Nancy Lemenager and "Lucky" Noah Racey(Photo © Peter Berberian)
Nancy Lemenager and "Lucky" Noah Racey
(Photo © Peter Berberian)
The Great American Songbook is definitely "in" at the moment, which is not to say that it was ever really "out." Although standards by the likes of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers have not been at the forefront of popular culture since the mid 1960s, they have had continued waves of popularity as championed by everyone from Linda Ronstadt to Harry Connick to Diana Krall, not to mention the perennial Tony Bennett. Currently, Rod Stewart (of all people!) and Michael Bublé are serving as proponents of these wonderful songs. Meanwhile, the spiffy styles of dancing that flourished in pre-rock & roll days have retained a small but solid base of fans over the years.

All of this bodes well for Never Gonna Dance, the new Broadway musical based on the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film Swing Time. Chock full of songs by the great Jerome Kern and with a book by Jeffrey Hatcher, the show promises to be a special treat as choreographed by Jerry Mitchell (Hairspray, The Full Monty) and directed by Michael Greif (Rent). I recently spoke with stars Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager at the Broadhurst Theatre, where the show is scheduled to open on December 4.

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THEATERMANIA: I attended the press preview of a few numbers from the show and it got me really excited about seeing the finished product. What kind of audience response have you been getting?

NANCY LEMENAGER: Well, my parents and my brother came to the first preview. They really enjoyed the show and my brother said, "The only problem is that everybody in the audience sings along." I think it's great that people are buying tickets because the music excites them and they want to come hear it again.

NOAH RACEY: The music is like a net, a cushion. There are complexities in the music and lyrics but, basically, there's something direct and simple about these songs that you can rely on as a performer.

NANCY: "A fine romance with no kisses..." That line tells you immediately what's going on in the song.

TM: I think it's fair to say that Jerome Kern's name is not quite as familiar to the general public as the names of some of his contemporaries, but when you look at a list of the songs he wrote...

NOAH: ...it's amazing. Dorothy Fields and all of the other lyricists he worked with -- it's a huge volume of work.

Subways are for dancing!(Photo © Peter Berberian)
Subways are for dancing!
(Photo © Peter Berberian)
TM: So, the show is basically Swing Time as adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, with additional songs taken from other shows and movies?

NOAH: Yes. As Jeffrey says, it's Swing Time with a slightly caffeinated script. To make it theatrical, the secondary characters have been pumped up so that there are adjacent storylines for the audience to follow.

NANCY: It's a little faster, a little funnier.

TM: For those who haven't seen the movie, can you give a synopsis of the plot?

NOAH: I play this guy called "Lucky." I make a bet with my fiancée's father that I can raise enough money to be worthy of marrying her. In order to do that, I give up my chosen profession of vaudeville and I vow to stop dancing. I go to New York to try and raise the ungodly sum of $25,000...

NANCY: ...which he says he can do in a month...

NOAH: ...because I'm very cocky and I have a lucky quarter. In New York, I meet and fall in love with Penny Carroll, a dance instructor. Chaos ensues.

TM: I assume that just about every traditional style of dancing is in the show: tap, jazz, ballroom, swing...

NOAH: Yeah, the whole nine yards. Eighteen yards, I would say!

NANCY: The cool thing about this show is that a Fred and Ginger film has never before been adapted to the stage. The material has a sort of innocence that people are responding to. It's been a difficult few years and I think audiences love the magic of seeing two people fall in love through dance. Jerry Mitchell has created some moments that make the audience gasp; it's almost like they wish they could be up on stage, doing what we're doing.

TM: Jerry's stuff is always so great. Is it as much fun to work on the choreography with him as it is for the audience to see it performed?

NOAH: It's even more fun. Working with him has been one of the highlights of this experience; you can hear Jerome Robbins and Michael Bennett coming through when he talks about things. You realize that he's been there, he's worked with amazing people, and he has a fountain of knowledge -- yet he's not afraid to say "I don't know" when he's stumped about something.

NANCY: Yes, he's probably said, "I don't know" more than any choreographer I've worked with. It's miraculous to me that he's so gifted, so smart, and so precise, yet he gives us the freedom to find where the choreography lives for us. What comes through in his choreography is joy and exuberance and honesty. That's who Jerry is.

TM: It's interesting that you mentioned Michael Bennett and Jerome Robbins, two people who have reputations for being extremely demanding and even hateful to many of the dancers with whom they worked. It always seemed to me that, since you can get great results either way, it would be better to go with the positive approach.

NOAH: Of course. How would you rather work? When I'm 90, I want to look back and feel like I fell in love every day in these studios with all of these people. That's the feeling Jerry creates: He loves the business and the people.

TM: As compared to more recent styles, the dancing in your show is much more about connection between people.

NANCY: Right. It's not aggressive or sexual, yet it's very romantic and passionate. It's perfect.

NOAH: I was listening to NPR this morning and Studs Terkel was talking about how everything that he ever wrote is about hope. That ties into what Nancy said earlier; I think people are really hungry for something that points in the direction of hope, the feeling that something will conquer and survive. That's part of what's going on when we do our rooftop dance, "The Way You Look Tonight." This building is being built and this love affair is being built. It's all very hopeful -- the same kind of spirit that you saw in 1936, when Swing Time came out. The country had just been through the Depression and people really wanted to believe that America was gonna get back on its feet.

NANCY: We did the workshop [of the show] right after September 11. There are a lot of references in the show to the building that we dance on top of -- how high it is, how many floors -- and there was some discussion as to whether this was going to be a touchy thing. But now it's two years later and a new building is about to be built on the World Trade Center site. I think our show goes hand in hand with that: The feeling that we've had time to grieve and now we're ready to move on.

TM: Have your audiences thus far been mixed in terms of age and type?

NOAH: Beautifully so. At the stage door, we see a really nice range of people. Sometimes, when you do a show, the matinees may be a little lower in energy because the audience is older; but our matinees have been really great because we're giving people something that hits them in their emotional memory.

"This is a fine romance"(Photo © Peter Berberian)
"This is a fine romance"
(Photo © Peter Berberian)
TM: Has it been difficult to get the tone of the show right?

NOAH: I would say it's been easy because we have archetypes that are unmistakable, even to people who don't really know who Fred and Ginger are. If you reference them, something will register somewhere in anyone's brain. Of course, there's no way that we could replicate the film onstage, so we had to create something that's pretty much new. The book had to reflect the era -- but it's 2003, not 1936. You know, movies like Swing Time were largely made by the censors. There were lots of thing they wanted to do in those movies but weren't allowed to do. We don't even see Fred and Ginger kiss in Swing Time: They go behind a door, then the door opens up again and he has lipstick on, but we don't actually see the kiss. The censors really freaked out over any sort of sensuality.

NANCY: Michael Greif, Jerry Mitchell, and Jeffrey Hatcher have given us the key to the show. The other day, Jerry told me, "I'm seeing too much of your panties in 'Pick Yourself Up.' Keep your dress down!" And we have Michael constantly saying "Keep it light, keep it frothy, keep it positive!" You sometimes want to do that 2003 toss-off thing -- you know, "Get the hell away from me, buddy!" -- but it's always got to be light. You can't treat this material any other way.