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Life with Ann Reinking: Stories by Deb McWaters, Part 8

Ann Reinking, Wendy Edmead and Debra McWaters at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Photo courtesy of McWaters.
Ann Reinking, Wendy Edmead and Debra McWaters at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Photo courtesy of McWaters.

Dance Informa continues its series on stories about Ann Reinking, written by colleague and friend Debra McWaters.

Chapter 11: Stories of the tours

After opening night, I had no idea as to how much work awaited me. Before a year had gone by, I had helped to build a dance medley for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade stop at Herald Square (without Roxie in it) and The Rosie O’Donnell Show, as well as the Late Show with David Letterman, and a similar medley with Annie in it for President Clinton’s pre-inaugural party in Washington, D.C.

In the midst of the above, national tours were being built. Commercials were being shot. The first tour was called the Roxie tour and the second the Velma tour. The tours were completely different animals and such a blast on which to work. The Roxie Company started out with Roxie being played by Charlotte d’Amboise, Velma by Jasmine Guy and Billy by Obba Babatunde. There were other amazing principals and company members, but for the sake of brevity, I shall stick with these characters. Auditions for the ensemble were just what you would imagine — lines around the block. When it came to principals, the entire creative team was there unless it was an out-of-town audition and Annie had to perform. I remember that finding our first Billy was tough. We were in L.A., and were packing up when we sat down, ready to see the last candidate. This gentleman jumped into the room and started singing “All I Care About is Love” with the staging and blew our socks off. Obba was someone who taught me so much about the show. He explained nuances to me that I would not have known about had I never met him. What a joy this cast was.

Right after the Roxie Company was formed, it was time to build the Velma Company. We had Karen Ziemba as Roxie, Stephanie Pope as Velma and Brent Barrett as Billy. This was quite a different company, more seasoned, as several had actually danced with Mr. Fosse. This was a first-rate company that was smart and smooth…and kind.  

Working with both tours was a joy. There were never nicer people. The people who came in and replaced were just as lovely as those who left. I had the privilege of working with Ben Vereen, Chita Rivera, Marilu Henner, Sandy Duncan, among many others. I remember seeing Alan Thicke’s final performance in Tampa. As one can imagine, that man talked nonstop about his son (Adam) and how talented he was. I used to smile and think, “Another proud father…” Little did I know… Anyway, I was unable to go backstage after Alan’s final performance but had sent a note with my goodbye. He actually called my home phone in Tampa, to ask me if I had any notes for him. He was finished with the role but still wanted to know what he might have improved upon. Along the same lines, neither Chita nor Ben believed in taking equity breaks and insisted upon working nonstop. They worked harder than anyone I have ever seen. That’s a big part of what makes them who they are.

Annie, if no conflict presented itself, would take her days and come to work with the companies. I felt as if I was in the classroom learning constantly. It was through Annie that I saw the lovely freedom of making the movement fit the actor. Not all Roxies danced like Annie, nor could all Velmas dance like Bebe. Each person we worked with had their own way of movement. It was up to Annie to take the original choreography and tweak it, if necessary, working toward the actor’s strengths. Consequently, our casts felt like the work was tailored for them. Each company looked slightly different. Now, obviously, if the original choreography was something that fit the actors perfectly, nothing changed.

My last story of the tours is the closest to my heart. Robert Ulrich came in to play Billy Flynn. If you Wiki him, you will see what a TV star he was awhile back. He was a huge mountain of a good-looking guy. The first day of rehearsals, I walked in and he was wearing sweats and dance shoes, sitting on the floor, stretching as much as this huge, action star could. He had a lovely voice and was great at picking up choreography. We became friends, and he told me all about the rare form of cancer that he had fought in the past. Robert told me that his biggest dream was to play the lead in The Music Man. He actually asked me if I would commute to L.A. and get him ready for the audition. Annie gave her nod, and I was thrilled. One night, I walked backstage to check on things, and it was very quiet. I was told that doctors were in Robert’s room. He had found a suspicious spot. He left the show that day for treatment for that insidious cancer just as he was getting going. Six months later, I was told that he was well and ready to go. I walked into rehearsal, and he jumped to his feet, motioned to the accompanist and sang and did the entire staging for “All I Care About is Love.” He did not miss a beat.. A few nights later, we went to Chicago on Broadway, and he said, “You know, if you get me in that show, you will have fulfilled my lifelong dream of performing on Broadway.”

After he had been on the road for awhile in preparation for moving to Broadway, I was in Florida and the Broadway team took over. Robert made it to the show and family saw him perform. A night or two later, he had to leave the show because the cancer returned, and he passed not long after that. Experiences like that make my entire career doing this sort of work so very important and worthwhile to me. I shall always remember Robert Ulrich.

One last thing I would like to point out: No matter where we were or what tour we were working on, come July, we flew back to Tampa to Broadway Theatre Project. That was so dear to us, and we made a point of not missing it! Sometimes, one of us was coming from one country and the other from another country, but we parked down in Tampa in order to do what we loved most…teaching at the Project.

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. 

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