Face to Face: Jerry Mitchell

The hardest working choreographer on Broadway

Jerry Mitchell has not once, but twice, had three shows running simultaneously on Broadway. His skills as both a choreographer and director are in high demand. His stylized choreography gave the Nicest Kids in Town in Hairspray their kitschy sparkle, and his inventive direction proved that the Delta Nus in Legally Blonde: The Musical were much more than superfluous sorority girls. It’s not uncommon to hear Mitchell’s name in the same breath as Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Michael Bennett.

A former dancer himself, Mitchell knows the boards of Broadway personally, nabbing his first job (and first audition) on the Great White Way in Agnes De Mille’s Brigadoon. Now, with six nominations and one Tony Award for La Cage Aux Folles, Mitchell is choreographing Catch Me If You Can, once again shaping a stage-magic musical from a movie.

Dance Teacher: Most of your work is based on films. What does this say about Broadway today?

Jerry Mitchell: Now, the reality is that people don’t read books; they watch DVDs. It’s much quicker for a producer to grab a DVD and make a musical. There are some movies that translate beautifully and others that need a lot of invention. What I find exciting is when a musical takes chances when it goes from film to theater. For example, we used the Delta Nus in Legally Blonde as a Greek chorus. They sing, talk and interact with Elle, even though they’re just in her head in certain scenes. It allowed us to have more production numbers for the girls.

DT: With film, what the camera captures determines what the audience sees. Onstage, how do you tell the audience where to look during a live show?

JM: My job as a director/choreographer is to focus the audience. Lighting is one of the biggest ways. Or it can come down to costuming. If I want the audience to look at the leading lady, I put her in a standout color. These are often simple ideas. If something like a laugh is missed, it’s because the focus is off.

DT: How do you use choreography to tell the story?

JM: I allow [the cast] to bring their characters to the piece and I make adjustments. For example, Rachel deBenedet is playing the mother in Catch Me If You Can. When we started her production piece, it was set in the dressing room. But it ended up [with her] being fully dressed, dancing with three tuxedo-clad men. It grew from a stagnant idea to one that fully expressed her [character’s] aloofness and love of men. Remember: Focus, focus, focus. And know the story you’re telling. If the story is 16 chorus girls kicking their legs, that’s fine. But if it’s about a chorus girl who lost her ring on the floor, then choreographically acting that out would not include kicking.

DT: You’re often compared to great Broadway director/choreographers of the past. You assisted Robbins and Bennett in the 1980s. What of their professional approaches have you carried on in your career?

JM: Who wouldn’t aspire to be like them? Their styles were dictated by each piece, as opposed to Fosse, who had a specific style present in every piece he worked on. Robbins said to me: “If I had the Jewish families in Fiddler dance the way the Jets danced in West Side Story, it never would have worked.” In that way I learned that choreography is like the written words of the script. They have the same possibility of impact on a character.

Robbins and Bennett had an absolute commitment to the work and the desire to continue to explore. They were never afraid to throw material out and start over. They helped me realize it’s never really done. Even when a show’s open, you can always improve something. DT

Lauren Kay is a dancer and arts journalist in New York City.

Photo by Rivka Katvan, courtesy of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS

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