in the context of what's happened since September 11th. And I'm interested what it was like trying to put on the show during this period.
SS: We were in tech during that period. It was very difficult. I remember the first day back. When the planes hit, all of Broadway evacuated, because I think people thought they were going to hit Times Square. When everybody went back, people went back to their shows—but we went back to tech. It was quite difficult to rally people together. I think I became an adult for the first time in my life on that day.
TC: What did you say to the company?
SS: I said that the people who did that, they don't want out money, they don't want our land, they don't want our women… they just want our spirit. And we couldn't give that to them. We had to go back to work. Because they couldn't have the Broadway spirit, that's for sure. The thing is, Broadway is New York and it's important for us all to go back to work. What we do for a living helps define us as human beings and so we had to go back. And the thing about Thou Shalt Not… it is about what happens when you break the rules, the consequences that happen, the domino effect on family and friends. There's a line in Thou Shalt Not where Camille says, "Retribution. Hell, it's what we been fighting a war for, ain't that right, Laurent?" And he does get retribution in the end, in his own way.
TC: So maybe that has extra meaning for audiences watching it.
SS: Oh, yes, I think so. Absolutely.
TC: [to the audience] I'm not sure if you know this, but most musicals take many years to develop. It's not uncommon for it to take as much as 8 to 10 years. But this show happened rather quickly. [to SS:] From the time you started—well, the workshop of this show was a year ago last October. We could probably have even done it sooner than now, except you were busy with that little show The Producers and the national tour of Contact. So it's been very quick. I'm wondering if you think that's helped your process by focusing your energies for such a short time.
SS: It can only go as quickly as your collaborators are quick. Harry is fast at writing music. The melodies pour out of him. And I think everyone just focused in. A lot of times when you do a musical, you can't get things out of some of your collaborators, your writers or composer, but this just seemed to go fast.
TC: Contact was developed extensively in a workshop setting. Was Thou Shalt Not more pre-formed before it got in the rehearsal room?
SS: Sure, because it was based on a novel. So we could always look back to the book. Contact just came out of my head, so it took on different form every day that I went into rehearsal.
TC: And yet you felt the need to do a workshop of Thou Shalt Not, rather than just go into rehearsals. Was that because you felt there was some development that still needed to be done?
SS: Yes, because there's a lot of dancing, and trying to get that New Orleans feel and the rhythms. And because it is a difficult story. And trying to make it sing and dance… In the novel, Madame Raquin runs a haberdashery and Laurent is a painter, but that doesn't really sing or dance. So in this case, Madame runs a nightclub and Laurent and Camille are both jazz pianists and Therese is a dancer.
TC: So you found reasons for them to be musical?
SS: I think that in any musical you have to make sure that it is believable when anyone sings or when anyone dances, so it was important to make it more feasible that they would break into song.
TC: Do you want to talk a bit about what changed from the workshop to now? And what changes you've made since previews began?
SS: Harry re-wrote about three numbers. And we kept developing the script, too… because when a character commits murder, you want to understand why that happens. We've made it because Laurent was really in love with Therese. In the novel, he's more animalistic, but I think for the musical's sake, we had to know that he was absolutely obsessed with her.
TC: Last week, Tommy Thompson spoke at his Platform about what happens when you go from the rehearsal room and you're sitting three feet from the performers to sitting in the theater where the audience is much further away, and the adjustment you have to make.
SS: Yeah, no matter what show I do, it always goes better in the rehearsal studio! [laughter] Because when you get up on stage, you're getting into the sets and lighting and costumes, and a lot of time things are better in your imagination, with just leotards and tights! Even something like The Producers went through changes from the studio, because things are much funnier when I'm this close to you compared to when you're way over there. And the same thing happened with Thou Shalt Not. Some things were much more powerful, when you're right on top of it. And then all of a sudden, you get an orchestra pit between you and it has less power, so those things had to be worked on.
TC: Bruce Weber, writing in The New York Times' fall season preview, wrote "Anyone who's seen Contact with its frank celebration of sexuality knows that Ms. Stroman isn't shy about putting carnality on stage." And Thou Shalt Not is indeed a steamy show. Was there ever a point where you said 'this is going too far, this is too explicit"?
SS: I think that, in Thou Shalt Not, we get away with a lot of that because of the dance elements, because when you dance it becomes more poetic. When they go to bed together, they don't have sex, they dance on the bed and it's done to counts, it's done through poetry.
