Susan Stroman

Susan Stroman

Choreographer and theatre director Susan Stroman (b. Wilmington, DE, 17 October 1954) has acquired over the past two decades the prominence in her field once accorded only to her inspiration, Jerome Robbins. She has to her credit five Tony Awards® (four as choreographer and one as stage director), five Drama Desk Awards (in the same proportion), two Laurence Olivier Awards for London productions, eight Outer Critics Circle Awards, four Fred Astaire Awards, a Lucille Lortel Award (for off-Broadway), and the George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Theater. Her nominations for Tonys® and Drama Desks number 28 in all. Her greatest triumph to date was the choreography and stage direction for Mel Brooks’s The Producers (2001, film 2005), which won twelve Tonys®, one in every category for which it was nominated. Choreography is in Stroman’s DNA. Her father, a salesman by profession, was an avid fan of show tunes and an accomplished pianist who daily played for his tiny daughter as she whirled around the room making up dances. “Ever since I was a little girl,” she has said, “I have had this passion, this obsession. When I hear music, I see visions of people dancing. … It’s always been that way, so I can’t listen to music if I want to relax! I even dream of people dancing and moving and acting. I visualize music, and had I not had the outlet to become a choreographer, I probably would have gone crazy.” At age five she began to study formally, specializing in tap, jazz, and ballet under James Jamieson at the Academy of the Dance in Wilmington. She also took piano and guitar lessons and devoted what spare time she had to “art and theater and wonderful old movies.” As a teenager she choreographed for community theatre in and around Wilmington and Philadelphia. Her professional career began in 1974 while she was still a student at the University of Delaware, performing in a summer stock production of Hit the Deck at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. She graduated with a major in English Literature in 1976, and moved to New York City to begin a career as a dancer. Susan Stroman (nicknamed “Stro”) joined the touring companies of the original Bob Fosse production of Chicago and the revue Sugar Babies before making her Broadway debut in Whoopee! (1979, a revival of a 1928 Ziegfeld spectacular that survived for 204 performances). After Whoopee!, Stroman no longer performed as a dancer. In May 1980 she was Dance Captain and assistant to director and choreographer Rudy Tronto (whom she knew from Sugar Babies) in a failed show (fourteen performances) called Musical Chairs. She was thereafter absent from the Broadway boards for nearly twelve years, while developing her choreographic and directorial skills in small venues, industrials, club acts, and commercials. Stroman broke into off-Broadway as a choreographer in 1987 when director Scott Ellis (he had been a performer in Musical Chairs) hired her for a revival of Kander and Ebb’s Flora the Red Menace at the Vineyard Theatre. She developed solid working relationships with Ellis and the show’s creators that were to bear fruit in years to come. Famed Broadway producer/director Hal Prince saw and admired her work, and hired her to create the dance sequences for his New York City Opera production of Don Giovanni. Then in 1991 she joined Ellis and David Thompson in creating the collage of Kander and Ebb songs called And the World Goes ‘Round. With up-and-coming stars Bob Cuccioli, Jim Walton, Karen Mason, Karen Ziemba, and Brenda Pressley, it was staged at the Westside Theater, got rave reviews, and ran for over a year. Stroman was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Choreography. Her next triumph was the choreography for Liza Minnelli’s Liza Stepping Out at Radio City Music Hall (1992), which earned her a nomination for an Emmy Award. The 1992 Gershwin-inspired Crazy for You, conceived and directed by Britisher Mike Ockrent, was the smash hit that truly established Susan Stroman as a star presence on Broadway. The show, which ran for 1,622 performances and had a hit London production a year later, won the Tony Award® for Best Musical and Stroman won her first Tony® for Best Choreography. This was a turning point personally as well as professionally, for she and Ockrent became an item and married in 1996. They worked together on the 1994 Holiday Spectacular: A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden, which was to run for ten years, and later on Big, The Musical (1996). Stroman won her second Tony® in 1994 when she again collaborated with Hal Prince on a revival of Show Boat, another long-running hit (947 performances). She is particularly proud of the historical research that informed her choreography: as the synopsis of the