Music Man and Harmony
Tony-nominated Choreographer-Director Warren Carlyle Has Had a Magical Six Months ~ “Part of a Dream I Never Imagined Coming True”
By:: Ellis Nassour
June 6, 2022: Tony-winning choreographer (After Midnight), 2022 Tony nominee (The Music Man) and now director Warren Carlyle lives to work. When the pandemic hit and he was isolating at home on the Upper West Side, he became bored to the point of going stir-crazy. Two things saved him: his much-beloved dog and Hugh Jackman.
Carlyle likes to stay busy. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. He’s a hurdler, akin to running marathon races. “I love the hustle and bustle of a show. It keeps memoving and creative – that’s vital to a choreographer and director. It also keeps me young. The work can be challenging, because it’s your ambition to keep coming up with something fresh, new
“So the pandemic was a most difficult time. With all that was going on, and all the rumors floating around, I was certainly worried that I’d come down with something, so I stayed put in my flat as much as possible. Usually, I’m up early and on the run. My goal is to never stop, just to keep moving. When there was nowhere to run, I tried to keep as busy as possible. It was hopeless – well, until I decided to learn how to cook. I also thought it was about time I learned to play the piano.”
He says he’s still learning. “I’m pretty awful doing both. The piano is definitely a challenge, but I’m determined.”
His blessing, he reveals, was living near Central Park. “I felt it was safe to go out for walks with Bill Bailey Carlyle, that’s my dog (a puggle, a cross between a pug and beagle). We were on the go a couple of times a day. “It was invigorating, but his legs are a bit shorter because I walked him so much.”
Tony-winning Jackman (The Boy from Oz, in addition to a 2012 Special Tony) is the Tony-nominated co-star of course of the smash revival of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, who’s worked with Carlyle since Susan Stroman’s much-celebrated West End Oklahoma revival was moored in the city with wife Deb and their children: 16-year-old Ava and 21-year-old Oscar,
“It was everything! It was frightening, strange. It was weird. It was such a bizarre situation!’”
And it wasn’t long before they’d pretty well exhausted games and puzzles.
Carlyle and Jackman have been friends since meeting on Trevor Nunn’s 1988 London revival of Oklahoma!, choreographed by Susan Stroman. Carlyle was her associate choreographer.
“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.”
The pair reunited in the Fall of 2011 when Jackman starred in and Carlyle directed and choreographed the SRO limited run of Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway.
“I was desperate for something to do,” says Carlyle. “I was stuck in my flat and Hugh and
Deb were in town and they were also isolating. We had an idea. Let’s practice, let’s rehearse.”
Jackman modestly claims he’s not a trained singer or dancer and states he practices daily and also has a voice coach.
With The Music Man in limbo because of Covid, they rented a studio three mornings a week throughout the shutdown. “We worked on all manner of dance and tap routines until October 2021, we rehearsals began. Carlyle was unrelenting, and had Jackman, usually wearing a mask, tapping, jumping, and spinning all over the studio.
Carlyle, who’s notoriously quick with inventive choreography, compliments Jackman: ““Hugh will try anything. He’s a dream to work with, and he worked very hard. He’s wonderful, wonderful guy. Actually, he’s the best in the whole world as an actor, dancer, and human being. We talked, we trained, we discussed the show. That was the gift he gave me. Hugh was my life saver! I don’t know another star of his magnitude who’d devote so much time over two years.”
The Music Man is also Carlyle’s reunion with director Jerry Zaks, whom he came to greatly admire during their time on the Bette Midler Hello, Dolly! revival.
“Jerry and I became like family. He’s the bee’s knees. We have an incredible working relationship. I seem to know exactly what he wants without his ever having to say.”
With Jackman and Zaks, it was great to work among friends again. Then, to add the already very famous and talented Sutton Foster to the mix, ad to choreograph one of the classic musicals – could I have asked for anything more?”
Well, yes; and Carlyle got it in the form of Sutton Foster. “I’ve fallen madly in love with Sutton, She’s special beyond words. I love the way the way she moves. I never had to adjust or move her. Somehow she always manages to put herself in the right place. She has unlimited natural dance abilities! And grace! And humor! Hugh and Sutton are the heart of the show. Every scene is centered on them. Watching how they came together to form their great creative partnership has been one of the great pleasures of my life.”
