Warren Carlyle brings ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ alive again

The company of 'Kiss Me, Kate'. Photo by Joan Marcus.
The company of 'Kiss Me, Kate'. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Warren Carlyle.

Warren Carlyle.

Everyone’s talking about Warren Carlyle’s latest project — the revival Broadway production of Kiss Me, Kate at Roundabout Theatre Company. Carlyle is no stranger to the Great White Way. With 14 Broadway shows on his choreographic resume, he’s tackled both cherished revivals and original musicals galore. And now, Carlyle is taking on the beloved Kiss Me, Kate (a musical rendition of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew) — but breathing new life into the show for today’s audiences (over 50 years after its original Broadway run). New dance arrangements, dynamic tap numbers and a contemporary sentimentality are impressing theatregoers both old and new. Dance Informa got the opportunity to chat with Carlyle amidst preview performances and pre-opening rehearsals.

With 14 Broadway shows under your belt and Tony, Outer Critics Circle, Astaire and Drama Desk accolades, I imagine you get to carefully pick and choose your projects nowadays.   

“I try to choose material that I respond to — it can be the music, the story or the leading actors. In the case of Kiss Me, Kate, it was the chance to return to Roundabout Theatre, the chance to work with Scott Ellis once again, the chance to work with Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase, and the chance to choreograph a Cole Porter show. Kiss Me, Kate has so many opportunities for dance, and I was eager to jump in there and create some fun moments of dynamic dancing.”

James T. Lane and the company of 'Kiss Me, Kate'. Photo by Joan Marcus.

James T. Lane and the company of ‘Kiss Me, Kate’. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Do you have a different artistic approach when choreographing a revival?  

“I work on a revival in exactly the same way as I work on an original musical. Day one, I start on page one and work my way through the script. I write notes and try to learn as much as I can during my many times turning pages. My next pass is music. I start with the first notes of the score and hear every note many times. Then I decide what I will need rewritten. For Kiss Me, Kate, every single measure of dance music was rewritten by the dance arranger, David Chase. It makes it fresh and new and allows me to make dances for this generation of dancers and theatregoers.”

What research do you do before you start creating?

“I research a lot. For Kiss Me, Kate, I looked at a lot of movies from the ‘40s. It was a Golden Age both on Broadway and in Hollywood. There was a lot of material that spoke to me and helped me land on the dynamic style of dancing.”

Scott Ellis, Will Chase and Kelli O'Hara in rehearsal for 'Kiss Me, Kate'. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Scott Ellis, Will Chase and Kelli O’Hara in rehearsal for ‘Kiss Me, Kate’. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

This is the second revival of Kiss Me, Kate, which originally opened on Broadway just over 50 years ago. Both the original and 1999 revival productions won Tony Awards for best musical (and musical revival). How does this production breathe new life into the show while also staying true to the magic of the original?

I think casting has a lot to do with this — and we have an incredible cast! The other things that I think help breathe new life into a revival like this one are new dance music by David Chase and orchestrations by Larry Hochman. To me, that makes the show feel very new and fresh.”

This production boasts a pretty stellar cast. How do the actors themselves help shape the evolution of the choreography?

“I have very strong ideas about what I want in the choreography. I came prepared for Kiss Me, Kate by working in the studio for over a month before rehearsals began. In pre-production, it’s all about shaping my vision for the characters and story-telling. Then, in rehearsals, it becomes all about the dancers and actors — and my job is about putting them in a position to succeed.”

What is your favorite part about working on a new project, and why? Auditioning dancers, collaborating with the creative team, dancing in the rehearsal room, celebrating opening night, or something else?

“My favorite part is the creation — pre-production through rehearsals. It’s the most exciting, hopeful time when anything seems possible.”

Who were your dance and choreographic idols growing up? How did they influence and inspire your work ethic and artistic aesthetic? 

Corbin Bleu in 'Kiss Me, Kate'. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Corbin Bleu in ‘Kiss Me, Kate’. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

“My idols growing up were Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Michael Kidd, Fred Astaire, Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp. Robbins was able to cross over from ballet to Broadway and Fosse from Broadway to Hollywood. I love the energy of Michael Kidd’s dance sequences in films like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Fred Astaire had an incredible work ethic where he wouldn’t stop until he got it right. He is graceful in his approach but always so inventive. De Mille created story-telling ballets within musicals; she changed the art form as we know it. And Twyla remains an inspiration as she continues to create. I’m a huge fan.”

You’re known for holding technically challenging dance auditions even if these exact technical movements don’t end up appearing in the production. Why do you conduct your auditions this way, and what qualities make you want to hire a particular dancer?

When I audition dancers, I’m always aware that the dance audition is the first look at the show. It’s the first time that anyone from outside the production is aware of what the show will be. I create challenging combinations that always include the following elements: a turn, a kick and some rhythm. I need to do difficult combos because I’m never quite sure what I will do or what will come out of me during rehearsals. I need to have a group of fearless dancers who can execute anything I ask. For example, in Kiss Me, Kate, I did an entirely new tap number for all the ladies and Corbin [Bleu]. We rehearsed it for three hours during previews, and it went into the show that very night. The dancers even had to wear their own shoes because the costume designer didn’t have time to get them tap shoes for the show. Those dancers had to be capable and brave enough to perform what they’d just learned. I care a lot about positive energy, and I look for that in the dancers I hire.”

Corbin Bleu, Sarah Meahl and Erica Mansfield in 'Kiss Me, Kate'. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Corbin Bleu, Sarah Meahl and Erica Mansfield in ‘Kiss Me, Kate’. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What are you most excited for audiences to experience in Roundabout’s production of Kiss Me, Kate?

I’m most excited for audiences to experience the wealth of dancing in Kiss Me, Kate. I have to say that. I’m the choreographer!”

To learn more about or purchase tickets to Kiss Me,

By Mary Callahan of Dance Informa.

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