Heard And Not Seen

Baltimore native Michael Dansicker dodges the limelight but deftly molds Bob Dylan's music for Broadway

October 15, 2006|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,[sun theater critic]

NEW YORK — IT'S A CIRCUS BEHIND THE CURTAIN AT Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

At the back of the stage, an actor, holding an umbrella for balance, tiptoes across a tightrope. Nearby, a second performer whirls through the air, bounding from a trampoline into somersault after somersault. A few others stretch their legs, pirouette or cavort.

In 45 minutes, the curtain will rise for a preview matinee, and the opening notes of The Times They Are A-Changin', the new Twyla Tharp-Bob Dylan musical, will ring out. Between now and opening night Oct. 26, every element of the $8.5 million show will be scrutinized, tweaked, polished and finessed. Now, however, the members of this motley band are limbering up, focused on the performance that's about to begin.

As the legendary Tharp -- small, gray-haired and intense -- flits onstage, then disappears into the wings, a tall, thin man stands nearly motionless. Dressed in jeans and a navy shirt -- the least colorful get-up on stage -- he does little to attract attention. But, as though on signal, the performers gather 'round and begin their warm-up exercises. "Bah, bah, bah, bah. Me, oh, me, oh, me, oh, me."

This is Michael Dansicker in his element: out of the limelight, but at the heart of things. Although audience members never see this unprepossessing man, he has left barely perceptible, but essential fingerprints on every note they will hear.

Charged with arranging, adapting and supervising the music, as well as sharing the orchestration credit with the famed rock star, Dansicker has translated Dylan's songs for the Broadway stage. The job demands the stamina of a marathoner and the finesse of a diplomat: Director / choreographer Twyla Tharp and Bob Dylan may come from different cultural worlds, but they have a few traits in common. Both are icons and iconoclasts. And neither has a reputation for being easy to work with.

Yet Dansicker has deftly juggled Tharp's hands-on perfectionism and the desires of the largely absent Dylan. The 59-year-old Baltimore native has done this from the vantage point he enjoys most -- behind the scenes. "It's where I lurk, and I love it!" he says.

Long hours, last-minute changes and jangled nerves mark any preview period -- the final few weeks before a show officially opens. Theater gossip often runs rampant, and tempers fray. But with opening night fast approaching, Dansicker, perhaps following Tharp's lead, seems to be thriving on the pressure.

"It's the fun of working with her and being in constant flux, constant change," he says. "That's the way she works. She's not afraid. She's fearless. She doesn't care if we try something, and it falls flat on its face in that performance. 'Then,' she says, 'we know it's not right.'"

He has seen the overture he created go into rehearsals, then get cut and finally get put back into the show. Note by note, he has found a way to make Dylan's music danceable -- and eminently accessible.

"The most important thing Michael has done is he's arranged the music in a way that people of different generations, people who don't like the sound of Bob's voice, people who are turned off by the politics of Bob's music, can appreciate the music," says the show's lead guitar player, John "J.J." Jackson, who played in Dylan's band from 1991-1997.

Jackson is part of the five-member, onstage band, which plays a score Dansicker has opened up from Dylan's usual guitar-and-harmonica combination. Along with the instrumentation, Dansicker's responsibilities have included creating the connecting tissue that links the songs and training the dancers to sing.

"Most of these people are concert dancers, and I just want to make sure that they know that they have to warm up their voices just like they warm up their bodies," he says, explaining all of those "bah, bah, bah's" and "me, oh, me, oh's."

Teaching non-singers to sing has become a mini-specialty of his. And not just dancers -- also movie stars, from Will Ferrell in Elf to Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents. "Because I can't sing, but I play piano well, I try to get them to feel confident by saying. 'Well, listen to me. Of course you're going to do better than I can do.' It's basically making them aware of the rhythm and the pitch," he says.

For Elf, in which Ferrell sang "Baby It's Cold Outside" and a few improvised bits, Dansicker says, "I worked with Will in a hotel suite on 57th Street and set up my synth outside at Rockefeller Center. They were filming at the ice-skating rink. It was freezing cold. We worked all night and filmed one sequence around 5 a.m."

In Meet the Parents, Dansicker made a brief appearance so he could cue De Niro to sing "Love is in the Air" in the wedding scene. (The song ended up being cut, but was restored on the DVD.) "They literally strapped me on the camera so I could conduct it," he says, adding that the actor turned out to be "amazingly musical, [but] we didn't want him to sound like a singer."

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