Dallas — Danny Mefford has been making a name for himself as a Broadway choreographer and movement director, having taken the lead on such shows as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Bridges of Madison County and Fun Home. He has a long relationship with director Alex Timbers (director of BBAJ) and his group Les Freres Corbusier, and won a Drama Desk Award for his movement for Shakespeare in the Park’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, directed by Timbers.
His latest project is choreography for the best-known American musical, The Sound of Music, in the national tour directed by multiple Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien (who’s also director of the Dallas Opera’s current world premiere of Great Scott). This tour, currently at the Music Hall at Fair Park and presented by Dallas Summer Musicals, is getting attention because it dares to tinker with a show that audiences seem to be perfectly fine with forever seeing carbon copies of the performances they’re used to. Which is not what theater should do.
TheaterJones talked to Mefford about his and O’Brien’s approach.
TheaterJones: You’re working with a legendary director here, Jack O’Brien. What were your initial conversations about a new approach to a show that is so well known?
Danny Mefford: It was important to me that the whole thing has a naturalistic movement aesthetic. Especially the scenes with the Von Trapp children, it has to have a real narrative with it. It’s very much in the script: she teaches them how to sing, and they have just met this woman and never done this before. It really needs to have a progressive, spontaneous form to it, so the movement palette changes. It was important to me that it feel spontaneous and free and liberating.
Jack has said that he wanted to “sex it up” a bit, or more than what has been seen in it before—which is to say, nothing. How does the choreography play into that?
[In the song] “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” [viewers] take it as scripture that it’s supposed to look a certain way. I think that song has always had a safe, young-love feel that doesn’t have a lot of danger inside of it. If you think about it from a slightly different perspective, she’s a 16-year-old girl whose father is never around, and she’s sneaking out of the house and meeting up with the boy who probably has a very different bank of sexual experiences than she has. He is more experienced.
I wanted that to feel like it developed more organically. As soon as the story stops you have a little dance recital that’s very uninteresting to me. So she’s not just overjoyed about the first kiss, but maybe thinking “what did I just do?” In our version he comes over and plants one on her, not trying to make it sexy, but we look at the actual social event that’s going on and pull out the danger and the breathlessness that happens.
What’s different about the choreography in the song “Do-Re-Mi?”
I really tried to use my imagination on everything. There were these hand signals that were developed by John Curwen in the 1800s. I kept thinking about what a perfect and easy movement palette for that song is, so I use some of this.
What are some of the other differences?
In the party scene where Georg and Maria dance the ländler. I think the ländler is a little sexier than it usually would be; I wanted people watching them do it, which is not usually how it happens. It becomes romantic because of that. It’s not as safe and comfortable and 1950s; in 2015 we have a very different sense of sex and falling in love onstage.
How much research of Austrian folk dance did it require?
There are two kinds of dances. One is a Viennese waltz. I changed something that’s more specific about watching the children for the first time. The one I researched a lot more is the ländler. It was a precursor of the waltz, in ¾ time. The ländler has a lot of hand-holding and turns.
People have such a personal connection to this musical, more than any other, mostly because of the film. Are audiences for this tour embracing the changes?
Everyone seems to be enjoying it. They seem to be going along for the journey, and that’s what you want.