moderated by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
One of the first things you notice about choreographer Parker Esse isn't his height (although he's 6'4"), or his athleticism (although he's the definition of agile). What you notice is Parker's smile, and all the warmth and kindness that it brings to a room. We're thrilled to have him return to Arena Stage to choreograph Smokey Joe’s Café. Past credits include choreographing the critically acclaimed Oklahoma! (Helen Hayes Award and New Yorker’s Best Performers 2010) and The Music Man (Helen Hayes Nomination). And we couldn't be more excited about Parker choreographing Fiddler on The Roof next season.
What attracted you to Smokey Joe’s Café?
The music of Leiber and Stoller is infectious. A generation was built on this music! By their own accounts, they were writing R&B music for blues singers, which in turn, created Rock 'n' Roll as it crossed the divide into the mainstream “White” American culture. However, they were creating a mainstream Rock 'n' Roll while staying true to the source of R&B culture, not merely mimicking it. They were not trying to “create” Rock 'n' Roll … it just happened! Each of their songs represents R&B urban culture and has such a uniquely sensual, sometimes comical or slick story, the pictures in my mind become so clear listening to the heart of each song. When you listen to the lyrics and melodies, it’s hard not to get sucked into the world they are sharing. As a choreographer, I am driven to try and share the images and the cultural history, coming to life in my mind, when I listen to these stories being told. In addition to this infectious music, I have greatly admired Randy Johnson for quite some time, and when Molly Smith introduced us, I felt this was the perfect opportunity for collaboration.
These songs really informed American culture of the time. How did the dances of the era reflect what was happening in the country?
The music and the dances were coming from the R&B culture, which made their way into popular mainstream Rock 'n' Roll culture. The meshing of the music and the dance styles really reflected what was happening in society at the same time. The two were coming together to change the face of the nation and motivate a generation into change. This is the history I feel when I research the music and dances of this era. They were not aware at the time history would be reflected in the music or dance, as it was being created, but it clearly was. As we now have hindsight and can look back into history, we can see the development of what was happening in society, reflected in the music and the dance styles of the era.
From Oklahoma! to The Music Man, you have a style that mixes traditional choreography with modern twists. How would you describe your approach to choreographing this show?
If I had to give my choreography a definition … I would say it’s Classically- Athletic. However, I enjoy researching the styles of dance for each time period and allow it to inform my vision for each show. My goal is not to reproduce … but, I research history and dance styles, I listen to the music and envision the story for each number in order to create our unique world … the world in which we have created for our particular show. My approach to Smokey Joe’s was very similar to this process. Creating any show on the Fichandler Stage is always challenging and incredibly rewarding, with its own unique vision!
Randy Johnson describes the music of Smokey Joe’s Café as his songbook. What would your theme song be?
That’s easy … “On Broadway” — I grew up dreaming of the day I would move to New York City and perform on Broadway! I’m lucky that dream came true for me and now as a Choreographer; working on Broadway … it just doesn’t get any better! The music of Smokey Joe’s Café is emotionally charged with such rich stories, and it has brought me great joy to get to choreograph each song! I want the audience to experience the history and the culture, which I feel every time I listen to the music. Music from artists such as Leiber and Stoller, is what inspires me to create, choreograph and live my dream of being “On Broadway.” I understand every lyric in that song and have since I was a child, wanting to be right there with them!