Old Globe’s ‘Bob Fosse’s Dancin’’ aims to both honor and reinvent legendary choreographer’s 1978 show
Broadway-bound world premiere is directed by Wayne Cilento, the Tony-nominated star of the original ‘Dancin’’ production
In 1978, Bob Fosse directed and choreographed the Broadway smash “Dancin’,” a concert-style collection of musical numbers that celebrated Fosse’s mastery of all forms of dance and movement.
Four decades later, Fosse is still revered for his choreography, but most theatergoers only remember the angular and hunched shoulder dance moves he created for shows like “Chicago” and “Sweet Charity.” Wayne Cilento — who earned a Tony nomination for his role in the original 1978 production of “Dancin’” — wants today’s audiences to fully appreciate Fosse as the endlessly inventive creator that he was.
Cilento is the director and musical stager of “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’,” a reinvention of the original “Dancin’” show, that will open in previews Tuesday, April 19 at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. The show has been announced as a “Broadway-bound” project, something Cilento has been dreaming about for years.
“In ‘Dancin’,’ there’s such a representation of all of his style and how he loved dance in all its different ways,” Cilento said in a recent interview. “There’s this misleading conception of who Bob Fosse is as a dancer, so I felt honored that if I could represent him and get him back on Broadway in the way he should be, this would be the perfect vehicle to remind people of who he is.”
“Dancin’” opened March 27, 1978, at the Broadhurst Theatre in Manhattan, before moving to the nearby Ambassador Theatre. It would play a total of 1,774 performances before it closed on June 27, 1982. The show was nominated for seven Tony Awards and won two for Fosse’s choreography and Jules Fisher’s lighting design.
Fosse’s concept for the mostly plotless show was to pair pop songs, jazz, operatic, classical and march music with dance in a variety of styles including jazz, modern ballet, Broadway and tap. The show’s choreography was considered so difficult to perform — the original cast featured the crème de la crème of ‘70s-era Broadway dancers, including Cilento and Fosse’s then-muse Ann Reinking — that it has rarely been produced in the decades since.
Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein was 13 years old when “Dancin’” premiered. Although his New Jersey family often took in Broadway shows together, they never made it to “Dancin’,” but Edelstein vividly remembers the show’s promotional TV commercials, featuring long-legged dancers soaring, kicking and flipping through the air in slow motion. One of the dancers in the commercials was Cilento.
Edelstein said sitting with Cilento in recent “Dancin’” rehearsals has been exhilarating.
“There’s a very huge wow factor,” Edelstein said. “Wayne has brought together the most extraordinary collection of dancers, and they’re more than that, too: actors, singers and performers. But every single one of them is capable of astonishing physical feats. And they bring tremendous beauty, too. Before Fosse, all Broadway dancers looked the same. But Fosse said ‘no, every single dancer has to be an individual,’ so you have a range of physical types, ethnicities, ages, genders and style specialties. I must say it’s quite breathtaking just being in the room with people who are that skilled at that level.”
‘I Can Do That’
Cilento will mark his 50th anniversary as an Broadway artist next year. Just two years after making his debut as a Broadway dancer in 1973, Cilento landed the plum role of Mike, the multitalented dancer who sings “I Can Do That,” in the original cast of “A Chorus Line.” The role earned Cilento his first of seven Tony nominations, as well as the attention of Fosse, who — with a nudge from fellow Broadway choreography legend Graciela Daniele — invited Cilento to audition in 1977 for a new dance-based show he was developing.
At the time, Cilento was already in rehearsals as dance captain for Liza Minnelli’s song-and-dance show “The Act,” but during a lunch break, he sneaked out to audition for Fosse. For an hour, Fosse put Cilento through his paces with Reinking. He asked Cilento to sing a song in three different keys, and he threw a bunch of other ideas at Cilento to test his skills.
“I had a great time time. Then he said, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do with you. I already have a cast,’” Cilento recalled. “But I didn’t really care at the time. This was the moment of a lifetime. Then on opening night of ‘The Act,’ I’m doing a dance number in the center of the stage and I’m in a demi-plié looking out in the audience and who do I see but Bob Fosse right in my face there in front.”
At the end of the night, Fosse asked Cilento to be in “Dancin.’” For the next six months, Cilento rehearsed with Fosse by day and performed with Minnelli by night until he left “The Act” to open in “Dancin’”. In an ensemble show, dancers rarely get individual recognition, but because Fosse put Cilento in almost every number of the show, he got a Tony nomination, alongside Reinking. Cilento thinks the reason Fosse offered him so many opportunities in the genre-hopping show was his versatility.
