Interview: JoAnn M. Hunter on Building a New Cinderella Musical During a Pandemic
Hunter is the choreographer of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cinderella, running in the West End.
When it comes to choreography, JoAnn M. Hunter has become one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's go-to artists. Hunter created the dances for Lloyd Webber's musical School of Rock on Broadway and now has two of his shows running concurrently in the West End: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (which initially opened in 2019 and is now back for a post-Covid return engagement at the London Palladium), and Cinderella, which features an all-new score by Lloyd Webber and David Zippel, and book by Emerald Fennell. (All three productions are directed by Hunter's longtime collaborator, Laurence Connor.)
Joseph, being a victory lap of a run, was pretty much complete by the time the pandemic started, while the worldwide shutdown threw the timeline for Cinderella for a loop. Hunter, not one for Zoom, created her work in person as best as she could, and even once the show got started, the Covid-related tribulations kept coming. But they're both open for business now, and Hunter is knocking as much wood as she can.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The development process of Cinderella was obviously out of the ordinary, considering that you were basically putting it together during the pandemic. How did it happen?
It was tricky trying to develop it. I did very little pre-production because there weren't any studios open. I went to FineLine Theatre Arts in New Milford, Connecticut, which is run by Elizabeth Parkinson and Scott Wise. I brought in four people and we started playing, but we were still in the midst of the craziness. I was nervous, I wanted them to feel comfortable, and I wanted myself to feel comfortable, so we did five days of pre-production. Once I got to London, we rehearsed on the stage, as opposed to a rehearsal room, which I thought was going to be fantastic, but I will never do that again, ever.
When you're on the stage, I think subliminally you think it's supposed to be a finished product, or close to it. When I'm working with actors and dancers, I want them to make the mistakes, because the rehearsal room is the safest place to be. When you don't have those four walls, you don't feel that. People are in and out, there are voices all over the place. We had automation twice a week, which helped in tech and that was great, but the cons outweighed the pros for me. I thought it would be so exciting but it didn't feel safe [to create the show].
There was so much press around Cinderella during the rehearsal and early preview process, from Andrew saying that he'd risk arrest to open the show, to the production being pushed by a month in previews after somebody in the cast got pinged and tested positive. Tell me about dealing with all that noise and how you keep the cast's morale up.
Andrew was very upfront about it with the cast. I'm a firm believer in leading by example, and, speaking for myself, you just do the work and block out the noise. We're in the space, we're doing the right thing, we're getting tested every day, we're all adults. If things change course, you change course with it, because there's only so much we have control over. Don't get me wrong, there were days when I wanted to throw a baseball bat, but I went in every day and you just go with it.
When one actor in the show got pinged on the Track and Trace NHS app and later tested positive, the whole theater had to shut down for 10 days, even though everyone else tested negative. Andrew made the decision, knowing that would keep happening, and instead of having to call every patron at the last minute, to pull the show for a month until the law changed. It was so disappointing. It was going great, we were just about to bring in the critics and press. But we're up now and I'm knocking wood.
You've collaborated with Andrew on multiple shows now. What is your process when it comes to working with him on music and dance?
With Andrew, it's rare that he will have a dance arranger. Andrew wants to do the dance arrangements with me, which is sometimes a tricky road to navigate. He knows what he wants, and bottom line, it's his show as co-creator and producer. I fight for the things where I think I'm righter and vice versa, and I have a good enough relationship with him that I can say, "I don't agree," and he respects me. There's a song in Cinderella which had a great tune and we had completely different points of view on it. So, I changed it, and during previews, I said to Laurence, the director, that it was a disservice to the leading lady and Andrew let me change it back. He definitely has his own opinions, but he does listen to me and Lawrence.
Whereas when I did Joseph, I gave him my concepts of what I wanted to do and he gave me carte blanche and I brought in my dance arranger, Sam Davis, and we did everything. I think it's because Cinderella is a new show, and Joseph has so much music. So Sam and I got in the room and then I had to do a one-woman show for Andrew where I danced every part to show him and he said it was very good.
Tell me one or two moments that you're most proud of in both Joseph and Cinderella.
For Joseph, I think probably "One More Angel," because Sam and I created a brand-new piece of music, concept-wise, and the company is so joyful and having so much fun. I'm proud of what Sam and I were able to create together and I'm proud of the actors and dancers for bringing it to fruition.
For the waltz that opens Act 2 of Cinderella, I wanted it not to feel like what we would normally see as a waltz. I was afraid to start in what we would call "ballroom dance" position, so we started back-to-back. It was incredibly tricky to figure out how it would work. So that, and just the fact that we got it up during these times. I can't believe we actually did it. That alone I'm proud of. I feel like I had a ginormous gift that was given to me.