by Mo Brady
“Mounting a production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway is a monolith project,” says choreographer Chris Bailey. “The entire show is staged from the overture to the bows. You could take two weeks to stage one number. It’s complex and brilliant, but daunting.”
Bailey first came to The Muny six years ago to recreate Rob Ashford’s original choreography for Thoroughly Modern Millie. “At the time I went to The Muny as a favor to Rob, but I found that I really loved it,” says Bailey. “Working at The Muny has become a big part of my summer each year.”
Since 2012, he has returned to The Muny to stage Into the Woods, My Fair Lady and Tarzan among others. Last summer, he took the reigns of a complete production at The Muny for the first time, both directing and choreographing Newsies.
One of Bailey’s favorite aspects of working at The Muny is how it feels like a return to the impetus of theatre: “Commercial theatre takes a lot of technology to create. When you go to The Muny, it’s like going back to basics. Obviously they use modern techniques, but a lot of what they do now is the same as they did 100 years ago. They still built wooden sets that are pushed on and offstage by stagehands.”
The most successful Muny directors and choreographers are those who know how to create incredible theatre on an efficient schedule. Having staged a show at The Muny every summer since 2012, Bailey is able to thrive under the theatre’s unique production timeline.
This June, The Muny in St. Louis will stage the first professional production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in nearly 30 years, with Bailey serving as production supervisor. Performed as a revue, the show features dance suites from On The Town, Billion Dollar Baby, West Side Story, The King and I, Peter Pan, High Button Shoes, Call Me Madam and Fiddler On The Roof. “When you stage a musical revival, audiences always attend with a great deal of nostalgia. But this is like staging eight revivals worth of nostalgia at once. I think expectations will be high.”
While the show took home the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1989, its epic staging has made it difficult to recreate. Bailey was a part of the initial discussions about what it would take for The Muny to take on Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. “When we started our research, I went to the New York Public Library of Performing Arts. They had lots of videos and lots of paperwork from the original dance team. But the most incredible, detailed and clearest notes were from Cynthia Onrubia.”
A Broadway legend in her own right, Cynthia Onrubia worked as Jerome Robbins’ assistant on the original production, in addition to supervising movement on the original Broadway production of Cats and the last two Broadway revivals of Cabaret. For The Muny’s production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Onrubia will serve as director.
Jerome Robbins’ Broadway marks Bailey’s first time working with Onrubia. Even before rehearsals have begun, he has seen her skill set for bringing this project to life. “She has this incredible intimate knowledge of the show. When she teaches the staging, she doesn’t watch any videos. The choreography is engraved in her mind and on her body.”
For The Muny’s production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Bailey will helm sections of the show, including the mammoth West Side Story suite that closes the first act. However, he is not a stranger to the choreography of Jerome Robbins: “I grew up watching the film of West Side Story. It’s the kind of dancing that I want to do: real people expressing themselves.”
In fact, he used the original West Side Story choreography when he staged The Muny’s production in 2013. However, the staging for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway contains some adjustments from the show’s original production. Those changes range from different arms or feet in “Cool” to an extra stanza of choreography in the Cha Cha portion of “Dance at the Gym.”
While the Muny’s cast for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway has yet to be announced, Bailey can confirm that it features current Broadway performers alongside younger talents. Bailey notes that this mirrors the casting of the original production, where professional ballet dancers like Robert LaFosse were dancing alongside teenagers making their professional debuts.
“The show is a living memory,” says Bailey. “Our dancers will be recreating movement that other people in the Broadway community originated. Renowned ensemblists like JoAnn M. Hunter originated tracks in the Broadway show. In our production, someone will be doing exactly what JoAnn did thirty years ago, dancing the same movements to the same music in the same spacing. Who knows if these young performers will become the next stalwarts of Broadway.”
Jerome Robbins’ Broadway opens The Muny’s historic centennial season June 11 - 17.