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Jul/Aug 2000 Humor/Satire

Memoirs of a Rancid Dancer

by Craig Butler

The upcoming publication of RELEVE ALL, the oral memoirs of Broadway choreographic legend Angelina Farberwarzio, has created a hue-and-cry among theatre cognoscenti, the like of which has not been seen since Ethel Merman announced her plans to record a Led Zeppelin tribute album. Below are excerpts from what is sure to be a bestseller, at least among those who prefer barre hopping to bar hopping.

I shall never forget my first ballet teacher, although I have forgotten his or her name and what he or she looked like. (I believe it was either a he or she, but again, the mistake could be mine.) This teacher was the very unusual ballet teacher, for he or she actually taught the flamenco, which very few ballet teachers did at the time. Balanchine did, of course, but only after midnight and while wearing a false nose. And waterwings. My teacher did so openly, bravely, with his or her own nose and only a small lifejacket.

I did not learn a great deal about ballet from this flamenco dancer. But I learned about courage.

****

I apprenticed under the great Agnes de Mille, although regrettably not at the peak of her career. As a matter of the fact, when I first began my apprenticeship, La de Mille was working as a grease monkey at Al's Lube 'n' Tube on West 53rd. Some may feel that this was not proper work for one of the premier choreographic geniuses of the Broadway stage, but I say to them, hey, she was not half-bad. And much better than Jerome Robbins, who was working at the same time at Grigor's Grease Palace and couldn't roll nearly as many ball bearings in a minute as de Mille and SHE did it while in fifth position.

I did get to assist de Mille on one show, REALLY, REALLY LOOOOOOOOONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, Phillip Glass' vomitous adaptation of the O'Neill play. Although the show closed out of the town after the Mayor of New Haven buried the producer up to his forehead in Kozkiusko mustard, de Mille's work especially the Morphine Fiend Ballet was among the best of her career. I happily admit I contributed modestly to the Ballet's success when I suggested she choreograph movement for the dancers' legs as well as their hands. I will never have the forgetting of the prideful moment that was mine when she stood in the wings, watching the Ballet and repeating over and over, "The legs. Of course, the legs!"

****

My first important New York credit as choreographer was the charming revue RICHARD NIXON IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PHNOM PENH. It was an unusual and also groundbreaking revue, in that there was no music of any sort. Instead, the four cast members read excerpts from both the transcript of the infamous White House tapes and CUPID IS MY COMRADE: THE LOVE LETTERS OF HO CHI MINH, with just the smallish bit of MY MOTHER THE CAR added for dramatic relief. It was very difficult to make this piece dance, especially when it fell to me to discover the choreographic equivalent of "expletive deleted." (For the record, it is chasse-jete-jete-pas de cheval-step left, step right, step back-discharge girdle-flambe a la mode-together.)

This show, it was hailed by almost all the critics as the most impressive theatrical event since Victor Borge's one-man production of SAINT JOAN. They said this despite of the fact that we opened two years BEFORE Borge, which some found odd but I instead found strange.

Richard Nixon, by the way, he did never come to see the show, although at one performance we were told Tricia Nixon Cox was of the audience. It turned out to instead be Jane Fonda, but it is understood by me that the two were frequently confused with one another, as were their fathers, which is part of what makes America great.

****

Some years later after, I had the pleasure of choreographing a show (GOLDEN LUNCHBUCKET) what starred the Broadway legend Karen Chalmers. I had for long been an admirer of Miss Chalmers, whose heart wrenching performance in A KILT FOR KATE MACTAVISH brought tears to my young teen-age eyes when first I saw it. It is only of recently that I learned that KATE MACTAVISH was supposed to be a comedy, which I think is testimony to the tremendousness of the talent of Karen Chalmers, which is hugely large.

Almost as hugely large as her derriere, which she is a hugely large pain in.

Especially, as I learned on the soon, if you would be a choreographer. (Bob Fosse, when he found out I would be working with her, he tried to warn me, but I could not understand his words as he kept muffling his face into between my breasts.)

Miss Chalmers, she did not hide her disdainful dislike for me. On the first day of rehearsal, when I made with the introducing myself, she pulled a sturgeon from her purse, thrust it in my face and said, "Don't force me to use this." I had had experience already with a sturgeon (see earlier chapter on Leonard Bernstein) and did not have to be told the twice times. As I backed away, she said, "That's better. Let's get one thing straight right off, Ballerina Boobs, I didn't get where I am doing pirouettes. Pirouettes got where they are by doing me! Do you understand?"

