Warren Carlyle: Living the Dream and Going Places – For Now, Segueing from Hello, Dolly! to the Premiere of The Sting
By: Ellis Nassour
British-born choreographer/ director Warren Carlyle says, “Every day I pinch myself. It’s a wonder I’m not black and blue. I can’t believe it’s not the dream I spent my life dreaming.”
He’s gone through several breathless months leading up to two huge openings and has quite an upcoming schedule. “I’m not getting much sleep,” he laughed over a hearty breakfast on the Upper West Side last week. “I’m up early, on the run, literally, like I’m in a marathon. I just keep moving. Now, I’m also commuting, mounting a new show, and get home much too late.”
Carlyle is working with Tony winning John Rando (Urinetown) choreographing the premiere of The Sting, which marks the return to the stage of Tony winners Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann (Tony nominated Urinetown).
The musical, based on the classic film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, opens Sunday at Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, NJ [and is set for a Broadway premiere next Fall]. Starring are Tony nominee Harry Connick Jr. (The Pajama Game revival) and, in bit of quite interesting casting, J. Harrison Ghee, a recent Lola in Kinky Boots , the first drag artist in the role. Connick is also contributing to the score.
Carlyle’s name is emblazoned on the Shubert marquee as choreographer of the blockbuster revival of Hello, Dolly! He won a 2014 Tony for his high-energy, high-stepping choreography for After Midnight.
“The last eight years have been filled with the greatest career rewards I can imagine,” he enthuses. “How magical to have Hello, Dolly! back and how beyond I got to choreograph it and work with the master of comedy, Jerry Zaks. This is something I never could have dreamt would happen.”
Carlyle says he likes to stay busy, which is quite an understatement. He’s became a hurdler, running marathon races. “I love the hustle and bustle. It keeps me moving – that’s great for a choreographer. It also keeps me young. Work is challenging, because it’s your ambition to keep coming up with something fresh, new.”
He explains that one of the wonderful things about his work choreographing and directing is that it’s something different every day. “Rarely does anything repeat itself.”
You wonder why he’s not getting a lot of sleep? In addition to The Sting, in early May he’s directing/choreographing Noel Gay’s Me and My Girl, Encores! 25th season closer (starring Tony winner Christian Borle), premiering a new work for New York City Ballet, and then directing/choreographing the revival of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s The Secret Garden.
Carlyle says he was familiar with The Sting from seeing the film, which became one of his favorites. “We’re working with a truly wonderful concept by Bob Martin (Tony and Olivier-nominated as The Drowsy Chaperone’s Man in the Chair, and Tony-nominated as co-writer of the book; contributing writer, TV’s Slings & Arrows).It’s so much more creative when you start with a blank canvas.
“Choreography is based on emotion,” he continues, “so my mission has been to empathize it in the dance. John has kept the scenes very real, so I’m working with real people, with real problems. I had a lot of Damon Runyon and Guys and Dolls in my head.”
Of course, he wanted to mind as much theatricality as possible. At the center of The Sting is an elaborate con game and Carlyle found a parallel to theater. “Let’s face it,” he smiles, “theater is a con. Our goal is to con audiences into believing what we’re doing is real. It’s a wonderful metaphor. Take tap dancing. What a con! And you can use it because while you’re looking at my feet, I’m stealing your wallet!”
Ninety-nine percent of the music, he points out is Kotis and Hollmann’s score, but there’s Joplin Ragtime “and what better person do we have to play it than Harry!”
He calls Connick “a dream come true, the real deal. Every director and choreographer would be blessed to work with him. There’s not another on the planet who’s more talented or works harder. It’s not an accident that he’s a superstar. He’s supremely gifted as a writer, musician, and actor. The role of Henry Gondorff is the right part at the right time and he’s certainly the right actor. It’s a perfect fit, and he’s got the statue and look to pull it off.”
He and Connick have bonded and found a way to compliment the other. “Harry’s teaching me music. I’m teaching him dance. He’s a great student, and absorbs everything so quickly. When I say he can do anything, it’s a fact.”
Everyone knows what Harry can do, but Carlyle says audiences are going to be surprised by J. Harrison Ghee. “The non-traditional casting – he’s black – certainly a big departure from the film, but it really works. The role of Johnny Hooker suits him to a capital T. Watch him! He’s a rising star.”
Among the show’s co-stars is Kate Shindel (A Christmas Story, Wonderland), Miss America 1998 and the president of Actors Equity. “Kate’s a beauty, which is only matched by her voice. She’s a great leading lady for Harry. “
Warren Carlyle’s siren call to dance came from a love of movie musicals.
When he was 10, his working-class parents outside Norwich, northeast of Cambridge, took him to the city to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat. “That was it! That’s how I got hooked,” he laughs. “I was mesmerized. It became my dream to dance. Fred, so debonair in top hat, white tie, and tails, flower in lapel, and cane. He was so smooth, he made it look so easy. I was on the edge of my seat during that huge Irving Berlin ‘Piccolini’ sequence with hundreds of people, or so it seemed, singing and dancing! I wanted to jump up and join them!”
From then on, it was a love affair with Hollywood musicals. In high school, Carlyle, who excelled in swim and track, soon became obsessed with tap, which proved quite strange to his mates. “I was bullied. It was awful, hurtful, and tough, but I discovered the best way to handle it was to ignore it. Somehow I had the mind to find my inner strength to do my own thing.”
It didn’t come as a shock to his parents when, upon graduating, he announced he was London-bound to attend ballet school. “I couldn’t wait,” he notes, “I had to go!”
He began dancing right out of university. He auditioned for Cats and in 1989 was was cast as Alonzo. “I am very tall, which I considered an asset,” he explains. “It turned out not to be. Since I towered over everyone, Gillian [Lynne] put me in the back or middle, but I kept feeling the urge to take a leap forward.”
Then, he was hand-picked by Susan Stroman to be her associate choreographer on Trevor Nunn’s 1997 Royal National Theatre production of Oklahoma!, starring Hugh Jackman.
“Working with Warren is a complete joy in every way,” says Jackman. “We became great friends during Oklahoma! It was clear even then that Warren had big dreams, and a real joie de vivre. He was a born choreographer/director, and everyone knew he was going places.”
When Stroman asked Carlyle to join her for the Broadway transfer [which starred Patrick Wilson], he was packed and raring to go. “They, whoever they are, say you learn from the best, and Susan is the very, very best, and a beloved friend.”
He choreographed and debuted as a director with A Tale of Two Cities (2008), segued right into the same duties with the Finian’s Rainbow revival (2009), Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway (2011) and After Midnight.
While working with Jackman, Carlyle choreographed a revival of Follies, followed by Chaplin and A Christmas Story [working with John Rando] and revivals of The Mystery of Edwin Drood , On the Twentieth Century, and She Loves Me. And, amazingly, somehow found time to work with the Rockettes.
“It’s been immensely satisfying working on Broadway,” Carlyle says. “I’m truly blessed to be doing what I love. Winning the Tony was the culmination of a life-long dream. Such an honor. I’m accomplishing my goals. My bucket list’s getting shorter, yet I feel I’m just beginning.”