If you want to get the measure of a musical, watch how the audience spills on to the pavement afterwards. The Mamma Mia! crowd sways and flows, Hairspray’s jiggles and bubbles. Chicago’s punters strike hip-jutting poses, while the Dirty Dancing gang gesticulates wildly. Musicals aren’t just about stories and songs, they’re also about dance and movement – that’s what gets under the skin of audiences, who carry on moving afterwards to keep the feeling alive.
But just how good is that dancing – and choreography – in the big West End shows? As a critic, I’m more used to reviewing tiny avant-garde physical theatre groups or rarefied neoclassical companies, but I spent a few nights this summer seeing if the dancers in London’s Theatreland could really cut it.
First up, came Chicago. If any show could prove that dance plays a pivotal role in musicals, I figured it would be this one. After all, its director Bob Fosse is a choreographer with a distinctive style – all sassy angles, teasing wriggles and leggy lineups. We know his moves from films such as Cabaret, and you see them all over Chicago. Like good design, the choreography here delivers the mood and the message without imposing itself. The plot turns on a story about selling sex and buying attention, and the dancers’ insinuating hips, grasping fingers and cold-shoulder shrugs give us the same razzle-dazzle in physical form – and we buy it. The only part of this production that wasn’t convicing was when the dancing was weak: Michelle Williams (playing Roxie Hart) just doesn’t cut it as a mover. Sure, she can do the steps, but she doesn’t have the physical presence to carry off the part. Put her next to Leigh Zimmerman as Velma Kelly and she’s outclassed, down to the wiggle of a finger.
There is no greater contrast to Chicago‘s hard-hearted femmes fatales than Mamma Mia!, which is all about feelings and female bonding. The choreography, too, is utterly different in approach. What’s important here is the music – the Abba songs that everyone knows – and the story, a rather affecting light comedy with romantic interests spinning like a pinwheel around a mother-daughter relationship. Really, it’s lovely. The choreography by Anthony van Laast does a lot to get that “aaah” feeling – designed for us not to watch the dancing, but to identify with the characters. In the big party numbers, the arrangements are just raggedy enough to feel as if we could be bopping along with the cast. In Dancing Queen, we play make-believe alongside the three older women, mugging at each other during the chorus.
There’s a lot of choreography in Mamma Mia! but often it doesn’t look like dancing; it looks like people having fun, or running about, or doing Abba impressions. And it works a treat.
In Hairspray, choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, the story itself is about dancing. Specifically, about teenagers from the early 60s doing retro youth dancing of the day (musicals in general are big on retro). It is designed to look spontaneous rather than “dancey”, although it’s very tautly choreographed. Unlike Mamma Mia! and Chicago, Hairspray has precious little plot – which might not in itself have been a problem, but the stage show has none of the movie’s sense of self-parody and is lumbered with some pretty laboured dialogue.
Still, the show is stuffed to the brim with upbeat song and dance numbers, which, like a jukebox playing one peppy hit after another, more or less force your surrender to its unstoppable energy. Two numbers exemplify that best: the Madison, a line dance with a repeated cross-step and hand clap that could motor on for ever, and the final number, You Can’t Stop the Beat, which has the entire cast doing synchronised pony-trots, hip-slaps, heel-swizzles and projecting the kind of beaming looks that could light the auditorium on their own. Was the dancing any good? Well, it was a bit much, but I think it needed to be because I wasn’t really believing the show’s storylines, in which the only real emotion is irrepressible optimism.
Ending my summertime run of musicals came Dirty Dancing (choreography by Kate Champion). Unlike most musicals these days, this one has specialised dancing and singing roles, so although everyone has to speak, they don’t all have to be jack-of-all-trades actor-singer-dancers. Of the four shows, this had some of the best dancers, namely in its leads Martin Harvey (formerly of the Royal Ballet) and Hannah Vassallo (from Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures). The ensemble, too, were extremely good technically, with leggy extensions, high lifts, razor-sharp co-ordination. In this show, the dancing represents something accomplished that we can aspire towards; indeed, dance as aspiration is a common device in musicals – featured in Hairspray, Billy Elliot and Sister Act among others. In Dirty Dancing it’s a metaphor for sexual experience: as our ingénue heroine gets on with the moves, so she gets off with the dance teacher.
Ultimately, there is a logic to the story and a reason for the dancing, but what a cack-handed plot. The scenes are all short, but they seem to lumber by and the characters parrot cardboard lines, so there’s no sense either of irony or sincerity. If Hairspray’s racial harmony story was unconvincing, at least it wasn’t gratuitous – the projection of Martin Luther King in Dirty Dancing is all too literally just background colour, with no relevance to the story overall.
But then, along came the closing number, The Time of My Life, which quite simply lifted the show in the air – leaving me completely floored. What just happened? Proof that underneath the awkward, contrived story lay a simple and powerful myth: Cinderella goes to the ball. In the finale of Dirty Dancing, that buried myth emerges in dance. There’s a moment, as the song starts, when Johnny lifts Baby up into the limelight and she arches her back with abandon and from there to the end we’re in a heightened world. In the middle of the song, Baby finally achieves the famous overhead lift, and she’s held aloft, a princess for all the world to see. She feels as if she’s floating, and we feel it too.
This is a recurring theme in musicals: the dancing queen, having the time of her life. It taps a feeling that psychologists call “flow” – the feeling of synergy, of being alive in the moment. In musicals, a story can set it up, a song can express it, but it is movement that embodies it. What amazed me was that it could also completely turn around something as apparently duff as Dirty Dancing.
In the end, I realised that you can’t judge dance in musicals by the same standards as you would use for ballet or contemporary dance. Far more than in those forms, it is designed to be looked through rather than looked at. Its focus is often elsewhere – a story, a person, a feeling, a song – and to achieve that, it sometimes matters less if a dancer can do a split leap than if she can wiggle a finger well. And if dance in musicals has different means and ends, it also has different effects.
I’m already picturing myself back at some fearsomely avant-garde autumn performance, scribbling notes and feeling a little stab of regret in the certainty that I won’t be dancing in the streets with the audience after the curtain falls.