Creative Conversations: Stephen Flaherty on MARIE, DANCING STILL

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

For a long time I had wanted write a theater piece that was not only set in the world of dance but one which used dance as a principal means of storytelling.  Though the score would feature songs, it would be dance that would carry much of the dramatic action forward.  The notion of setting a new musical in the world of classical ballet, with the evening that would culminate in a psychological ballet, was thrilling to me as a composer.  Adding to the mix the opportunity to collaborate with director-choreographer Susan Stroman, with whom I had never worked, proved irresistible.

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

I had always been a fan of the ballet but had never written anything with ballet at its core.  I immediately threw myself into research, studying the great classic ballet scores of the period as well as Parisian street music, trying to find a musical vocabulary for our show.  And yet, even though this story is set in a very particular time and place, I knew that the score had to appeal and had to be accessible to contemporary audiences.  I had to remind myself that the emotions that our characters are expressing musically aren’t necessarily “period” but universal and timeless.

New musical development is one of the most mysterious elements of theater work to the general public. Marie 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 learned a lot from the Kennedy Center production and were blessed with that rarest of luxuries in the theater: more time.  We knew that we needed to focus the central relationship of Marie and Degas more tightly, to iris down on them while still maintaining the colorful canvas of the Paris Opera Ballet.  We wrote several new songs including two for Degas, refined the dance music with our brilliant dance arranger, Sam Davis, and Lynn wrote several new key scenes.  As we had done in preparation for the Kennedy Center production, we were able to shape and develop this new material and its choreography through a series of readings and workshops with our actors.  We look forward to continuing our process in Seattle at the 5th Avenue.

What do you as creators learn from industry readings and what do you learn from having a full audience? Are you excited to have a broad audience watching the show again?

Absolutely.  The creative team always learns so much from an audience, especially an audience of theater-goers.  In fact, the audience is the “last collaborator” in creating a musical.  So as the audience listens to the show, we listen to THEM.  As composer, I work closely with the orchestrators and the sound designer.  We have to make sure that every musical gesture and every word is crystal clear.  We have to make sure that the audience can grasp every detail on a first hearing, since there is no “rewind” button in the theater.  Clarity in storytelling and execution is everything.

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?

The actors and dancers in this cast constantly inspire me.  They are my muses, much in the way Marie was the inspiration for Degas. Terrence Mann’s Degas is fierce, flawed and human.  His performance was always in my mind and in my ear when writing his new musical material for the show.  Louise Pitre embodies the street smarts, passion and resilience of the adult Marie and it is a thrill crafting and shaping her songs to fit her unique voice and theatrical sensibility.  Tiler Peck is poetry in motion; when she moves it is music.  If she danced and the orchestra forgot to play that night, you’d still hear the music, trust me!  Karen Ziemba is one of our finest musical actresses working today and it is an honor to watch her create and fine-tune this role.

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

The 5th Avenue Theatre is known for their dedication to the development and production of new musicals, most notably musicals that push the art form forward in new and exciting ways.  I look forward to working in Seattle and interfacing with the audiences at The 5th.  Let’s create something special together!

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