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. However, with such a large company, I’d be lost without my two longtime, wonderful assistants, Sara Edwards and David Scothford.”
Another cast member Carlyle was so happily reunited with was Olivier and Tony-winning Shuler Hensley, who portrays Marcellus Washburn. “Back in 1998 Shuler, Hugh, and I were all at the National Theare for Oklahoma! Shuler’s a natural born comic and also really knows how to move. He should! His mother ran a ballet studio in Georgia, so he’s got some good dance DNA!”
By now, no one should be surprised that Carlyle finds The Music Man so splendid. “I loved the show since I saw Susan’s 2000 revival (which she choreographed and directed). To be able to work on this revival is simply a miracle. What better time than right now for such a fun show and one filled with glorious, uplifting music. What a terrific distraction! Jerry, Hugh, Sutton, our incredible cast and incredible ensemble give it such vitality. Did I say it’s a wonderful company? Everyone makes going to work every day such a pleasure!”
Carlyle went from The Music Man to directing and choreographing the very intimate Harmony, from his friends Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman, which finally arrived in New York after productions in California, Philadelphia, and Atlanta over the past two decades.
The musical retraces the saga of, a vaudeville sextet made up of Jews and gentilesin Weimar-era Germany whose popularity as vocalists and comics in the late 20s and early 30s spread worldwide – concerts (including one at Carnegie Hall), recordings, and film – until Hitler’s rise to power with Jews being rounded up and sent to concentration camps or, if they could manage, fleeing to other countries.
“Going from a huge musical such as The Music Man, with our cast of 50, to such an intimate show and intimate space was a challenge,” he admits. “And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it. The smaller stage and cast required a new mindset.” This was especially true with the situation in Ukraine, where democracy was being crushed and a homeland destroyed by a despot. “That hung over all we did,” explained Carlyle. “It was difficult not to make comparisons.”
Another reason he wanted to do it and was asked to do it is his long friendship with Manilow and Sussman, whom he’s known since he was their 1994 West End musical, Copacabana. “It has been another joyous reunion. Sadly, because of Covid, Barry became ill the morning of our opening and was required to isolate. He wasn’t able to see the production until the closing performance on May 16. It was announced that there will be a Harmony original cast recording.
Carlyle notes that “Once again, I was blessed with an incredible cast: Chip Zien, Sierra Boggess, Ana Hoffman, and the six multi-talented Comedian Harmonists.” They were, and hopefully soon will be again if the show manages a move to Broadway (which is very much in discussion): Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman, and Steven Telsey.
Harmony was presented by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene and quite a list of interested investors in theater at the Museum of Jewish Heritage near Manhattan’s Battery, with music by Manilow and book and lyrics by Sussman,
“Choreography and direction are based on emotion,” Carlyle points out, “so my mission was been to empathize it in the music and dance. There’s joy, the thrill of entertaining, love, and, sadly, tragedy; and it’s all a true story. My goal was to keep everything very real and the cast gave their all.”
The production has received numerous Off Broadway nominations for outstanding musical (score and book), actor (Zien), choreographer, and director. If ever an ensemble was deserving of awards, Harmony’s is definitely outstanding.
Warren Carlyle can easily trace his path to play a major role in show business. When he was 10, his working-class parents 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!”
His training was classical. “I was only aware of the ballet—and, of course, Jerome Robbins and West Side Story. I moved to America partly because I wanted to be in the world where he had been, the world of Broadway. Through each phase of my career I find myself looking up at him. I am so eager to celebrate him.”
In high school, Carlyle, who excelled in swim and track, soon became obsessed with dance, 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 and 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 on the Oklahoma! revival. When Stroman asked him to join her for the Broadway transfer [which starred Patrick Wilson], he was raring to go. “They, whoever they are, say you learn from the best, and Susan is the very, very best, and a beloved friend.”
His time here, he states, “has been filled with rewards beyond my imagination. How magical to get to continue working with Hugh and to have Hello, Dolly! and The Music Man back to back and with Jerry, the master of comedy. 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.
Ellis Nassour, an international arts journalist, is the author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline. His new book, launching in Fall, is Jesus Christ Superstar ~ Behind the Scenes of the Worldwide Musical Phenomenon.