Kathleen Marshall in Conversation: Reflecting on a Choreography Career

One of today's most successful musical theatre choreographers, Kathleen Marshall spoke about the evolution of her career to an audience of about 35 theatre professionals on Feb. 9 at the Beckett Theater in New York. Presented by the Stage Directors & Choreographers Foundation Inc. (SDCF) as part of its One-on-One Conversation series, the two-hour-long event featured Marshall in conversation with interviewer Theodore S. Chapin, president and executive director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.

Following introductory remarks by SDCF Executive Director Joe Miloscia, who emphasized Marshall's contributions as a member of the boards of SDCF and the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, Chapin opened the discussion by explaining how important Marshall's involvement, as choreographer, director, and then artistic director, was to the success of the City Center Encores! series. He then asked Marshall to discuss the origins of her interest in musical theatre, beginning with her childhood in Pittsburgh and her early performing experiences with that city's Civic Light Opera.

As children of arts-loving parents, Marshall and her brother, the well-known director-choreographer Rob Marshall, grew up attending all kinds of theatrical productions and listening to Broadway cast albums at home. In awe of Broadway stars, Marshall developed a love for musical shows and an interest in choreography, generated by watching old MGM movie musicals, and began formal dance training at age 13. By the time Marshall moved to New York to pursue a professional dance career (which included a stint performing in the national tour of "Cats"), her brother had already begun to establish his career as a choreographer.

As Chapin's questions led Marshall to outline the development of her own choreography career, it became clear that Rob Marshall was quite instrumental in ushering his sister into the field of Broadway choreography. Marshall assisted her brother on the Broadway productions of "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "She Loves Me," and "Damn Yankees." "Choreography is an apprenticeship career," said Marshall, "and I got my brother's hand-me-downs. You start as a dancer; then, if you're interested in the whole, people pick up on that and you become a dance captain or an assistant choreographer. Then someone you're assisting gets an offer he can't do and suddenly you're a choreographer."

A graduate of Smith College, where she studied under Gemze de Lappe (the foremost authority on the re-creation of Agnes de Mille's Broadway choreography), Marshall related numerous, sometimes alarmingly honest, anecdotes about her experiences working with and learning from various Broadway directors and stars, such as Chita Rivera and Donna Murphy. "Emotion stops a show—not flash," Marshall claimed, explaining what she's learned about choreographing musicals. "There are a lot of people who can do big, flashy steps, but if it doesn't come out of the story or concept, it doesn't have much impact—like a candy bar, when it's over, it's all done." Unaffected, and speaking in a friendly, straightforward fashion, Marshall also illuminated specific aspects of her creative process as she told stories of how she choreographed the dances for such Broadway shows as "Swinging on a Star" and "Seussical," Main Stem revivals of "Kiss Me, Kate," "Follies," and "1776," and the ABC-Disney television production of "The Music Man," starring Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth.

With this season's production of "Wonderful Town," Marshall, who served as the show's director-choreographer, made her Broadway directorial debut. "I think it's natural for choreographers to become directors," Marshall stated, "because you're doing all the same things. I think it's more natural for choreographers to become directors of musicals than it is for directors of straight plays to become directors of musicals." To Marshall, the biggest difference between working as a choreographer and working as a director is what she described as the lack of a "shield." "As a choreographer, you have the director as a shield in front of you, but when you become a director-choreographer, suddenly that shield is gone. You can no longer sit comfortably in the back of the house watching a rehearsal and think, 'I hope somebody's gonna do something about that costume.' Oh, that's me, you suddenly realize."

From time to time throughout the largely anecdotal discussion, Chapin inserted fascinating historical anecdotes of his own about the director-choreographer Michael Bennett and the original Broadway production of "Follies." (Chapin has just written a book, "Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical 'Follies'," based on his observations working as an assistant on that show's 1971 Broadway debut.) He also revealed the news that Marshall is slated to direct and choreograph a new television production of "Once Upon a Mattress," with original star Carol Burnett graduating from the role of Princess Winifred to the role of Queen Aggravain.

Chapin eventually opened the conversation to include questions from audience members. Their inquiries concerned Marshall's transitions from dancer to choreographer, and from choreographer to director, and prompted her to talk about the differences between working, movementwise, with actors versus dancers. Marshall concluded her remarks by reminding everyone that "you have to be optimistic in this business."