TC: Many other of the great director-choreographers have what we think of as a certain style or 'look' to their shows. When you saw a Gower Champion or a Bob Fosse show, you could tell. Do you think there is such a thing as a Susan Stroman show? Or do you try and do something different for each show you do?
SS: I would never want to impose a style on a show. It's more like [Jerome] Robbins, who would do what was appropriate to the show. And I think that's better storytelling, for me to immerse myself in the decade and the geographical area of a particular show—and do what's appropriate to make it believable when someone sings and dances. So if I'm doing Music Man, they'll do the Castle Walk, because that was appropriate at that time. And it's not the pure Castle Walk, it's my version of it. Like in Contact, it's swing dancing, but it's not really swing dancing, but my version of it. It's what appropriate for the show. The one thing my shows have in common is it's very rhythmic, all my choreography, even when it's lyrical, still has rhythm in it.
TC: What kind of research do you do before you launch into a new show?
SS: I do a lot of research. For Thou Shalt Not, it was researching New Orleans, going to New Orleans and researching the music, researching the time, the period. Looking at books, movies… all of that will help you develop your show. If you're able to immerse yourself in the time and the geographical area.
TC: I'm not sure if you people know, but there have been a number of adaptations of the novel, including a play version by Zola himself. Did you refer back to any of those?
SS: Sure. I read the novel and read the play that he had written. Kate Nelligan did a BBC production that I watched. The thing is, the novel is so dark—somehow we had to place those characters in the more musical area.
TC: Are there questions now from the audience?
AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: How do you go about structuring the narrative of a dance like the "Thou Shalt Not Ballet" in the second act?
SS: Therese goes to punish herself for the crime that she has committed. She goes down to the wharf in New Orleans and puts herself in dangeous situations with the men on the wharf, with voodoo—and she does end up getting raped. That's her punishment for what she has done to Camille. We tried to show her journey down there—the turntables on the set help that also, we've got three turntables in the show. We show her walking through the wharf and almost getting caught, almost getting hit by somebody, and then finally just standing there, letting it happen to her. Letting these men come up to her.
TC: In the process of developing it, did you say to Harry, 'I need X number of bars of music here and X number of bars there…'? Or did he deliver you a finished piece of music which you choreographed?
SS: We worked on it together. Yes, I said I needed four bars of eight counts for 'Voodoo Mama' to come [laughter] and four counts of eight for 'The Dance Muse' to come and bother Therese, so it's all mapped out. Harry and I worked it out in the studio before the actors came.
TC: And did you say to Tommy, 'I think there should be a ballet here'? Or did that organically come out of rehearsals?
SS: Again, we worked together on it. Yes, we knew that at that point, she had to go to the wharf, but again it's much better for the audience rather than sitting through a rape, to have them sit through a more poetic, balletic piece, so it was more palatable.
AM #2: For me, the second halves of both Contact and Thou Shalt Not seem stronger than the first parts, because of the energy of the dancing. Can you comment on this?
SS: Well, in Contact, the second piece—"Did You Move?"—is done to classical music, which may not be everybody's cup of tea. People might rather hear the Beach Boys or "Simply Irresistible" which they hear in the third piece. But in the second piece, it's appropriate that it's classical music. The husband says to his wife, "Don't talk to the waiter, don't smile at the busboy, don't fuckin' move!" And the thing is, what you would do to rebel against someone telling you not to move would be not just moving, but classical ballet! And that led to using classical music. But that music is very lyrical, the piece is very lyrical. That would be much less energized than doing Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible". So it's true, the energy is more in that third piece. But in the second piece, it was appropriate for storytelling to do that.
And in Thou Shalt Not, we have the same thing, a choreographic journey which starts with more lyrical dancing. Therese's first piece is a jazz waltz which she dances more lyrically, whereas in the second act it's much more percussive. And when you add more rhythm, of course you have more energy. Her dancing becomes more about agony and punishment. So yes, you're right, in the case of both shows there would be more energy in the second act, because of that rhythm.
AM #3: First of all, I want to say you are a consummate storyteller. Would you mind telling us a little bit about your personal background, your childhood, where you came from, etc.
SS: Well, I'm from Delaware. The First State. It's either the Bravest State or the State of Fools. [laughter] I grew up in Delaware. My father was and still is a wonderful piano player, so I grew up in a house filled with music. All sorts of music. Classical, standards, rock & roll. And I always danced, and took piano lessons and guitar lessons and voice lessons. I graduated from the University of Delaware as an English major. But I have to say I always would visualize music as a child, and I still do to this day. Whether it be an old standard or a piece of rock music, I imagine hordes of people dancing in my head. It's almost an obsession. If I put on music, it's not relaxing to me. I picture sets and costumes and people dancing. And that was true even when I was a child. So I either had to become a choreographer, I suppose, or go crazy, one or the other.