show encompasses a full generation, she represented the passage of time with a revolving door. The Charleston, she learned, originated in African-American culture, and so it is introduced by blacks in Show Boat’s earlier dance sequences; in later scenes it is danced by flappers. In 1997 she was once again working with Ellis and Thompson, Kander and Ebb, but this time on Broadway with Steel Pier. Aside from having the distinction of introducing Kristin Chenoweth, the show did not do well. Despite receiving eleven Tony® nominations and nine Drama Desk nominations, it won none of the Awards and ran for only 76 performances. After she won a second Olivier Award for choreography in London’s 1999 production of Oklahoma! at The Royal National Theater, the year was marked by another, more difficult turning point for Stroman. Her husband, due to a recurrence of leukemia that had been thought to be in remission, died suddenly in December. Devastated, she nonetheless worked harder than ever, taking on the stage direction as well as the choreography of the 2000 revival of The Music Man. Once again, the show got several nominations but no wins. The run, however, at 699 performances, was far more satisfactory. Meanwhile, a newly-conceived “dance play” in three acts, created and directed by Stroman with the help of John Weidman (he had written the book for Big) had opened in the fall of 1999 at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater to considerable acclaim. Reclassified as a musical, Contact moved in March to the Vivian Beaumont (which, although part of Lincoln Center, qualifies as a Broadway theater). It won the 2000 Tony Award® for Best Musical, and Stroman won her third Tony Award® for Best Choreography. A televised version of Contact in 2003 won an Emmy Award. Mike Ockrent had originally been chosen to direct Mel Brooks’s musical The Producers, and after his death that task, as well as the choreography, fell to Susan Stroman. In fact, since her husband’s death, she has not – except for a revival of Oklahoma! – choreographed a show without also stage-directing it. The Producers won twelve Tony Awards®, a record, including a fourth and fifth for Stroman. She was the first woman ever to win for choreography and direction in the same show. The 2001 collaboration with David Thompson and Harry Connick, Jr. on the musical Thou Shalt Not for Lincoln Center Theater was not a success. The show was based on the Émile Zola novel, Thérèse Raquin, a melodramatic and ultimately depressing account of romance, murder, and suicide. It lasted for 86 performances. A more ebullient show, The Frogs (2004), based on the 2,222-year-old satirical comedy by Aristophanes, adapted by and starring Nathan Lane, also for Lincoln Center, did not do much better. Stroman had choreographed a short ballet in 1999 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary season of the New York City Ballet, and in 2004 she gave them an evening-length ballet in two parts, Double Feature. An homage to the art of silent film, it is danced to music of Irving Berlin and Walter Donaldson. The first part, The Blue Necklace, is a serious, gripping drama; the second, Makin’ Whoopee!, is an irreverent comedy. It is all, however, pure classical ballet, danced on pointe by a cast of 60, playing, as Stroman likes to point out, not swans or deer or snowflakes, but real human characters. The 2005 film adaptation of The Producers, for which Stroman made her directorial film debut, was nominated for four Golden Globe Awards. She again collaborated (as director and choreographer) with Mel Brooks in the musical version of Young Frankenstein in 2007, and with John Weidman on a new musical Happiness, which opened in 2009 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center but did not go to Broadway. A musical about the controversial trials of nine young black men accused of rape by two white women in 1931, The Scottsboro Boys opened at the Vineyard Theatre in February 2010 and moved to Broadway’s Lyceum for 49 performances. With a book by David Thompson, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, it featured music by Kander and Ebb (although Ebb had died in 2004) and received twelve Tony® nominations but no wins. It is traveling to San Francisco in 2012. Hal Prince and Susan Stroman co-directed a new musical starring Mandy Patinkin called Paradise Found, with music by Johann Strauss II and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, which premiered at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory on May 19, 2010. Hopes were high for a major hit, but the New York Times revealed in a May 28 article that a move to Broadway was unlikely, judging from the unflattering notices in the British papers.

– LEC

Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection