Face to Face: Jerry Mitchell

The cast of Kinky Boots, atop treadmills designed by Mitchell

Listen to Broadway choreographer and director Jerry Mitchell casually rattle off his list of current projects, and you might start to feel overwhelmed. He’s got one long-running show, Kinky Boots—about drag queens and a shoe factory—still going strong on the Great White Way; another, the Gloria Estefan bio-musical On Your Feet!, doing steady business since its opening last November; and a third, Gotta Dance (about old-timers trying hip hop), eyeing a Broadway run this fall. Oh, and he’s working on a movie, considering directing a new musical and recently bought the rights to a book he loves—one that, you guessed it, is being turned into a musical. But for a consummate professional like Mitchell, no show or project is ever truly over.

Why a show is never finished “The great thing about theater is that it’s an ephemeral art. It’s constantly evolving. It lives for two and a half hours, and then the next night, it’s a whole other flower. We’re constantly replacing people, so that means the flowers need tending. You need to water them, take care of them, make sure they’re getting the proper nutrients so they can deliver the production you want them to deliver.”

A choreographer’s director “I found where I could help Sergio [Trujillo, choreographer for On Your Feet!] was with the structure of the storytelling in the numbers. For instance, the conga in On Your Feet!—it can’t just be Gloria Estefan standing onstage singing “Conga.” In a musical, you always have to tell a story. Gloria had expressed to us that when they were starting out, they played bar mitzvahs and weddings and conventions. I thought, ‘What a wonderful way to see a song grow.’ We’ve watched lots of Gloria’s performances, and in her Vegas show, they actually conga through the audience. I said, ‘That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to conga right off the stage and through the audience and take the people out into intermission.’”

His creative process “With Kinky Boots, there was the conveyor belt delivering the shoes. I thought, ‘What if we jumped on top of them? What if we built a treadmill that was four feet off the ground?’ So I had the shop build me one. I fell off, like, four times. I thought, ‘This will never work. I’ve gotta add some sort of bar or safety rail.’ When I added the safety rail, I found that I could use it to swing around, jump around, flip over. So the thing that I added for safety actually became an element to heighten the choreography. Once I got the treadmill the way I wanted it, they built five, and then I got into the room with the actors and started to create the full number. It was a six-month process. For one number.” DT

Broadway:

On Your Feet! (director); Kinky Boots (director/choreographer); Legally Blonde (director/choreographer); Hairspray (choreographer)

Choreography for film: Drop Dead Gorgeous; In & Out; Camp

Photos from top: by Matthew Murphy; by Christopher DeVargas, both courtesy of O&M Co.

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