AM #4: How did you discover the Ambroce Bierce short story "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" [which was an inspiration for the third piece in Contact]?
SS: Well actually, I knew that from being an English major!
AM #5: In the second act of Thou Shalt Not, when Camille comes back from the dead, was it meant to be eerie or comical?
SS: In the novel, he comes back dripping seaweed, and he's green with his eyeballs hanging out, and I didn't think that would be good for us. [laughter] And Camille, because he's a jazz pianist, he would come back with that kind of jazz song. His singing "Oh, Ain't That Sweet" is sarcastic. And the number is staged so he follows Therese and Laurent everywhere. And really, it's Therese who feels the guilt of him. So it's meant to be more sarcastic, and not really macabre.
AM #6: Craig Bierko is more of an actor than a singer or a dancer. Was that a conscious decision to focus more on the storytelling aspect?
SS: Yes, it was. I really needed someone to be solid in his acting chops to get us through there. And the dancing would be more for Therese.
AM #7: Is there any one thing you feel is most important in your work?
SS: Probably collaboration. I think the success of any musical is collaboration with your team, and being open to suggestions, being able to take a chance. To be able to say anything that comes to mind. Because even if you say something completely silly, it could make your collaborator take that information and turn it into gold.
TC: The last two composers you've worked with—Mel Brooks and Harry Connick, Jr.—while extremely accomplished in other genres, were novices in writing musicals. Is there a difference in the way you collaborate with someone who's a first-timer, versus working with, say, Kander & Ebb, who've been doing this for their whole lives?
SS: Sure, Kander and Ebb have done so much and know the process. But I have to say that Mel Brooks, as much a handful as he is [laughter], he still was very collaborative and he came to the people who know how to do musicals. And he was wonderful about allowing us to help him down that road. He was terrific.
AM #8: In an recent interview on CNN, you said that the last thing you think about are the actual dance steps. So how do you work it out in your head, what's your process?
SS: It's a little different with every show, but it's mostly doing the research, that we spoke about before, and then immersing myself in the music and how I'm going to tell that story. In some cases, I develop the music to almost manipulate the emotion. For example, in Crazy For You, if I'm doing "Shall We Dance?" and if I wanted him to chase her, I would play it in a fast two. If I wanted him to fall in love with her, I would play it in three-quarter time. If I wanted him to be coy and shy with her, I would put it in a soft shoe rhythm. And that's how I develop the music. In Oklahoma! you will see next year, the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate allowed me to develop all the music, it's all new dance music. So it's the same idea, when Will Parker says he went to Kansas City and heard ragtime, and all of a sudden "Everything's Up To Date In Kansas City" will now be done in ragtime. So it's taking that music and developing it in its time signature, to help the emotions and story.
Usually what I'll do is work it through with a dance arranger or pianist and then I do the steps afterwards. But for something like Contact, it would be saying I needed a song to end Contact where he ends up hanging himself again. And what kind of song would that be? Well, if I could look into Hell and see the Devil, I know that he would be playing "Sing Sing Sing"! [laughter] I just know it. So I thought this would be the ultimate song to choose, so I picked "Sing Sing Sing," because it's the most nerve-wracking song and it has the drums and that primitive rhythm. And it seemed to be the one to sort of swell us up into Michael Wiley hanging himself again.
AM #9: There are very few famous female directors and you're the most famous. Does being a woman make it harder for you?
TC: I was going to ask the same thing. Although there are quite a few female directors working on Broadway right now. Julie Taymor with The Lion King, Phyllida Lloyd and Mamma Mia!, Graciela Daniele who's done many things, Ann Reinking… do you think we're in a new era where it's more equal between women and men?
SS: Absolutely. But I think, in the last 15 years too, theater has gotten a little out of control financially. And a lot of male producers do not want to give women that opportunity, to have $10 million to do what they want with their musical! And that has changed in the last few years. But I think it used to have to do with financial things, sadly, that people would not want to take a chance on a woman when finances were involved. But I think in the last several years, this has changed in all businesses.
TC: You were recently the only theater person to be named to Entertainment Weekly's list of the 100 most important people in entertainment industry. Does that kind of fame and reputation make it harder for you? Is there any kind of extra burden on you or your work?