I nodded, although to tell the truth I was not having understanding. (I was so young then. Now, of course, the meaning is as clear to me as the banana peel on the Kaiser's face.)

I did my best to win her over. For example, it dawned on me that Miss Chalmers did not liken the fact that I was smoking of the cigarettes all the time. This dawning occurred on the first day, when she grabbed the cigarette out from my mouth and extinguished it in my inner ear canal. So I made a point of stopping smoking cigarettes. But she was not liking the cigars I smoked instead. Or even then the pipes. I thought about switching to herring, but remembered the sturgeon she kept upon her person and rethought better than that.

It is full of regretfulness that I will not be forgetting the first day I was to choreograph a number of hers. All of the night before, I had been carefully making the preparedness so that it would be not a wasting of any of her time. "Miss Chalmers," I said very accommodatingly, "I will run through the whole number all at the one time so that you may be seeing it all of one piece, and then we can talk about it and see if you would like maybe some things to be more different than same." And then I did what I said, I ran through the number.

The number, she finaled with a traditional Broadway star ending, where a group of the boys they lift her up high over their heads, as she twirls a flaming baton with one hand and glazes a ham with the other (while, of course, balancing a wall sconce on her tongue.) Traditional, yes, but not done to death - well, at least not at that time. When the boys put me down, I asked to Miss Chalmers, "Well, Miss Chalmers, what did you think?"

I woke up four days later, in a very nice hospital room with a well-built orderly who told me that the stitches would be coming out in two days, that the rabies test had been negative and that although I should have the carefulness whenever I do the can-can, the skin graft was a big time success. When Michael Kidd came to see me he said I was setting a record for recovering from a choreographic consultation with Helen Chalmers. He also told me that when he worked with her he once had suggested that she turn left instead of right during at one point in a song so that she did not keep falling into the orchestra pit; the next thing he knew she had stapled his left ear to his right femur and Federal Expressed him to Uzbekistan.

I was very worried about what would happen when I returned to work, but as it turned out Miss Chalmers and I got the fine along. This may have had something to do with because I took the precaution of kidnapping her little boy Bertie and sending her a note saying if she followed my every instruction he would be returned to her unharmed on opening night. If she did not, I would return him with his body tattooed with all of the unkind things John Simon had ever written about her.

That was the start of the enduringest of friendships. To this day she still sends the hitman after me every Christmas.

****

Most people do not have the realizing of what it is the choreographer contributes to the show they are watching and on occasion enjoying. They think that what a choreographer does is just put in dance steps, but what a good choreographer does is put in dance steps that tell a story or illuminate a character or create a really good atmosphere. This she is not so easy as she looks.

For example, early in my career, I choreographed a production of WEST SIDE STORY for which I maybe was not the most ready in my life to do. But I was young, I did not realize that a 10-minute kick line was not the most best way to dramatize the opening battle between the Jets and Sharks or that the hora did not really convey the Puerto Rican heritage of "(I Like to Be in) America." However, I do must say that my use of sock puppets in "One Hand, One Heart" was an innovative way of exploring the depth of the incredible love between Tony and Anita. Or Maria, whichever one it was.

****

A great and wise ballet master once told me that there were four things a good dancer needs:

1. Since the dance is hard work, Dedication.
2. Since the strong clean line is important, Good Extension.
3. Since strength is essential, Firm Muscles.
4. Since most music has four beats to the measure, The Ability to Count to Four.

"But Master," I said, "What about grace and speed and agility? What about flair and style? What about the talent to interpret character and to convey emotion?"

"All of those they have importance, too," he replied.

"Then why did you include them off your list?" I asked.

"I said the ability to count to FOUR," he answered before gently striking me in the trachea and prancing away.

Truly an immensely great man. It saddened me deeply the day he gave up teaching because he could make more money selling Barcaloungers.

But when I saw the discount he could get me on my own Barcalounger, the sadness she was somewhat lessened.

****

I am the one who is holding the distinction of being the only choreographer to have worked with Broadway's celebrated composer, Larry Quadrille, on three different shows. No one else has worked with Larry on more than one show, unless you count Shepherd Martinson. Martinson choreographed Larry's first musical, SONGS IN THE KEY OF DEATH. He was credited with choreographing a second Quadrille musical, the disastrous A GRAND NIGHT FOR BELCHING, but in factuality Martinson died of toenail failure before rehearsals even began. The choreography was actually done, anonymously, by Joe Gariagiola, who loved Martinson like a donkey and sacrificed two of his own toenails for an unsuccessful transplant. I am also the only choreographer who has survived unscathed being shot point blank by Larry, a very bad habit which even I wish he would get rid of himself of.

