Creative Conversations: Susan Stroman on MARIE, DANCING STILL – A NEW MUSICAL

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Broadway visionaries meet ballet royalty in the sumptuous world of Marie, Dancing Still – A New Musical, the twentieth new musical to grace The 5th Avenue Theatre stage since 2001. Five-time Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Susan Stroman (The Producers, Contact), Tony Award-winning authors Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Once On This Island), and acclaimed New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck invite you backstage into 19th-century Paris, where glittering opulence hobnobbed with underworld dangers.

Director and choreographer Susan Stroman recently shared her thoughts on the world of Marie, Dancing Still.

How did the concept for this musical and this exceptional collaboration of Broadway visionaries come about?

Growing up as a dancer, one becomes very familiar with images in Degas’ paintings. I know a great deal about many of the impressionistic painters because I love art. I had just come back from Paris, visiting one of my favorite museums, the Musée d’Orsay, where there is a “Little Dancer” sculpture. The piece has always intrigued me, she’s not like the other ballerinas in his paintings – she stands proud, determined, almost in a fourth position, caught between a child-like manner and maturity. That Degas put hair and a tutu on a classical sculpture fascinated me—it showed me how he was caught between classical and modernism. Whenever I saw the sculpture of Marie in different museums, I always would wonder about her.

By chance I had a meeting with Lynn and Stephen scheduled for the day I returned home to NYC to talk about a possible project. And to my delight and surprise, Lynn said Degas’ “Little Dancer.” I thought to myself, “This is meant to be.” We immediately started to research Marie van Goethem and found enough material to create a story speculating on her years with the Paris Opera Ballet.

Are there particular challenges with creating a show that is so ballet intensive? 

The only challenge is finding dancers from the pool of musical theater people who can expertly dance en pointe. Our wonderful casting director, Tara Rubin, found the best there is. These performers can dance en pointe and have great acting chops.  And we are so lucky to have the fabulous Tiler Peck as our Marie. She is a star at New York City Ballet and has several Broadway credits as well. Tiler is a marvelous actress with amazing stage presence. When you have dancers of this caliber, there is no challenge – only inspiration. 

New musical development is one of the most mysterious elements of theater work to the general public. Marie, Dancing Still had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in 2014. Rather than quickly pursuing a follow-up staged production, the team opted for further re-development. Why did the team make that choice, and what kind of work has happened since that time? How much has the show changed in the last few years?

We had a very successful run at the Kennedy Center. We wanted to make some tweaks and cuts to get the running time down, and we strengthened the relationship between Marie and Degas and toned down the involvement of secondary characters. Also when you have the luxury of working with multi Tony Award-winning composers, lyricists, writers, designers, producers, you also have to deal with everyone’s very busy schedules. To keep the show fresh, we did another workshop and a reading. Whenever you hear the material performed by your actors, you are always inspired to make adjustments. That’s part of creating a new musical from scratch—it’s a process that requires great time and care. Our show isn’t based on a movie, or a book, or a TV series. We had certain historical facts we had to honor, but we built this show from the ground up and that takes time. I feel we were meant to wait until now to bring it back to the stage. 

Are you excited to have a broad audience watching the show again?

We are thrilled to bring Marie to Seattle. I was last there when I created the ballet “Take Five More or Less” for Pacific Northwest Ballet. I love this city! The audiences are very savvy, totally engaged—you learn a lot about your show by listening to them. And I feel Seattle has a great affection for dance. Marie is unique because it is a real cross-fertilization of ballet, musical theater, and art—all things that a Seattle audience appreciates. So this is the perfect place to try out Marie!

This show has a sensational cast including ballet royalty Tiler Peck as Marie and Broadway luminaries like Terrence Mann and so many more. What is it like as you create a new musical like this to have such incredible talents in these roles and how does their work inform the shape of the show?  

Tiler Peck, Terrence Mann, Karen Ziemba, Dee Hoty, Louise Pitre, Kyle Harris, Sean Hingston, Jim Borstelmann—these performers all have a fearlessness about them. In rehearsal, they perform full out, giving 100%. They are always willing to take chances. They are never afraid to fall on their face if that means working out an emotion or character. There is a truth in their acting that can only inspire a director. I am proud to work with all of the actors in Marie.

What drew you to Seattle and The 5th Avenue Theatre for the next fully-staged production of Marie? 

The team and crew that make up The 5th Avenue Theatre family have a flawless reputation in NYC.  Everyone who has worked there talks about the professionalism and graciousness. That combined with the opportunity to perform in front of Seattle audiences makes The 5th the number one theater to try out a new musical.  

Marie, Dancing Still – A New Musical plays March 22 – April 14 at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Click here for tickets and information.

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