A crazy time for choreographer leads to a Tony

May 08, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Sun Theater Critic Some people would have called it "hell week," but for choreographer Susan Stroman it was "probably the most exciting week I've ever spent in the theater."

During that memorable week in December 1991, just before the musical "Crazy for You" began its Broadway tryout in Washington, Stroman pulled a couple of all-nighters.

Her first took place in a New York hotel room with several other key members of the show's creative team, who had gathered to rewrite the second act. Then Stroman spent another all-nighter singing and dancing alone in her living room as she worked out routines to replace two discarded production numbers.

All that furious activity paid off, because "Crazy for You," which is loosely based on the 1930 Gershwin musical "Girl Crazy," not ** only went on to win the 1992 Tony Award for best musical (and its British equivalent, the Olivier Award), but Stroman's choreography also won a Tony and an Olivier.

When the touring production begins a three-week run at the Lyric Opera House Tuesday, audiences will see even more of Stroman's choreography than is on view on Broadway. This is because the Broadway finale includes an elevator that rises up from below the stage.

"We were unable to do the finale we do on Broadway because we were unable to punch a hole in the floor of every theater we tour. What we did was actually better because I was able to work out a production number in the end," Stroman explained in a recent interview from the New York apartment she shares with "Crazy for You" director Mike Ockrent.

"Since they now dance out the finale, it became more romantic and more important than relying on the technical razzmatazz. The people who see the touring company are getting choreography plus," she says of the road show, which travels to Berlin after Baltimore, with subsequent stops in American cities including Denver, Seattle, San Diego and Portland, Ore.

Stroman thrives on devising creative solutions to challenges. She comes through in the clinches, according to Ken Ludwig, who, as author of the book for "Crazy for You," was also an integral part of the show's "hell week."

"She's always a pleasure to work with, and in this crisis she was doubly a pleasure because she was willing to take a chance on anything," recalls Ludwig. The show's script concerns a New York banker who travels to a Nevada mining town to foreclose on a theater and ends up falling in love with the theater owner's daughter.

"Crazy for You" was Stroman's Broadway debut as a choreographer. It conferred star status on this relatively new talent, whose previous best-known credit was the hit off-Broadway revue, "The World Goes 'Round," which played the Mechanic Theatre last season.

Her more recent work includes one of the most anticipated shows of the forthcoming season -- director Harold Prince's re-interpreted production of "Show Boat," which is already a hit in Toronto and is scheduled to open on Broadway in October.

For "Show Boat," Stroman says, "I did a lot of research into black history." One of her discoveries was that "the blacks invented the Charleston, and in fact the whites took it away and stiffened it up." She incorporated this information into a second-act montage that includes a scene of white actors watching black dancers do the Charleston, followed by a Charleston number performed by white dancers.

"It was important for me to show the contribution blacks have made to music and dance, which has not been done in 'Show Boat' before," she says.

With this in mind, it seems surprising that "Show Boat" was picketed in Toronto by protesters who labelled it "racist." "I think they were reacting to the original Edna Ferber book, and that is understandable. But what they were doing was picketing something they hadn't seen," Stroman says. "After opening night and after they had seen it and the reviews came out, it all stopped, because it has been cleared of stereotypes."

"Show Boat" is not Stroman's only new project. On the day of this interview she and director Ockrent were holding auditions for a revival of "Kiss Me, Kate," starring Kevin Kline, which will be produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park this summer.

She and Ockrent are also working on a new musical version of "A Christmas Carol," with a score by Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens. "Hopefully it will be something like the Radio City Christmas show," Stroman says of the musical, scheduled to be produced at Madison Square Garden's Paramount Theater in November and December.

A native of Wilmington, Del., who gives her age only as "30something," Stroman attributes her love of music to her father, a retired appliance salesman who played piano in nightclubs and pubs. "My little play space was underneath the piano, so I owe a lot to him for instilling an appreciation of music into my soul," she says.

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