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In Broadway’s Some Like It Hot, based on the 1959 film starring Marilyn Monroe, there’s a chase sequence that sees the musical’s main trio Joe (Christian Borle), Daphne (J. Harrison Ghee) and Gertrude (Adrianna Hicks) dodging and dipping around a hotel to evade a group of angry mobsters, who are themselves being chased by the police.
With this modern spin on the romantic crime comedy, it’s easy to assume director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw drew from the movie’s chase to help him deliver one of Broadway’s most exciting tap sequences. And there was, at one point, a nod to the film sequence featuring mobster Spats Colombo (played by Mark Lotito) hiding under a room service cart. But the choreographer and director says it was among the things nixed as the team nipped and tucked in the quest to achieve the right pacing and length for the number. Ultimately, he didn’t find much big screen influence in at all.
“What’s funny is I didn’t even remember there was a chase in it. Then I’d seen the movie again, and I was like, ‘Oh, right!’ There’s a chase sequence in here!” Some Like It Hot’s director and choreographer, Casey Nicholaw, recalls while talking to The Hollywood Reporter. “I thought [book co-writer] Matthew [Lopez] had just made it up. I was like, ‘Matthew, that’s so good — the chase scene!”
The memory earns a laugh from Nicholaw, but it’s a somewhat surprising revelation considering the multi-minute sequence’s near cinematic feel. That’s a result, the choreographer says, of starting from a cinematic lens and “because I’m a creature of theater” knowing how to put it on stage. He would do so with the help of set designer Scott Pask, a frequent collaborator who worked on the doors that would become part of the musical’s vocabulary.
There was also dance and incidental music arranger Glen Kelly, who translated Nicholaw’s thoughts about a number’s feel, movements and beats. “He wrote the whole thing out, and then I would just listen to it over and over, just sitting on the floor with my eyes closed and see it,” Nicholaw recalls.
Couched within the final scenes of the musical’s conclusion, it’s an electrifying and exacting display the director — who delivered the routine for a week in the role of Spats when a number of cast members and understudies were out for a string of performances — describes as incredibly “mathematical.”
“It has to be so, so precise — they’ve got to hit spots on the floor and know exactly what count to hit it on the floor — because they’re moving doors and they can’t see either direction where they’re going,” he explains. “They have to know who’s coming and in which direction the door is going. And the backstage travel — it’s just as busy backstage as it is from watching it from the audience, if not more.”
“I ended up going on for a week. It was super crazy to stand back there — not stand, but run. I was running so much. I was like, OK, now I understand what you guys are going through,” he continued, laughing.
Another thing he calls the sequence: risky.
“When you’re getting to the end of the show, to suddenly go into dance vocabulary for five minutes, it’s risky because the audience, they’re looking at their watches. They’re wanting to get out of there and all of a sudden you’re expecting them to commit to a big dance number,” he says. “Are people going to want to sit still to watch something like that? To watch us tie up all the ends of a two-hour show in a dance sequence?”
Part of what makes it so thrilling is the complicated nature of the live sequence, which could have its entire energy disrupted with one wrong move. The tap-driven number features around 25 principle and ensemble cast members scrambling, whirling and flying up and down stairs, around shifting hotel props, and in and out of a number of moving doors.
“It’s just the chaos of doors moving all the time and ending with all the doors moving all over the place at one time,” he continued about the energy of the show’s final dance sequence. “What do we have to put to make sure the doors stay because we can’t put brakes on them? We have to make sure they can keep moving, but we also don’t want them rolling out of place when they land.”
It’s a giddy number that manages to find the perfect balance between tension and comedy. It also manages to not overstay its welcome, something the choreographer says he had to work out through both the lab and in the downtime provided by Broadway’s pandemic shutdown.
“This is the pinnacle. This is everything landing on this moment, so there still has to be danger with the guys as well as the buoyancy of a musical,” Nicholaw explains. “I really took time with the whole thing, to make sure all the details were done. I wanted to tell the story. We had to do it at such a slow pace to start, too, to make sure no one got hurt.”
The sequence’s completed iteration, which plays out every night for Broadway audiences, ultimately evolved as the show moved first through that lab. When the group initially started, the script offered just a taste of the sequences’ potential, with Nicholaw saying Lopez had described the scene as “a big wild chase ensues” with people who “pop out of doors and people go back in doors and someone comes in with a towel and someone goes out.” During pre-production, there also weren’t any doors, meaning Nicholaw had to do more on the spot.
But when the pandemic hit, the out-of-town run was canceled, giving the team “a lot of time when you could ruminate and things began to change and gel.”
“When we did it in the lab, there wasn’t any tap in it. It was just a regular chase — still with the doors and everything,” he remembers. “And I started thinking, how fun would that be? It’s something I’ve never seen before. Cut to getting together with the cast to do a second lab and everyone going, ‘Holy shit, we’re tapping the whole thing?'”
In that time, the Some Like It Hot director turned Lopez’s concept into what he calls “a big long dance” inspired in part by an earlier tap sequence in the show. That number sits at the top of the first act and is performed by Joe and Jerry (who later goes by Daphne), a brotherly song and dance duo who find themselves dressing as women to join an all-female band in an attempt to avoid being killed by a mobster after they become witnesses to a hit.
“I choreographed that first number and then all of a sudden, we started adding more tap to the other numbers and it became the vocabulary of the show. I thought, well, why not have this be a tap number, too?” the Some Like It Hot director recalls, noting that he also added an earlier “minute-long” chase in act one, “so [the door sequence] didn’t feel like it was so out of the blue, like it was so far-fetched.”
Many of the moments in the sequence do ultimately feel, at least comedically, unexpected if not totally unrealistic. There’s also a lot on stage moment-to-moment, something that could overwhelm an audience so late in the show. But Nicholaw says the dance’s choreography was designed to draw the audience’s eyes.
“If someone’s standing on number four, as opposed to on six, sometimes that makes a huge difference in whether your eye goes to them or doesn’t go to them,” he said. “The lights help, too. I don’t think people are aware of how much because it never looks like we’re shining a spotlight on them, but a little bit of light happens to be on that person because we know we want you to see them.”
The trick then is executing it without it all looking intentional. “It looks like an accident, but you are supposed to go there [with your eye],” he explains. “My favorite thing to do is have an audience go, ‘Oh god, did you see that?’ As if everyone wasn’t supposed to see it. You know that they feel like they’re the only one that caught that little thing, but it’s intentional that you catch that little thing.”
But in that — besides making sure people don’t slide in their tap shoes — lies one of the biggest challenges of the sequence. Nicholaw says each night, everyone not only has to have enough time to get to their places, but there has to be enough people to move the doors. With multiple members of the company temporarily out at various points in the musical’s run, the choreographer said reducing the track emerges as the biggest challenge.
“We’ve got to get other people involved and trying to figure out how to do it all,” he adds, “because it’s using every single member of the cast and that number.”
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