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Dames at Sea's Randy Skinner Creates Giant Production Numbers With Just Six Actors

The Broadway hoofer shares tricks of the trade.

John Bolton, Cary Tedder, Eloise Kropp, Mara Davi, and Danny Gardner star in Dames at Sea, directed by Randy Skinner, at the Helen Hayes Theatre.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

"My influence has always been from the movies," says Randy Skinner, director of Dames at Sea at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre. It shows: The overture to Dames is presented as the opening credits for an old movie, complete with smiling head shots over the billing. It's an ideal first impression for a musical that lives in that porous space between stage and screen.

Set in the old Broadway of the 1930s, Dames at Sea tells the story of Ruby (Eloise Kropp), a fresh-faced girl fresh off the bus from Utah who just wants to dance. She falls for sailor and songwriter Dick (Cary Tedder), but stage star Mona Kent (Lesli Margherita) wants Dick all for herself. What follows is a hilarious send-up of timeless backstagers like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 that's performed entirely by just six actors.

Although the show first played New York in 1966 (starring newcomer Bernadette Peters), Dames at Sea has never bowed on Broadway...until now. Skinner spoke to TheaterMania about this long-awaited debut, his unique career, and his thoughts about whether we're living through a golden age of dance on Broadway.

Randy Skinner is the director and choreographer of Dames at Sea.
(© David Gordon)

You've had a long relationship with Dames at Sea. When was the first time you appeared in it?
It was 1973 at Ohio State University, where I went to school. The show ran off-Broadway in 1968, and the authors did a smart thing by quickly releasing the rights for stock and amateur performances. It just went everywhere in the early seventies. They made a lot of money off it. I played Dick and choreographed the first OSU production and it was directed by a professor. That's when I first discovered the show. I tucked it away thinking that maybe I'd revisit it. I did many other productions after that.

What made you want to bring it to Broadway for the first time?
The opportunity came up three years ago to revisit the show with Infinity Theatre Company in Annapolis. I directed and it was a hit with audiences and critics. The show is forty-eight years old and has never played Broadway. I told the producers to check where the first-class rights are and within a matter of months, they had them. It was a very uncomplicated deal as far as deals go. The estates were very cooperative.

What do you have to consider when assembling a show on a Broadway budget that is usually produced on a shoestring?
First of all, there's the physical production, which this show has never really had. This is a Broadway production. I have the best designers in the world. It fills the stage so nicely and it looks rich and textured. We knew that's what it needed to be. The shows I've worked on, like 42nd Street and White Christmas, are really big. I wanted something dance-driven on the scale of a movie. Dames allows me to put up these big splashy numbers, but with a smaller cast.

Lesli Margherita performs the opening number of Dames at Sea, a send-up of the backstage movie musicals of the 1930s.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

How do you create a big Busby Berkeley-esque number with just six actors?
It's all about the expansiveness of the dance, which is what I do. I studied with a lot of people who worked in film, and one of the tricks is to cover a lot of ground. This is a celebration of the movie musical, after all. If you cover a lot of ground, it's like watching a bigger cast. When you watch Fred Astaire dance, he really moves and the camera follows him. When he partners with Ginger Rogers, it's magical. I was very lucky to meet Ginger and work with her twice in my earlier years. We became very close friends.

You've worked with a lot of dance greats.
Yes. Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, Mickey Rooney, Gower and Marge Champion.

Who of them has been the most influential on your career as a choreographer?
I learned a lot from Gower when I assisted in the original 42nd Street on Broadway. Being in the room for the pre-production and watching him shape the show was an education you just couldn't buy. I was twenty-six years old and learning from David Merrick and Gower Champion. It was an education by osmosis. Gower took me to lunch one day and he said to me, "You know, you really should start doing other things besides just performing." He told me I didn't have to give that up, but I should start wearing more hats because it would give me longevity and variety. He knew how tough the business was. I look back and see what great advice that was, so I now pass it on to my students. As a dancer, you have to venture out and wear different hats to stay employed.

How has your time as a performer influenced the way you direct and choreograph?
I'm very protective of my dancers. If I'm choreographing a trick or a lift, I always consider, "Can this be done eight times a week joyfully and safely without the dancer fretting about it?" I don't want that fear onstage. I want my dancers to take the stage and feel great about the show. I'm up there dancing with them full out and creating every step in rehearsal, so I know how it feels. If something feels awkward, I can feel it in my own body.

Eloise Kropp and Cary Tedder dance in Dames at Sea.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

Between On the Town and An American in Paris, dance seems to have a renewed importance onstage today. Are we entering a new golden age of dance on Broadway?
It would be nice. Of course, you have to have the show. An American in Paris harkens back to the movie and On the Town is an older show. They wrote shows like that because they had dancing stars, people like Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. We don't really have any famous dance stars anymore. Broadway created stars, they went on the TV variety shows, and then they became household names. Then they toured across the country. That world has largely gone. When you create a show with dance leads, you have to make sure you have dance leads. They found them for An American in Paris and On the Town. We have them in Dames at Sea, but it's not easy to find the right performers. You have to find singers and actors who can also execute technically difficult dance numbers. You can find singers who move, but to pull off a show with diva-dance numbers like On the Town, you really need a Tony Yazbeck.

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