How do you salute a choreographer and director who was ahead of his time 40, 50, 60, and 70 years ago with a work that’s fresh to modern audiences? That was the challenge facing Wayne Cilento, whose new production of Bob Fosse’s landmark 1978 show, Dancin’, arrives on Broadway this year.
Certainly it would be hard to imagine a latter-day artist better suited to the task. Cilento performed in the original cast of Dancin’, alongside other notable Fosse dancers such as Ann Reinking and Sandahl Bergman, and also appeared in 1986’s Big Deal, the last original Broadway musical helmed by Fosse. Cilento’s own credits as a choreographer include revivals of Sweet Charity and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—Fosse conceived, directed, and choreographed the former, and provided “musical staging” (choreography, really, though another artist was credited) for the latter—as well as original musicals ranging from The Who’s Tommy and Wicked to 1997’s Dream, which Cilento also directed.
Cilento is listed as director and musical stager of the new Bob Fosse’s Dancin’, set to begin previews March 2 and open March 19 at the Music Box Theatre. He has re-created Fosse’s choreography, but that doesn’t mean this Dancin’ will be an exact replica of the original. “Today’s audience has an attention span of about two seconds,” Cilento muses. “This obviously can’t be what Bob Fosse did 45 years ago. I needed to think about that, to try to get inside Bob’s head and think about what he would come up with.”
There will be material that wasn’t featured in the original production. “I created this whole ballet,” Cilento says. “What I tried to do is incorporate Bob’s life and what he’s done in film. I thought, ‘What if this is a soundstage, and we’re doing Dancin’ inside of it? Or what if it’s a concert?’ Because it was a music and dance concert, and a theatrical event. Hopefully, when you see it, it will bring back a lot of elements from all that, like the scaffolding he used in All That Jazz”—Fosse’s acclaimed, largely autobiographical 1979 movie.
The musical arrangements and instrumentation have also been updated. “Bob loved rock ’n’ roll,” notes Cilento. “And we wanted to make this sound contemporary. We’ve lifted it up and given it a little more energy, so that it would feel alive for today.”
But the most important element, Cilento stresses, was remaining faithful to Fosse’s work. “I think everyone’s interpretation of who he is, or who they thought he was, can get in the way of who he really was. I got to see that in working with him. And I also went back and studied all the choreographic pieces he did for MGM,” the legendary film studio that employed Fosse in the 1950s, initially as a performer. “He was a glorious dancer; he could just fly. People think his work is very isolated and restricted and seductive, and that’s part of it. But there’s an explosive part too.”
Capturing that element required finding extraordinarily skilled, energetic dancers who would “bring their artistry and themselves to the stage,” says Cilento. “We went for an eclectic group. When Bob cast us [for the original production], we were 16 very different individuals, and I think that’s what made the show special—that he chose to put these unique dancers onstage and eliminate the star element. And the essence of who these dancers are is the essence of who we were: We were raw, coming into it not knowing what we would do but putting our best feet forward and dancing our hearts out.”
In working with his company, Cilento naturally has reflected on his own memories of being guided by Fosse. “He could be so quiet, so creative within himself. It wasn’t a lack of energy; it was a concentrated energy within his body. I saw how intensely he focused on each individual. He created this whole world, and if you were smart—if you could tap into that world—you were ahead of the game. So I just focused and threw myself into every situation he put me in, and I thought, ‘What is he trying to say?’ And that served me well. I feel like he appreciated my focus; he gave me so much to do in Dancin’, I’m surprised I got through it. But it was a blessing.”
Cilento notes, “I think Bob originally wanted to do Dancin’ because he wanted to work with different styles and different types of music, to experiment with anything he wanted. He was setting himself free. I think that was a beautiful thing about the show at the time, and it is this time.”
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