Feature Articles

Life with Ann Reinking: Stories by Deb McWaters, Part 7

The cast of 'Chicago' in Playbill. Photo courtesy of Debra McWaters.
The cast of 'Chicago' in Playbill. Photo courtesy of Debra McWaters.

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! 

Chapter 10: “Ladies and Gentlemen!….”

The memories of opening Chicago on Broadway conjure up so many things for me. It is impossible to do a narrative. It would end up being a writing that meandered from one topic to another as I remembered one thing and then another, and it would all be so “random”. What I feel would read more clearly is a listing per se of images in my mind. So much happened in such a short amount of time. The putting up of the show was filled with reward, sweat, drama, pride and so many other things. I can only do justice to some of these things. However, suffice it to say that everyday something happened that caused all to sit up and take notice as, afterall, it was Chicago!

I believe in stream of consciousness writing, but it is not always so easy for the reader to follow, so I am actually going to write paragraphs of thoughts, impressions, memories pertaining to that show as it was born and went through its infancy during my tenure with it on Broadway. Bear with me as we take this step together.

Moving into the theater was thrilling as it became a reality that we had a show that was going to open soon, and we so loved this show.

Annie and I would grab the strongest espresso for her and latte for me before we walked through those doors in the morning.

I remember long tech rehearsals that were met with good moods, as all knew that we were off on a good ride.

Photo shoot day was a hoot as everyone was up in mood and gorgeous. On top of that, Gregory Hines came bounding through the door and spent a good bit of time with me in the house as the shoot was happening.

There were unfortunate circumstances that caused great consternation during previews when Annie became ill and Bebe was injured. We had a long night when we were preparing for a show that might open without one or both of our leads. Luckily, both women healed in time to do their magnificent work that we were accustomed to seeing.

I was stunned and oh so envious of Annie as she worked so hard as to walk into previews with a most in-shape body, ready to tackle eight shows a week, running around the stage singing “Me and My Baby” in her lace-up boots. She was in fighting form. I watched her order two fried eggs, an order of bacon, toast, coffee, orange juice, oh, and hash browns, but then would see her eat just half of the meal. She did that with everything. She monitored her portions but never went without. I would stand back and look at Annie, Bebe and the remainder of the dancers and feel as if I was living in an alternate universe.

Another memory I have that makes me smile is when we did our sitzprobe. I must say that this was perhaps one of the most enjoyable experiences I had with this show. Sitting in that room with those voices, everyone relaxed, happy and excited to record together was so much fun. However, you need to move at a good clip, as time is money. There is no time to fool around or go back for do-overs.

Sitting in Annie’s dressing room before curtain (she always arrived right at half hour) and right after curtain was always so much fun. We’d chat it up with whomever came in to do her hair, mike, makeup and costume at that time (it was not always the same person, although William Ivey Long, her costume designer always checked on her when he was there). Everyone was happy to be working on this show. Walter Bobbie would come in and wish Annie “merde”. I’d love looking at the new flowers sent to her each performance. When it was time for her to go on stage, she would always look at me, smooth down her short tight dress and with her big blue eyes wide open ask, “Do I look okay?” The answer to you is when did she ever not look okay?

At intermission, I’d run back to see her, and she would ask about how particular parts of her pathway through the act went. I would tell her my impression, and then it would be time for her to prepare to scoot out on stage and for me to get back to my seat.

At the end of the show, I’d work my way back and wait for her to shower and go through her vocal exercises. This was a long wait. It was a good thing that it was a long wait. During previews, Annie had serious problems with her voice and her vocal chords. Without the help of Adrienne Angel and Joan Lader, I do not know if Annie could have gotten through the first couple of weeks of Chicago. Adrienne works on vocal technique and had Annie doing exercises constantly, and Annie was a good student. Joan, who works as a voice therapist, tackled Annie’s problems from that angle. As it turns out, Annie was doing as much damage to herself when speaking lines as when singing. That great voice we all loved to hear, when turned up in volume caused her problems, but with the help of these two highly respected women, Annie was able to rebound and go on. She was very good about doing her “homework”.

The second night of previews, someone phoned in a bomb threat. Barry Weissler calmly walked on stage and asked people to exit the theater, and all did just that. Annie grabbed me and I walked with her, Bebe and Joel Grey straight through the stage door of Les Mis. This is truly one of the most bizarre and memorable images of my existence. Picture a group of people standing around a small tv set cheering on as the World Series was doing its thing. Picture some of these people with teeth blacked out, wearing what appeared to be dirty and poor period outfits. Picture me dressed in contemporary streetwear accompanying two very different but very sexy women — one wearing a short lace skin tight dress, stilettos and black pantyhose, and the other wearing a tight, short slip dress, light black pantyhose and a short jet black pixie wig. Add to that one whimsical gentleman wearing an odd fitting suit, the most obvious being floodwater pants, white socks and black shoes. It was the clash of two worlds enjoying the World Series until we received an “all clear”, went back to our theater and started Act I. You’ve got to love live theater.

At the end of every single performance, there were so many fans waiting for the principals to come out and sign their Playbills. Annie was one of those generous performers who would stay and sign until the very last person left. We would be freezing and exhausted, but she persisted. She was lovely that way.

Opening night was as wonderful and surreal as one could imagine. I, however, had a Cinderella day prior to the evening. Annie had set up a private shopper for me at Saks Fifth Avenue in order to help me select the perfect outfit for opening. Yes, I still have it. Then, she had a makeup artist from Laura Geller’s store come to my hotel room to do my hair and makeup. Both Annie and I frequented the store, but I never thought I would be treated in such a way. Annie was a most generous friend and, in turn, I worked as hard as I have ever worked to make her, her environment and her choreography exactly as she desired. We worked so well together.

The evening was filled with flowers and cards being delivered to all of us. My biggest surprise was receiving a telegram from Gregory telling me to think of him as being there with us. What a true friend he was. The show was amazing. Every family member I had was there. So many celebrities were there. The response was wild.

At the end of the show, we all went to a prearranged place for the opening night party. It was designed to look like a prison with women behind bars (no comment), tin cups for our drinks, tin plates for food, and opening night gifts being passed back and forth among the people associated with the show. We both walked out with our arms more than filled with beautiful and fun items from our compatriots. However, prior to that…

All knew that The New York Times was going to come out with a review after midnight, quite late as a matter of fact, so we all stuck around. Ben Brantley was a very tough critic, and there was no one there who was sure that it was going to be the best of the best. I can remember when word got out that the paper was out and two men ran to grab copies. They came back to the party, and everyone looked in shock as they saw that our review made Page One of The New York Times, then continued inside. It was the grandest of love letters. As a matter of fact, we got love letters from critics all night long. It was astounding. What could we say? “Go home, get some sleep, you have another show to do tomorrow.” I do remember Barry Weissler telling me before I left the party that I should not make plans after flying back to Florida, as I would be back in NYC very soon as new companies would begin to spawn off of this one. Oh, how little did I know…

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. 

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top