Dallas — Steven Hoggett has become one of the go-to choreographers and movement directors on the West End and Broadway, receiving accolades for his work on contemporary Broadway musicals such as American Idiot, Rocky and The Last Ship, not to mention for plays Peter and the Starcatcher, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and the recent revival of The Glass Menagerie.
He also served as movement director for the Tony-winning musical Once, which is currently touring the country and makes its North Texas debut at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House this week. It will also appear at Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall in February 2015.
Once is based on the lovely indie film of the same name, from 2007, which tells the story of an Irish singer-songwriter, called Guy in the musical, who meets “Girl,” a Czech pianist. The film won an Oscar for the song “Falling Slowly,” written and performed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová of The Swell Season. The musical, with music and lyrics by them, features a book by Irish playwright Enda Walsh (whose Penelope was seen at Undermain Theatre in 2013). It won eight Tony Awards in 2012, including Best Musical, beating out the much more conventional Newsies (which is also on ATTPAC’s Broadway season).
One of the reasons Once is so loved by audiences and critics is its originality. The acting ensemble also serves as the musicians, playing instruments such as accordion, mandolin and more on the stage. As you might imagine, that creates an obstacle for a choreographer, but it was a challenge Hoggett gladly accepted.
In a phone conversation while he was in London, Hoggett chatted with us about the movement in Once and his other shows.
TheaterJones: Tell me about the project of Once, as a musical, coming your way.
Steven Hoggett: I knew the movie from when it was first released, and then Tom Kitt gave me the DVD and told me to watch it. It was about a year later that [director] John Tiffany asked me to work on it with him. We did a development workshop in New York for a week, which was not long at all. Enda Walsh had written in a physical idea for the show that didn’t work, and at the end of the week we knew we couldn’t do that version.
What did it take for it to work? How did you approach it as a choreographer?
We needed to achieve the lives of lovers in the show, that backdrop of people meeting, falling in love and realizing it might not work out. On paper there’s something interesting in it but I couldn’t make it work on a choreographic level. Once is about stillness and quiet, but [choreographers] work from the opposite end of the spectrum. The big revelation I had in the workroom was to watch [orchestrator] Martin Lowe teach the songs. I tried to create a piece where you follow two people through choreography.
The movement is so different from the manic, urgent choreography in American Idiot. Talk about the differences in creating movement for these two shows.
I didn’t know what the choreographic language [in Once] was when I started, but I knew what I shouldn’t be. It’s these stories of tiny lives and small emotions. American Idiot is about big emotions, and it’s a brutal performance style.
Once is such an intimate movie, and admittedly it was hard to wrap my head around it as a musical that would fill a large Broadway house—not to mention the 3,000-plus seat theaters on the tour. Then I saw it on Broadway and it all made sense. Were you surprised at its success?
It’s always been a complete beautiful shock for me. When we moved it from the bar to a theater in Boston that was revelatory, and then to Broadway and then these big houses around America. I have no idea how it managed to play so beautifully in big spaces, but it does. I try not to question it so much. I try not to question the simplicity of it.
How much research did you do in regards to Irish and Czech folk dancing?
A lot. I love elements where you get to research, where you have these vocabularies to work with. In some ways you can create to be creative.
I’m guessing the biggest obstacle in choreographing Once is that the ensemble is not filled with chorus dancers, like many musicals. Also, they are often holding instruments.
I’ve never had a technical dancer in the show. In a piece like “Gold” I built it around watching them play their instruments. They didn’t realize they were giving me ideas for how to do their choreography.
Who are your choreographic influences from the dance world?
People like Lloyd Newson and Pina Basuch, whose dance is closer to theater. To be honest, some of my biggest influences were the people working 1980s in music video world, and video artists like Chris Cunningham of Aphex Twin. I’m also a big devotee of [visual artist] Francis Bacon, a lot of my images are not dark like that, but they come from a similar place.
You seem drawn to contemporary work; have you choreographed a classic dance musical?
John [Tiffany] and I are workshopping a big classic musical, but I can’t say what yet. Our motto is to never say never. In some ways we’re promiscuous; we like trying everything.