From the glamour of the Ziegfeld Follies to jaw-dropping tap numbers and the physical comedy of title character Fanny Brice, Funny Girl offers its large cast dazzling opportunities to let loose and dance. For the classic musical’s first Broadway revival since its 1964 premiere, director Michael Mayer made the inspired decision to double his dance team: Ellenore Scott serves as the production’s choreographer alongside Ayodele Casel as tap choreographer. Both women will make their Broadway debuts when the show begins previews March 26 at the August Wilson Theatre.
For Mayer, hiring choreographers celebrated in the fields of contemporary dance and tap made perfect sense. “Both Ellenore and Ayodele are at the top of their game, ready for the challenge of a big Broadway show, and each brings a great sense of history combined with their own modern sensibilities,” the director says. “It’s been a blast collaborating with them, and it makes me very happy to see them making such exciting work, all in service of telling the story of Fanny Brice.”
Scott and Casel’s unusual job-sharing arrangement is clearly working out, as the dancers-turned-choreographers heaped praise on each other during a joint interview with Broadway Direct. “Our styles blend really well because we are contemporary women of color, and we love referencing things that happened long ago and figuring out how to make it feel true to the era but also exciting for folks seeing it in 2022,” explains Scott. “Michael was brilliant in hiring Ayo to use her superhuman talent for rhythm, musicality, and narrative to choreograph the tap numbers. When you hear the word showstopping, that’s what her work is. People will not expect this kind of tapping from a show like Funny Girl.”
Casel returns the compliment. “Ellenore is a great storyteller, and as a dancer, I take pride when I see dance being used to move the story along rather than just to entertain,” she says. “When I sit back and watch her work, the thing I enjoy most is seeing how she moves bodies through space. Our traveling patterns in tap don’t expand quite as much, so seeing her use space so masterfully is really inspiring. I’m learning as I watch.”
Fortunately for Scott and Casel, Funny Girl’s indelible, hit-filled score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill provides endless inspiration. “I really, really love it,” Casel says of the music, including “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” her big tap number in Act 2. “It swings, and as a tap dancer rooted in jazz, that’s the world I live in.” Adds Scott, “No matter where I am, if I’m feeling emotional, I will immediately start singing ‘People.’ If I need a boost of energy, I start singing ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade.’ There’s something for everyone! Although the music is from another era, it feels amazing in the body to hear it and sing it and dance to it.”
Of course, none of Scott and Casel’s extravagant numbers can come to life without a cast of expert triple-threats, led by Beanie Feldstein as Fanny Brice, the role that made Barbra Streisand a star. “Beanie is amazing,” Scott says. “Every time Ayo and I are in the room with her, she says, ‘Give me more; challenge me more.’ She is so collaborative, and that’s exactly what you want the lead in your show to be. Not only is she bringing life to these songs, but her acting can move you from laughter to tears in a matter of moments. She has found her own Fanny Brice in such a beautiful way.”
Meanwhile, Jared Grimes, cast as Fanny’s friend Eddie Ryan, takes the production’s can-you-top-this tap choreography to dizzying new heights. “I have known Jared since he was 14,” Casel says fondly. “His mom used to drive him up from North Carolina to take my classes. The beautiful thing for me is that his dances [in the show] are rooted in the legacy of tap. So when you see Jared, you’re seeing Bill Robinson, Cholly Atkins, Honi Coles — the history of the art form, not just in his body, which is one of a Black man, but the rhythmic sound of it. This is a milestone in my life and career, and I am forever grateful to Michael Mayer for allowing that to exist in the show.”
Both choreographers bring a wealth of dance experience to Funny Girl. A native of NYC’s Bronx, Casel turned her focus to tap while studying acting at New York University. “I have never done a Broadway show, but my mentors were Gregory Hines and Ted Lewis Levy, people who were on Broadway, so it has never been too far away from me,” she says. An artist-in-residence at Little Island on the Hudson River, Casel won raves for her solo show While I Have the Floor and appears on a U.S. postage stamp commemorating tap dancing alongside a stamp honoring Hines, who died in 2003.
Originally from Santa Cruz, California, Scott began her career as a modern dancer and made the finals in the TV competition So You Think You Can Dance. Along the way, she formed her own contemporary dance company before shifting to musical theater, with assistant or associate choreography gigs at Cats, King Kong, Falsettos, and Head Over Heels. Her lively dances for the Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors won her the job at Funny Girl as well as at Billy Crystal’s new musical, Mr. Saturday Night. “I think Ellenore has a clone somewhere,” Casel quips of Scott’s ability to juggle rehearsals of two Broadway shows. Scott responds with a laugh: “I’m just grateful that the schedule of both shows worked out.”
As Casel and Scott juggle dance numbers set on Henry Street in Lower Manhattan and on the lavish sets of the Ziegfeld Follies, they’re thrilled Broadway audiences will get a fresh look at this irresistible show. “I love the nostalgia people have for Funny Girl,” Casel says, “and the way it shaped how they think about musical theater. It’s nice to know that 58 years later, we’re doing that for a new generation.”
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