SS: Not personally, no. Because I think we go into these things not for prizes, not for anything but the art of it. That's what so wonderful especially about working at Lincoln Center Theater, it's very nurturing here to the artists, so you don't go into it looking for that kind of end. I didn't even know that was happening in the magazine, someone else showed it to me. I don't think about those things. I think, too, as a director and choreographer, you're there for the actors, for your collaborators, so it's more about being in the moment, for the lifeforce of a show. So it's about that.
AM #10: The Producers had a tryout in Chicago, but Thou Shalt Not went straight to Broadway. Can you explain why?
SS: If there is an opportunity to go out of town, it's always better to go out of town. The Producers was put on by a group of commercial producers, and Thou Shalt Not is done by Lincoln Center Theater, a not-for-profit theater. The only reason it isn't on campus here, in one of these theaters, is because Contact is doing so well.
TC: You're competing with yourself!
SS: [laughs] Yes, I am. But in fact, it normally would have opened at here, in this complex. It costs about $2 million to do a big show like these out of town, so whatever your budget is, you have to add $2 million on top of that, which Producers did. And we wanted to do that to work out the kinks—we were running long, our intermission was an hour and 45 minutes [laughs], so it was good to go out of town on that show.
AM #11: Do you have any advice for aspiring directors?
SS: I think the best advice is you can't wait around for someone to hire you. You have to go out and create it yourself. I think part of why I'm here is because I went out and created And The World Goes Round and knocked on Kander & Ebb's door and said 'let me do Flora, The Red Menace at the Vineyard Theater.' It's taking a chance, if you really believe in yourself and your art, you can't wait for somebody to hire you. You have to start it up and create it yourself. That's a big part of it. A lot of people just sit around and wait for the phone to ring.
AM #12: Can you talk about how you got the idea for the first act finale of The Producers with the old ladies with the walkers?
SS: There's an example of immersing yourself in the world of Mel Brooks! [laughter] And knowing Mel Brooks humor, and understanding his movies and understanding him and reading all about him. The success of a lot of his humor is cliché, the stereotype…that's part of who Mel Brooks is. When Max Bialystock has to go to visit the old ladies to get all the money, the way Mel Brooks sees little old ladies is with canes and walkers, so I took some walkers into a rehearsal studio and did everything I could with a walker and then created the number to end Act One.
TC: Which leads to another question. When you go into rehearsals, have you already worked out in your head what you're going to do and then adjust it once you're with the dancers?
SS: Yes, when I create something, I usually have it completely created in pre-production. But then what happens is, I go in and I feed off of the actors also, because that ultimately gives me the best result. Because ultimately if I make something up, say, a combination that turns to the left, a dancer will say 'I do better if I turn that to the right,' and it has a domino effect. But at least I have thought through it and have almost a cradle for them to fall back on. I have it pretty much thought through, the entire show. They don't always know that. [laughter]
TC: You've done many long-running shows. Do you go back often and do you change things after a show has opened?
SS: Yes, I do. Especially if you have a changeover in casts. Because the theater is live, and part of its success is using the talents of the actors who are up there. Being open to changing it for them. Whoever replaces Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers, I'll develop it for them and change bits for them.
TC: When we did the national tour of Contact, you had to do a big change because the show here was designed for a three-quarter round thrust stage and most tour houses are proscenium theaters. Do you want to talk a little about the process of recreating Contact for the road?
SS: Sure. It meant flattening out all the choreography and bringing all the scenework downstage. And that had a domino effect on every single step in the show! So it meant going back into the rehearsal room. But in fact, that was a very good thing for those actors, because I was there to create a new Contact with them, and they feel that it's their own. It has a very fresh feeling. A lot of national tours are not like that, they're just recreations of a Broadway show. But this one has a very fresh feel and the actors feel as if they've created it themselves.
TC: And you're also going to work on Contact in London…
SS: Yes… and Japan.
TC: So you're living with this show for many, many years! And The Producers will also have a tour or twelve. And will be seen in London and Japan. So you're going to be busy with both shows for the forseeable future. Do you have any new shows which are percolating in your head?
SS: Yes, I have some other ideas in my head.
TC: Do you care to share them? Pay no attention to this microphone.
