How Music Man Choreographer Helped Hugh Jackman Perfect His Moves for Broadway Revival
Not even the pandemic was going to stop “Music Man” Tony Award nominee Hugh Jackman from mastering the tap and dance routine for the show’s Broadway revival.
Jackman kept training with choreographer Warren Carlyle as the health crisis delayed the musical’s opening from fall 2020 to May 2021 to its eventual bow in February. Carlyle, who first worked with the star on the 1998 stage production of “Oklahoma!,” received a Tony nomination for his “Music Man” choreography, which took three years to fine-tune.
In a musical filled with show-stopping moments, one standout is “76 Trombones.” Early in the show, Jackman’s Harold Hill must convince the people of River City, Iowa, they need a boy’s band. He proceeds to tell them about the time he saw a marching band with 76 trombones and 110 cornets.
Carlyle, who approached the “Music Man” revival like a brand new musical, wanted Harold to sell the number to the parents and kids as well as to the audience. “This song is about faith,” Carlyle says. “If Harold can get the kids to believe they’re playing these instruments, then the parents will buy the instruments and off we go. My mission by the end of the number was getting the audience believing that they too were seeing a band and these kids play the instruments.”
Carlyle kept dancer-choreographer Jerome Robbins’ style in mind as an inspiration when structuring the number. “I wanted it to be resplendent, shiny and bright,” he says, estimating that the choreography took around five days to initially create.
The set piece featured a large portion of the show’s 46 cast members. A mapping system helped Carlyle navigate the different elements, breaking down the steps, movement and positioning of the number. But the show’s star, Jackman was key to it all.
With Broadway shuttered, Jackman and Carlyle utilized a studio space in the city. Amid COVID protocols that included being tested twice a week and masking, they plowed on. “We worked three mornings a week. Hugh wanted to keep working and he trained and trained because of the demands of the performance,” says Carlyle of the sequence that surrounded the actor with the best dancers in the business.
Beyond putting together dance moves, he need to incorporate story and developing character. “It’s a heavy lift, choregraphically,” Carlyle admits.
The pandemic made everything just a little more challenging. Costume design and scenic design progressed over Zoom calls, but Carlyle was grateful for Jackman’s willingness to train in person; the last thing he wanted to do was teach steps remotely. “I’m the kind of person that needs to touch it,” Carlyle says. “I have to get up and move. We have to be in the same room.”
Carlyle also worked with the ensemble for the “76 Trombones” reprise, which incorporated instruments. “It’s about the promise of the song,” he explains. “It’s about the promise of those instruments. So, not only did they have to have the shiniest brass instruments ever — from trombones being thrown in the air to characters dancing with their trombones, we had to make the magic come through.”
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