Interview: Warren Carlyle finds harmony being back at work with Hugh Jackman and Barry Manilow

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“I haven’t had a good pandemic,” Tony-winning choreographer Warren Carlyle candidly states. “My job is my life. I sat alone in my apartment for two years, which makes you understand why solitary confinement is a punishment. When my job disappeared… It was hard.”

If there is such a thing as making up for lost time, Carlyle is doing it this season. He started 2022 finally shepherd The music man on the stage of the Winter Garden Theater, a revival directed by Jerry Zaks that unwittingly took three years to prepare. The morning after opening night, he drove downtown to begin rehearsals for the Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman musical. Harmonywhose New York premiere, via the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, has been unwittingly in the works for 25 years.

For Harmony, Carlyle does double duty, directing the show in addition to the choreography. He also guided its writers through a rewrite of the front page, which stripped a musical they had been working on for decades “down to the studs”. And after a few rotten years, he’s glad to be back.

warren carlyle
(©Seth Walters)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I spoke to Barry and Bruce recently and they told me that your ideas led them to redesign the whole series. Tell me about the experience of working with them.
I have known them for so many years. My first encounter with Bruce and Barry dates back to when I was part of the original cast of Copacabana in the West End 28 years ago. Even then, we had a connection. I just love them.

We’ve spent the entire pandemic working on Harmony, every Tuesday and Friday. There’s this thing, when you’re so familiar with something, you take it for granted. And then all of a sudden, there’s me coming in and I’m like, ‘Why is this character doing this? What does that really mean?’ We went back to the beginning, to the studs. The songs have been revamped, we’ve added a character, and I think it’s more focused than ever. Because it’s a bit of a six-headed dragon. There are these six leading men, and how do you tell six really great stories? Who are you rooting for? We added a “main character”, who is played by Chip Zien, and who refocused the whole series through his point of view.

What’s it like to be in a rehearsal room with Barry Manilow?
That’s wonderful. He’s so special, and he and Bruce have been great, great, great collaborators. Barry has bat ears – he hears sounds no one else hears. He is incredibly musical and everything he touches gets better. Some people can meddle in something and it’s not as good. Everything he touches improves by 30%. He just has “it”, whatever that means. He is a melody maker. And Bruce is a craftsman. He comes every day with a little piece of paper and says, “I think that’s better. They had a 50-year collaboration and wrote over 200 songs together, which is crazy to think about.

The music man isn’t primarily considered a “dancing” musical, and yet, with Hugh and Sutton in the lead, it kind of becomes that. Where do you start to adapt a program to the strengths of your prospects?
Hugh was my way to it. He is a physical being. It can really carry eight minutes of Harold’s dance, and I don’t have to stray from the main story for the whole thing.

I have this vision in my head of the star singing a verse, walking offstage during the dance, then returning.
Like Ethel Merman, right? She sings, she leaves the stage, the company dances, then she comes back and receives applause. With Hugh, I didn’t have to do that. He dances throughout “76 Trombones”. That’s how it happened. I have this guy and he can do these things.

I’ve wanted to talk about “76 Trombones” ever since I saw the show, because the construction of the number floored me – Hugh as Harold building a band before our eyes from people mimicking the instruments.
It’s really nice and I love it. You got it. The whole point of the show is about faith. If he can make the townspeople believe he’s got them, and if I can make an audience believe that by the end of the issue, the mission is complete. I worked very hard there. It’s like three years of work. There were so many layers to The music man. You often only have six weeks and it’s a crazy, breathless spring to do something worthwhile. With music man, I did a workshop, then I left for three months, then I did another workshop, then I was with Hugh, then I was with Sutton, then they were together, and then I did another workshop. Each time you do this, you paint another layer over it.

Is there a difference between choreographing for “stars”, like Hugh and Sutton, and choreographing an ensemble number like, say, “Too Darn Hot” in Kiss me, Kate?
Not in the concepts or the creation, but in the way I do what I do, and in the bedside manner that I have.

I arrive after doing my homework. I watched as much of Sutton as I could. I saw her in everything is fine and Purple and Millie, so I kinda knew the way she moves. And it moves very easily. She is rhythmic. She has beautiful and long proportions.

I will teach them separately in a place where no one can watch them, where they will feel really safe. Sometimes they’ll get a feel for something they’re doing, because they have their own instincts, and I want to accommodate those instincts. And then I introduce them gently into the room.

With the set, it’s a much more brutal process. It’s like, “five, six, seven, eight. That’s right. That’s wrong. Don’t do that. Do three.” You’re sort of rallying the troops.

How does it feel to come back from the pandemic and do these two shows back to back?
To be in a room like The music man was happy. I cried every day. I was choreographing and wiping away tears. It was great to be back at work. And then move from that to the polar opposite, which is Harmony, was very intentional. I needed a balance between this big big thing that took three years to make, with all the excitement and pressure and Hugh, and I needed somewhere to go in the morning after I opened it . That’s when I started rehearsing for Harmony. It’s just fun to go from a giant show to a show with 20 people. It’s incredible.

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