Interview: Warren Carlyle Finds Harmony in Being Back at Work With Hugh Jackman and Barry Manilow
"I did not have a good pandemic," Tony-winning choreographer Warren Carlyle says, frankly. "My work is my entire life. I sat in my apartment by myself for two years, which makes you understand why solitary confinement is a punishment. When my work went away…It was rough."
If there is such a thing as making up for lost time, Carlyle is doing it this season. He began 2022 finally shepherding The Music Man to the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre, a revival directed by Jerry Zaks that was unintentionally three years in the making. The morning after opening night, he hoofed it downtown to begin rehearsals for Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's musical Harmony, whose New York premiere, via the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, is unintentionally 25 years in the making.
For Harmony, Carlyle is doing double-duty, directing the show in addition to choreographing. He's also guided its writers through a page-one rewrite, that stripped a musical they've been working on for decades "down to the studs." And after a rotten couple of years, he's thrilled to be back.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I spoke to Barry and Bruce recently and they said that your ideas had made them rethink the entire show. Tell me about the experience of working with them.
I've known them for so many years. My first exposure to Bruce and Barry was when I was in the original cast of Copacabana in the West End 28 years ago. Even then, we had a connection. I just love them.
We spent the whole pandemic working on Harmony, every Tuesday and Friday. There's that thing of, when you're so familiar with something, you take it for granted. And then suddenly, there's me coming in and I'm like, "Why is that character doing that? What does it actually mean?" We went back to the beginning, down to the studs. Songs have been reordered, we added a character, and I think it's more focused than it's ever been. Because it's a bit of a six-headed dragon. There are these six leading men, and how do you tell six really great stories? Who do you root for? We've added a "main character," which is played by Chip Zien, and that has refocused the whole show through his point of view.
What is it like to be in a rehearsal room with Barry Manilow?
It's wonderful. He's so special, and he and Bruce have been super, super, super collaborators. Barry has bat ears — he hears sounds that nobody else hears. He's so unbelievably musical, and everything he touches he improves. Some people can meddle with something and it's not as good. Every single thing he touches gets 30 percent better. He's just got "it," whatever that means. He is a melody maker. And Bruce is a craftsman. He comes in every day with a little piece of paper and says, "I think this is better." They've had a 50-year collaboration and written more than 200 songs together, which is insane to think about.
The Music Man isn't primarily thought of as a "dance" musical, and yet with Hugh and Sutton in the leads, it sort of becomes that. Where do you begin in terms of tailoring a show to the strengths of your leads?
Hugh was my way into that. He is a physical being. He can really carry eight minutes of Harold dancing, and I don't have to go away from the main story to the ensemble.
I have that vision in my head of the star singing a verse, strolling off stage during the dance, and then returning.
Like Ethel Merman, right? She sings, she leaves the stage, the company dances, and then she comes back and takes the applause. With Hugh, I didn't have to do that. He dances all the way through "76 Trombones." That's how that happened. I have this guy and he can do these things.
I've wanted to talk about "76 Trombones" since I saw the show, because the build of the number floored me — Hugh as Harold building a band before our eyes out of people miming the instruments.
That's really kind and I bloody love that. You got it. The whole point of the show is about faith. If he can get the townspeople to believe in this thing, he's got 'em, and if I can get an audience to believe that by the end of the number, mission complete. I worked really hard at it. It's like three years of work.
There were so many layers to The Music Man. You often just get six weeks and it's a crazy, breathless spring to make something that's worthy. With Music Man, I did a workshop, and then I went away for three months, and then I did another workshop, and then I was with Hugh, and then I was with Sutton, and then they were together, and then I did another workshop. Each time you do that, you paint another layer into it.
Is there a difference between choreographing for "stars," like Hugh and Sutton, versus choreographing an ensemble number like, say, "Too Darn Hot" in Kiss Me, Kate?
Not in the concepts or creation, but in the way I do what I do, and in the bedside manner that I have.
I come in having done my homework. I watched as much of Sutton as I could. I'd seen her in Anything Goes and Violet and Millie, so I was somewhat familiar with the way she moves. And she moves very easily. She's rhythmical. She's got beautiful, long proportions.
I'll teach them separately in a place where no one can watch them, where they really feel safe. Sometimes, they'll have a feeling about something they're doing, because they have their own instincts, and I want to consider those instincts. And then I kind of gently introduce them to the room.
With the ensemble, it's a much more brutal process. It's like, "five, six, seven, eight. That's good. That's bad. Don't do that. Do three of them." You're sort of marshaling the troops.
What is it like to come back from the pandemic and do these two shows back-to-back?
Being in a room like The Music Man was joyous. I cried every day. I was choreographing and wiping away tears. It was great to be back at work. And then to go from that to the polar opposite, which is Harmony, was very intentional. I needed a balance between this great big thing that took three years to do, with all the excitement and pressure and Hugh, and I needed somewhere to go the morning after opening it. So that's when I started rehearsal for Harmony. It's just fun to go from a giant show to a show with 20 people. It's amazing.