The genius of Larry is indisputamous. The melodies which he almost creates, they have this ability to nestle in the ear like a thistle or a noisy oil rig and just stay and stay and stay until a strong enough dose of penicillin is prescribed. His songs, they are not easy to listen to, but they demand to be listened to, kind of like the musical theatre equivalent of a car alarm on a quiet street or an air raid siren or like Rush Limbaugh except with some intelligence. Larry's shows are difficult to sit through, but when they are over, you have the same kind of good feeling you get when someone finally stops pounding your head with a hardbound copy of MOBY DICK you know, a real feeling of blissful relief before you pass out and must receive the serious medical attention. (St. Clare's Hospital near the theatre district always hires extra staff when a new Quadrille musical comes to Broadway yet another example of the way in which the theatre helps the economy by providing employment in the seemingly unrelated fields.)

I am not sure even myself why I have been successful working with Larry and his legendary bad temper and ill will. Certainly I owe a lot to my bulletproof unitard, as well as my ability to jete out of the line of fire in 9 out of the 10 cases. (I warned Caper Smythe to work on his jetes before he started rehearsals for THE SMILES OF A SUMMER CORPSE, but he did not make the listen to that suggestion, nor, sadly, to my equal suggestion that he wear a bulletproof dance cup.) But I think a lot is my personality. When Larry gets in one of his snits, I go up and say to him, "Now stop it, you silly big Goosey-head," and then I tickle him on his clavicle until he starts singing the mad scene from LUCIA. This is what I always did when my father was in a bad mood and was holding my little brother out of a twelfth-story window by the pinky or was about to throw a molotov cocktail at Lady Bird Johnson. Although my father preferred to sing "On the Good Ship Lollipop," of course.

Sometimes even my winning and gamine personality cannot wrench Larry from his bad mood, and then the gunfire she starts. But unlike most of Larry's collaborators, after four or five rounds, I will fire back. And for that he respects. Also, he respects that I am a much better shot than is he, so when I say, "Quadrille, we're going to rehearse the Carmelites' tap dance even if we must be promenading over your cold and lifeless body," he knows I mean the business.

Some people are bothered at all this gunfire at rehearsal, but I should be pointing out that very few people have actually died from it. And besides, the sound of guns firing and bullets flying is very similar to much of the music that Larry writes, so the cast should really not be so bothered by it, you know.

Now, there are those who have suggested that the real reason I have worked with Larry so much is because we are the husband and wife. They also suggest that this is the only reason that Larry rarely actually succeeds in wounding me during our exchanges of rehearsal gunfire. To the first, I say "Pennifeloff!" Before we were married, Larry had passionate affairs with both Genevieve Bujold and Martin Scorsese, that latter one lasting more than twenty minutes, yet never did either one of them provide the dances for a Quadrille musical. As for the second accusation, I can assure you that Larry is as poor a shot when at home and sober as when he is drunk at rehearsal.

I hope that ends those nasty rumors once and for the all.

****

I am often asked what I think is the future of the musical theatre. This is hard to say, but here is what I think are some of my thoughts:

Now that the era of the big English musical seems to be over, I suspect we will see fewer big English musicals. Also, that RAGGED CLAWS, Andrew Lloyd Webber's long-planned adaptation of T.S. Eliot's LOVE SONG OF J. ALFRED PRUFROCK, will not see the bright lights of Broadway.

There will be a very few minimum of musicals based on the writings of Betty Crocker.

Dance will continue to be an important factor in musicals, although not always in the way one should might expect. This she is because what is the definition of dance changes with the alarming frequency. There are many who find the beauty of dance in the everyday in the gestures of the hot dog vendor at Yankee Stadium, or the graceful steps of a waitress in a crowded diner, or the moves Mayor Giuliani makes to keep his combover in place on a windy day. Still, there must be the limits to this, and I remind future choreographers that businessmen from Syosset are less likely to shell out of the big bucks for theatre tickets if they can see the same moves for free just by dropping by at Food Emporium when the boys are re-stocking of the shelves.

Broadway, she has been said to be dying for decades but she is still here. She survived the movies, she survived radio, she survived television and she will survive the internet. This Broadway, she can survive anything, with the maybe exception of Condoleeza Rice playing MAME.

Always remember, the musical play, she is America's gift to the Theatre around the world. Unfortunately, what the Theatre asked for was a toaster oven. Still, it is much better than what happened in the twenties when the Theatre asked Bertolt Brecht for a set of matching luggage. Sheesh!

 

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