It began with a phone call in the fall of 1998.

Lincoln Center Theater's artistic director, André Bishop, had long admired the work of Broadway choreographer Susan Stroman (a double Tony® Award winner for Crazy For You and Show Boat). Shortly after seeing her work on the musical Steel Pier, he called and invited Stroman to work at LCT. They met at his office and he offered the theater's resources to help her develop a new theater piece, one that she would -- for the first time in her career -- conceive and direct as well as choreograph.

She immediately went home and called their mutual friend John Weidman, co-author of the new book for LCT's Tony®-winning revival of Anything Goes, as well as books for the Stephen Sondheim musicals Pacific Overtures and Assassins. Weidman went over to Stroman's apartment where they sat on the living room floor and started tossing out ideas for a show. Stroman remembered going to an after-hours club in downtown Manhattan a few months before. It was a pool hall during the day, but after midnight the pool tables were pushed aside and the customers would swing dance to contemporary pop music.

In the middle of the crowd was a stunning young woman in a short yellow dress who, at the beginning of each song, took a step onto the dance floor and waited for a man to approach her. Sometimes she would shake her head and step back, sometimes she would agree to dance with one of these 'suitors'. The woman would dance one dance, then retreat to the sidelines and wait for the next man to approach.

"She was clearly there to make contact," recalls Stroman. "As I watched her, I thought to myself, 'by the end of the night, this girl is going to change some guy's life.'" Weidman found the image equally striking. "When I was a kid, we hoped dancing would be a prelude to something else -- a date, necking, something. The notion that this woman was using dance both to make contact, and at the same time to limit and control how far that contact would go, seemed remarkable to me."

So the two creators had a vivid image, one which they felt suggested a lot about the state of relationships at the end of the 20th century. But how best to turn it into a musical?

Early on, they talked about bringing in a composer and lyricist to write an original score for a traditional two-act script. The more they talked about the content of the show, however, the more it seemed as though the show needed to find its own form. The characters didn't seem to want to sing, but they did want to dance.

So Stroman and Weidman developed a scenario, inspired by the Ambrose Bierce short story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, which used popular recordings -- songs which were lodged in the subconscious mind of the main character -- as it's 'score'. They took their idea back to Bishop, who agreed to mount a workshop production in February of 1999. A company of extraordinary dancers was hired, along with an actor not yet know for his dancing acumen: Boyd Gaines, in the central role of Michael Wiley, the man whose life is about to be changed by The Girl In The Yellow Dress.

At the end of the six-week rehearsal period, Bishop and LCT Executive Producer Bernard Gersten watched a 70-minute run-through of "Contact" -- a working title at first, but one that has stuck with the project ever since. They were delighted with what they saw and agreed to do a full production at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Since the piece was relatively short, they also asked the creators to consider developing a companion piece to flesh out the evening.

In fact, even before the workshop of "Contact" was over, the creators had begun to do just that. Three stories rather than two felt like the right balance, and since "Contact" is based on swing dancing, Stroman and Weidman began playing with the word 'swing'.

A painting by the 18th century French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard became the spark for the first piece. Fragonard's famous work, The Swing depicts a bucolic forest setting in which a beautiful young woman soars on a swing while two men look on. Imagining the story behind the painting, Weidman and Stroman came up with a wordless (almost) dance tale in which a servant and his master vie for the young lady's affection.

The second story took off from the word 'swingers', as in Frank Sinatra's infamous Rat Pack swingers in '60s-era Las Vegas. But as this piece evolved, the thematic connection among the three pieces became clearer and more prominent, the authors changed directions. "All three pieces have to do with contact," says Stroman. "The ability or inability to connect." So the main character in the second story became a wistful housewife, alternately reaching out to a remote, abusive husband, and retreating from him into a romantic fantasy. And the setting shifted, too, from a Las Vegas bar to an Italian restaurant in Queens in 1954.

A second workshop took place in June 1999 to develop the companion pieces. Nearly all of the dancers from the first workshop returned with some important additions -- notably Karen Ziemba in the pivotal role of the wife in the second story. After six-weeks of rehearsals, the two new stories were presented to Bishop and Gersten, and everyone agreed: CONTACT was complete and ready to go.

What had begun as a remembered image of a woman in a yellow dress had evolved into a finished, balanced evening of three stories, each about the struggle to connect, expressed as fantasy. In "Swinging," three people act out a fantasy of erotic connection which is concrete and fully realized. In "Did You Move?," a melancholy housewife daydreams the connection for which she yearns. And in "Contact," a desperate man's subconscious conjures up a fantasy of connection which ultimately saves his life.

It is almost unheard-of in the musical theater for a project to go from conception to production in less than a year, but that is what happened with CONTACT. Previews began on September 9, 1999 at the Newhouse and a month later it opened to some of the most over-the-moon reviews seen in many seasons.

"CONTACT achieves what few musicals do these days: a euphoric connection between the audience and the stage," raved The New York Times' Ben Brantley. "It's a sustained endorphin rush of an evening, that rare entertainment that has you floating all the way home. Susan Stroman, aided by John Weidman's clever script and a dream ensemble, has created a new musical throbbing with wit, sex appeal and a perfectionist's polish. The dancers who make up the ensemble each register with a firm stamp of individuality. You're astonished by the clear, distinct presence of every performer on stage. To dance is to live in Ms. Stroman's world. CONTACT lets you feel that you've joined that dance."


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