“The one thing I really had done well in my journey with dancing and choreography was that I studied with everyone who was a teacher in the city so I never got trapped in a style,” Cilento said.
After “Dancin’,” Cilento danced in five more shows before transitioning into becoming a full-time choreographer and director. He won Tony and Drama Desk awards for his choreography in the La Jolla Playhouse-born musical “The Who’s Tommy” and some of his many other choreography credits include “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Wicked” and “Aida.”
Over the years, Cilento said he has often been asked what it was like working with Fosse on “Dancin’” and the 1986 musical “Big Deal,” which was Fosse’s last new show before he died from a heart attack in 1987.
“What was it like to work with Bob? It was quiet,” Cilento said. “He was such an internal director and choreographer who did everything himself. He was very concentrated, very focused and and very innovative. He was living on the edge, always challenging himself, with all those demons in his head. But it was never enough. He always felt he could make it better. I saw that and the quiet in him and he saw that and the quiet in me.”
‘All the moves he invented, reinvented’
A little over four years ago, Cilento began talking to producers about his idea of bringing back “Dancin’” in a refreshed way that was more relevant for today. The show’s marketing tagline “All the moves he invented, reinvented” represent Cilento’s respect for Fosse’s original work with an understanding of changing times.
“My question to myself was, ‘If Bob was around today and doing ‘Dancin’, what would he do with it?’ That was my goal: to approach it through Bob’s mind and the way he thought and how progressive he was,” Cilento said.
Cilento didn’t want to change a step of Fosse’s original choreography, nor any of the original music he picked for the show, which includes pop songs by Neil Diamond and Cat Stevens, “Mr. Bojangles” by Jerry Jeff Walker, “Sing Sing Sing” by Louis Prima and instrumental pieces by J.S. Bach and John Philip Sousa. But he has had the music modernized with new orchestration and instrumentation.
“One of the things I’ve so enjoyed talking with Wayne about is the relationship between this version of the show and the show in the ‘70s,” Edelstein said. “He’s super-duper smart about how to engage in a conversation with the ‘70s rather than rejecting the ‘70s.”
The show has been trimmed from three acts to two and some numbers that seemed dated or inappropriate have been eliminated, like “Dixie,” the 1859 Confederate marching song that was performed in 1978 by two Black dancers.
Cilento has also switched up the genders of dancers in some numbers because women have come a long way culturally and professionally since 1978. He has also updated some of the choreography to reflect Fosse’s later development as a more fluid and cinematic director of dance.
Cilento’s proudest idea for the show is the return of “Big City Mime,” a piece Fosse cut from the original show after one performance during an out-of-town tryout. It was the dance story of a man arriving in the vibrant metropolis of New York for the first time and how it changes him. Cilento has reimagined the dance as a ballet representing Fosse’s own New York journey of discovery.
“I’m excited about what the reaction will be to that piece,” he said.
The Globe and beyond
Edelstein said he first heard about “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’” in 2019, when either Cilento or Cilento’s agent called him with a pitch for the show. As discussions progressed, the pandemic hit and the project was shelved for two years.
Edelstein said it’s very rare for an Old Globe premiere to announce any Broadway trajectory before it opens here, but veteran Broadway producer Joey Parnes has announced his intention to take “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’” to New York. Parnes’ past Broadway production credits include the Globe-born shows “Bright Star,” “Meteor Shower” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which won four 2014 Tony Awards. Parnes also hopes to produce the Globe-launched “Almost Famous” on Broadway in the future.
Edelstein said “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’” will be the first Old Globe show to feature a scenic video wall that he estimates is 50 feet wide by 30 feet high. The wall will display videos that set the time and place for the various numbers as well as documentary footage that will bring a more modern context to the dance numbers.
Edelstein said the use of the video wall and the return of a full-fledged dance musical to the Globe stage is an exciting return to the spectacular theater of pre-pandemic times.
“After two years of being flattened to two dimensions, to see a human body, all of it moving around through space and expressing emotion and ideas nonverbally in this glorious way, feels lie the perfect way to tell Zoom to jump in the lake,” Edelstein said.
‘Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ ’
When: Preview performances run Tuesday, April 19 through April 27. Opens April 28 and runs through May 29. Showtimes, 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Where: Old Globe Theatre, 1313 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
Tickets: $52 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
COVID protocol: Proof of vaccine is no longer required, masks strongly recommended indoors but not required.
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