BALLROOM! What a great tour! A talented, delightful cast and crew, and fun venues—like a paid, working vacation!
When I was cast, certain friends queried “Why are you doing this ‘ensemble’ job—your directing career is taking off?!” “One,” I answered “because I’ve always wanted to do a Michael Bennett show. Two, I really like this show. And three, nobody else has offered me a job for the summer!”
Of course, typical of Theatre, I was shortly offered a guest directing job at a summer theater I’d interviewed with for a couple of years—and one of my favorite shows: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s THE KING AND I! The conflict: the BALLROOM tour would be leaving town the opening day of THE KING AND I! Luckily THE KING producer understood and allowed me to hire an Assistant Director (with experience)—my wonderful, talented friend Larry Engler—to complete THE KING slot so I could also do the tour! The talented cast was also supportive and THE KING AND I opened successfully as I was beginning rehearsals for BALLROOM!
My one regret before the tour was that I would have to wear “suits” through the whole show! The first suit the wardrobe person gave me was dark navy blue! I put it on sadly thinking “Whatever I look like, I want to dance this show!” When I looked in the full-length mirror I felt like Natalie Wood in GYPSY–“Momma, I’m beautiful!” After I had tried on all my suits, the wardrobe person was delighted and announced that the original Broadway dancer and I must have identical bodies!
I was excited to discover that my favorite dance partner, Joan Jaffe, would be on the tour as well. I was also thrilled that the lead on our tour was to be Janis Paige, who I’d had the privilege and joy of working with several years earlier when she was a fabulous “Charity Hope Valentine” for Kenley Players! First day of rehearsal, Joan and I are warming up in the studio and I hear “Bill!—How great that you’re also doing this tour!” It was Janis! I was so amazed and pleased, that she remembered sharing SWEET CHARITY! And her terrific acting, singing & dancing made “Bea” as beautifully human as her “Charity.” Even one night in a huge amphitheater, when she maintained a ballad successfully, while holding down the props from a heavy wind!
One number in the show I hated at first! (and of course came to love on tour!) The music was five beats to a measure; the choreography was in 7 counts! So we had to listen to the music for tempo, but literally count our choreography! The actual simplicity of the number was that Michael had created only four choreographic patterns: “apples,” “oranges,” “pears,” “bananas”—each dance couple actually repeated those four patterns, but each couple had a different order, so “apples,” “oranges,” “pears,” “bananas,” “pears,” “apples,” “apples”… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 / 1, 2 ,3, 4, 5, 6, 7… !! What the audience saw was a beautiful crazy quilt of movement where every couple seemed to be dancing something different … and yet somehow the same! That’s what I saw as audience viewing a Broadway onstage performance—that’s what got me through rehearsals til I could just enjoy the number for the pure exhilaration of dancing it!
The final scene in BALLROOM is a glorious waltz—ladies in formal gowns, men in soup & fish (long tail tuxedos). Joan & I always loved this scene! One night, also in the huge Kansas City amphitheater, I was about to drop from the onset of a summer flu (later found I had a 101 fever) but did the show alternating happy numbers onstage with runs to the bathroom offstage! Joan and I were the first couple to run on for bows, and that night though I had permission to skip them I said to Joan “What the hell, I’m here, just drag me on and off.” Bow Music! Joan and I (being led) run on with smiling faces as the lights hit us—and—Whoaa!!—the entire audience rises to their feet clapping and cheering with good feelings as bright as the spotlights! It’s reported that I said with fevered voice: “Joan!—this is what its all about!”
That night in Kansas City I couldn’t explain the “all about” I felt when that flood of applause and feeling raced en masse across the footlights, but now I understand that that shared joy and appreciation from the audience was “all about” all of us—about me, and Joan, and Janis, and the rest of the performers, and the stage manager, and the stage crew, about the costumers, and the set designers, and the lighting designers, and about Michael and the other artists who created this amazing work of live Theatre—going back to Maureen Stapleton and all the other talented persons who created the original TV film “Queen Of The Stardust Ballroom”—and about the original Broadway cast, some of whom were on stage that night in Kansas City—it was the “we” of the audience sharing with the “we” on & backstage—sharing this amazing experience we call “Live Theatre!” That’s what it’s all about for me. What’s it all about for you?