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Creating a new musical: ‘Marie, Dancing Still’

Lynn Ahrens, Susan Stroman and Stephen Flaherty, the creative team of 'Marie, Dancing Still'. Photo by Walter McBride.
Lynn Ahrens, Susan Stroman and Stephen Flaherty, the creative team of 'Marie, Dancing Still'. Photo by Walter McBride.

On Saturday, February 23, the Steps Beyond Foundation hosted an Artists Talk entitled “The Creative Process Unraveled: Creating a New Musical”. The packed evening (Steps Beyond’s most attended event to date) featured Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, Susan Stroman and Karen Ziemba, with the talk-back moderated by NY1’s On Stage host, Frank DiLella.

This particular creative team: director/choreographer “Stro,” songwriting duo Ahrens and Flaherty, and stage star KZ are gearing up for their out-of-town try-out of Marie, Dancing Still. The original musical tells the informed but mostly inspired story of Marie van Goethem, the 14-year-old Paris Ballet “rat” who served as the muse for Edgar Degas’ famous sculpture, “Little Dancer”.

The full company of 'Marie, Dancing Still'. Photo by Walter McBride.

The full company of ‘Marie, Dancing Still’. Photo by Walter McBride.

During a visit to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., Lynn Ahrens saw the “Little Dancer” statue. But for the first time, she looked beyond the sculpture itself and became curious about the scrawny yet poised girl in the work of art. Ahrens researched all she could about this young ballerina but found that after Marie was fired from her ballet company, she seems to have disappeared from history without a trace. The mystery and possibility of Marie’s life, the juxtaposition of the glamour of ballet and the desolation of Marie’s working-class family, and the exciting intersection of so many art forms from ballet and music to painting and sculpture all dovetailed, in Ahrens’ eyes, was the perfect seedling for a brand-new musical.

And Ahrens knew the perfect leader for this project – five-time Tony Award-winning director and choreographer, Susan Stroman. Not only does Stroman have the notches on her belt in the world of Broadway, but she also has great experience choreographing classical ballet. Ahrens headed the book and teamed up with composer Stephen Flaherty to write the music, William Ivey Long joined in for costume design, and finally, with Stroman on board, the creative team was off to the races. 

With New York City Ballet prima Tiler Peck in the title role, Little Dancer premiered at The Kennedy Center in fall of 2014. Now, five years later, the show is reworked (and still reworking every day in the rehearsal process) before a three-week sit-down at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. A new title, new songs and new actors are all bringing new life to this highly-anticipated production. “Of course, Broadway is a wonderful destination,” explained Ahrens, “but I’m more interested in making good theater and finding its right home.” But Broadway is certainly in the cards — especially with a legendary creative team and cast like Marie. 

The most important element of a killer show? All four panelists agree: collaboration. Listening — and really hearing one another’s ideas and concerns — is the foundation of teamwork. For an actor like Ziemba, her job is to walk in to rehearsal everyday saying “yes”. “You have to be vulnerable and give every direction your all before you judge if a choice is going to work or not,” she explained. For Ahrens and Flaherty, getting to know the actors has inspired their music to change and evolve.“If we know someone’s range can go much higher than what we’ve written,” noted Flaherty, “then we want to rework it to show the actor off in his or her best light.” And for Stroman, her role as ringleader goes beyond just directing the actors. She also collaborates with the design team, dance arranger, prop master and stage manager to make sure everyone on the team is working toward the same vision, but also that their needs and ideas are heard.

Lynn Ahrens, Tiler Peck and Susan Stroman. Photo by Walter McBride.

Lynn Ahrens, Tiler Peck and Susan Stroman. Photo by Walter McBride.

And the more you expose yourself and learn about the different departments that work on a show, the better you will be able to collaborate. “Learn as much as you can,” encourageZiemba. “Take a class on costume design, volunteer in the stage management team for your school production, and go see and experience as much art as possible.” All of these things will make you a more informed, understanding, open-minded and collaborative team player.

The panelists also offered advice on how to get your work “out there”. “Participate in workshops and showcases to get your work — whether it’s choreography, playwriting or music composition — up on its feet and in front of an audience,” recommended Ahrens. “And don’t be afraid to take a chance,” added Flaherty. “Years ago, while walking on the sidewalks of NYC, I got up the courage to ask Lynn, whom I’d never met, to write a song with me. She said yes, and now the rest is history!”

The evening’s takeaways? Cultivate the skills that can help you grow to become an effective team member, listen and hear your collaborators’ ideas, be honest and vulnerable in creating your art, and take risks that challenge you to step outside your comfort zone. Oh, and the main takeaway? We can’t wait to see Marie, Dancing Still!

For more information on the Steps Beyond Foundation, check out www.stepsnyc.com/steps-beyond. And for ticket information and updates on Marie, Dancing Still, visit www.5thavenuetheatre.org/show/marie.

By Mary Callahan of Dance Informa.

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