SS: [laughs] I've got to get through Christmas Carol first…
AM #13: I'm visiting from out of town and have gotten to see both Thou Shalt Not and Contact—actually, I liked the dancing in Thou Shalt Not even more than Contact. I have a background in gymnastics, so I've always been impressed by the very physical dance shows, like Bob Fosse's production of Pippin. And I was struck by how fearless the dancers seemed in both of your shows.
SS: It's very important that I hire people who are fearless. In rehearsal, they need to not be afraid to try things, not be afraid to fall on their butts. There are some people who quite skittish, and they're not the folks that I need to work with. I need to work with people who have that fearless quality. I'll never forget Karen Ziemba in Steel Pier. There was an airplane set and we were in tech and the dancers got up on top of the airplane and it went up in the air and all the girls were saying 'Oh, no, I can't do it!' And then Karen said, 'Can I try?' And the airplane went up in the air, and she just danced from one end of the plane to the other, and there was no problem. She has a fearless quality, and an assuredness about her in her dancing.
That's not to say that I want people to take reckless chances, but there is certainly a sense of balance, a sense of breath that people have that can make them fearless, to make them more sure of themselves. I can see it an audition, actually. And I'm sure as a gymnast, you know that too. There's a certain center, a certain breath of an actor that you can click in during an audition, and you can see that immediately. That's the kind of guy I want to work with.
TC: In that last question, a comparison was made between Contact and Thou Shalt Not, and I'm not going to make you comment on which show you like better personally—it's a little like asking you to choose between your children! But I'm curious if you are aware of the development of your artistry as a director, even in just the last few years, from Contact to The Producers and now to Thou Shalt Not?
SS: I think I've been very lucky in my career, in the sense that it's been like a stepping-stone, every show that I've done, whether or not it's been a financial success or not, for me it's been artistically fulfilling, because I've been able to take a little bit of what I learned from that show and apply it to the next show. So it's been quite natural the way the shows have fallen into place. Every show I do there's a little bit of that last show in the new show. But I do try to find some sort of theme in the choreography. In Thou Shalt Not, it's dangerous and percussive and scary. In Contact, it's all about making contact, touching it other. In Oklahoma!, the theme is about fighting and territory. So all the choreography is fight-oriented. It's about 'Can you top this?' So it has that kind of theme to it. It's finding that kind of idea to then place choreographically in the show, given the journey.
TC: You've done a few ballets, one for New York City Ballet, and one for Martha Graham. Will you be doing more of that, do you think? In your copious free time?
SS: [laughs] I think so. I've been asked by both American Ballet Theatre and City Ballet, so I think probably yes…
AM #14: I saw a musical in London recently called The Beautiful Game, about the conflict in Northern Ireland and its effect on the young people there. My wish is for you to do that show here, or a show like that here… would you ever consider it?
SS: I always feel that it needs to be believable when characters sing and dance. In the opening number of The Music Man, no one dances. It's very stiff, they're stubborn Iowans. And then the Music Man does a dance step, and a little child will do a dance step and then an adult will do a dance step, so it has a Pied Piper theme. So no one dances for the first 20, 30 minutes, but by the end of Act Two, everyone's doing the Shipoopi. So he's brought rhythm and music to this town. If a musical's about war, it's very difficult for an audience to accept singing and dancing. I don't think that was true 20 years ago, but I think it is true today. Audiences have a more cinematic eye—it has to be more believable.
AM #15: I was interested by something you said before, about changing the music in Oklahoma! What happened to the Rodgers & Hammerstein music? Is that gone?
SS: No, no, no! We're not changing the score, we're changing the dance arrangements. For example, in Crazy For You, I took the melody of "I Got Rhythm" but then opened it up for 12 minutes of dance. And the Gershwin estate allowed me to do that. In Show Boat, I took four or five Kern themes and made a montage in Act Two to show the passing of time, 27 years, and the Kern estate allowed me to do that. In Oklahoma!, "The Farmer and the Cowhand" is much more masculine in its choreography, it's much more about aggressive fighting. The Rodgers & Hammerstein estate allowed me to open up the music to suit my choreography. Ever choreographer, when they develop their dance, also develops their dance music. That's not a rarity.
AM #16: Of all the shows you've worked on, which is your favorite?
SS: [laughs] Well... I'm always in love with the one I'm with right now, so right now I'm in love with Thou Shalt Not.
TC: Well, we are in love with Susan Stroman—right now and forever. Unfortunately, we have to stop now, because we need to clear the lobby so that Contact can go on with its performance tonight. But thank you so much, Susan Stroman, for being here, and thanks to all of you for coming here tonight as well. Good night, everyone! [applause]