Dance Informa continues its series on stories about Ann Reinking, written by colleague and friend Debra McWaters.
Chapter 9: Chicago at Encores!
Annie and I are in NYC, and it’s time to run. We have so little time to get this show up and running. We had done a “skeleton” crew for a few days prior to this in order to work out a few numbers, such as “A Tap Dance”, “All That Jazz” and “Cell Block Tango”. We had wonderful dancers who took time to join us, including this wonderful little gal from Broadway Theatre Project (BTP), Angela Brydon. These people were not guaranteed a role, and, in fact, many did not get this job, but they were wonderful and helped us to accomplish so much. Of course, in some cases, we were fortunate enough to have the real deal there.
Annie had already worked with Jay Binder, one of our most beloved BTP visiting faculty members (who recently passed) on casting, so when I flew to NY to begin the work, we had our cast. What a group it was. The dancers were smart, they were beautiful, they were seasoned professionals (some had even danced with Mr. Fosse), they were buff, they were ready to go. During the Meet and Greet, when I looked around the room, all I could think of is, “You’d better hit the gym when you get home, you’d better hit the gym when you get home…”
The principals were amazing. Jimmy Naughton, who played Billy, is handsome and has a voice that is smooth as honey. His issue, at that time, was needing to run through the lyrics of “They Both Reached for the Gun” before each show. So, in all my glory, each night, I would go up and sing the part of the reporters. He, of course, was brilliant. I, of course, was not.
What can I say about Joel Grey that hasn’t already been said? He is just as amazing as you think he is. He is small and compact. He carries this lovely, calm smile on his face. He wears wire rims as he reads his script. He’s sharp as a tack. He loves photography and is constantly snapping pics of people backstage.
Marcia Lewis, Mama Morton, could not have been kinder or more loved. She was lovely to everyone. When that voice came out, it was a shocker! David Sabella, what can I say about David Sabella other than that he has become one of my dearest friends, and I admire him so. This amazing vocalist blew everyone away with both his voice and his ability to truly fool you after he waltzed around the stage as Mary Sunshine, then came out at the end half dressed as a guy with a stogie in his mouth, talking like he’d just taken a break from playing a round of poker.
Bebe Neuwirth was quite the experience while watching and working with her in a rehearsal. She’s game for anything and will repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat a step she likes until she’s mastered it. She’s also as funny as she is serious. However, there is no sense of humor when it comes to rehearsal and her dance steps.
Now, Annie…Roxie…perfection. When I think of her performance at Encores!, I think of the icing at the bottom of a wedding cake that is very thick and sitting on the platter? It’s an odd analogy, I know, but for me it’s the best part of the cake – it’s sweet, you can swoop up just so much of it with your finger and it looks so beautiful on your finger and takes so sweet and you keep wanting more. Well, I keep wanting more, anyway. She was like Jessica Rabbit. She was the bad girl you loved to dislike. There were no redeeming qualities there, but you loved her anyway. People also thought that Roxie was not intelligent. However, as our most amazing Director, Walter Bobbie, used to say, a breeze would blow and Roxie’s head would blow this way and a breeze would blow from another direction and her head would blow in that direction, but she was sharp as a tack. I doubt that anyone will forget the Roxie monologue.
I mentioned Walter Bobbie above. I have never met a kinder, wittier, more intelligent man (other than the men in my family). We traveled the United States and the world together, and I never saw him lose his temper or raise his voice. He would always go to the actor, put his hands on both shoulders, look into his or her eyes and quietly give the note! I remember two things about Walter that make me smile. When we were on Broadway, and it was a particularly difficulty time as it was the interval of time when Tony voters come, he came to me with that same stance and told me how important I was to this Project. It was so appreciated. It had been a hard ride. The second memory of Walter took place in London, when we were walking across the bridge after watching Guys and Dolls. It was so quiet out. All of a sudden, Walter started softly singing “Inch Worm”, a childhood song. As a child, I had learned the song to be sung with that song “2 and 2 are 4” and honest to God, I started whispering it because we all know I’m no singer. Slowly but surely, I got a bit louder until you could hear the harmony. It is one of my favorite memories to date.
Another favorite in my life is Rob Fisher, music director extraordinaire, who is also a botanist. Now, we all know that the academic part of Rob was screaming out to the academic side of me. However, music was the thing. He was another funny guy with a sharp mind. We had a creative team that was smart and oh so much fun.
During our short run, as each day passed, it was clear that there was more murmuring in the audience each night after the performance. The excitement was wild. By the time we closed, we knew we were going somewhere. Fran and Barry Weissler, our producers, came up to me after the party we had and told me not to go too far away because it looked like we were headed for Broadway!
Debra McWaters was mentored for 15 years by Ann Reinking. Reinking introduced McWaters to Gwen Verdon, and they all traveled the world working on shows related to Fosse. Verdon gave McWaters the nod to teach his style. She became one who passed on what was taught, by Reinking and Verdon, and she wrote the book, The Fosse Style, with a foreword by Ben Vereen.
For over 15 years, McWaters was Assistant Choreographer and then Associate Choreographer for Director of Choreography Reinking. McWater’s Broadway career began with New York City Center Encores! production and Broadway production of Tony Award-winning Chicago The Musical, starring Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth. She also worked with London, Australian and Viennese companies and two first U.S. National Tours, one originally co-starring Chita Rivera and Ben Vereen. In addition, McWaters was Reinking’s Associate Choreographer on Applause at Papermill Playhouse, No Strings! at New York City Center Encores!, The Look of Love at Roundabout Theatre Company, the original version of The Visit at the Goodman Theatre with Chita Rivera, Legends at Joffrey Ballet, Suite Kander at Missouri State Ballet, Tonight at 8:30 at Williamstown Theatre Festival and Caution: Side Effects with Melissa Thodos Dancers. She was also Associate Director and Choreographer for Broadway Under the Stars at Bryant Park; choreographer for Ben Vereen’s one-man show; and choreographer for the workshops of two of composer Frank Wildhorn’s musicals, Wonderland and Havana.
McWaters has worked with 2014 Olympic Gold Medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White. She is an associate member of SDC, and was chair of the University of South Florida Dance Department. She holds a Masters degree in Math (specialty in probability/statistics) and worked at NASA on the Apollo and Skylab missions. In 1991, Reinking and McWaters co-founded the Broadway Theatre Project, a training ground for young artists. McWaters authored Musical Theatre Training: The Broadway Theatre Project Handbook, published by University Press of Florida. She teaches master classes around the country and has particularly enjoyed doing so at Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. She has studied and competed in International Latin dance, has learned some West Coast Swing and is now learning American Rhythm and American Smooth in order to begin competing again. She recently experimented with some Broadway Theatre Project alums and faculty on a video that was virtual and one that was not, and he has several more planned.