By Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
The physical action of a musical propels the story forward. Explore the choreography of Oliver! — from the athletic dance of “Food, Glorious Food” and “Oom-Pah-Pah” to the controlled violence of London’s underbelly — with Parker Esse (Choreographer) and David Leong (Fight Choreographer).
How do you approach the choreography of a show?
PE: I read the script and listen to various recordings of the show depending on what’s available. Researching the dance styles of the era in which the show takes place, or any other styles I may need to know, is key for me. I like to have an informed understanding of how people were expressing themselves through dance. Once I’ve done my homework, I develop a choreographic vocabulary that is unique for the production I’m working on.
I wanted to make our Oliver! feel relevant to today’s popular culture as well as honor the traditions of the original musical. My hope is that this has created a unique style and feel to the physicality of our show. Performing in Oliver! as a six-year-old and returning to choreograph it three decades later is an incredible full circle experience. I only remember singing “Food Glorious Food” at the top of my boy-soprano voice and staring at the audience! Choreographing the show has allowed me to re-connect with the show that spurred my love for musical theater. As a choreographer, I have a deeper understanding of the individual stories of each character in the show. I feel honored to be able to help inform their world through physicality and dance. I think audiences will have a lot of fun enjoying the world we have created.
DL: I research the play and the playwright’s intention. I choreograph the violence, the aggressive movement, anything that is non-dance. I have to figure out why the violence is there. I find out from the director what his or her idea is for the show. Where do they want to place it? What do they want to do with the world? Then I begin to create ideas. Next, I do a workshop with my graduate students at Virginia Commonwealth University. I get the whole thing on its feet, so I know it when I come into rehearsal. It changes, but at least I have ideas. Every piece of violence or action sequence is exactly like a dance, in that I have to find the hook for it that holds the piece together. Parker’s dance choreography does the same thing. He comes up with a hook for every single number.
The difference between a good choreographer and a bad choreographer is one can tell a story, the same thing with a fight choreographer. You’ve got to tell a story. Sometimes you have dance choreographers who are just about steps, making really interesting steps and formations. And sometimes you have fight choreographers who go about just putting moves together, so that once the fight starts you lose the story and everything stops for a moment. The dance choreographer and fight choreographer both think the same way. We just have two different vocabularies, one is dance and the other is violence.
What dance number or fight are you most excited to see audiences experience?
DL: When Oliver beats up Noah. It’ll be really funny. Oliver is so short, and when you have short and tall, it just lends itself to comedy. And then the scene is so hilariously funny because of all the things that happen. I’ve got Oliver jumping on Noah and practically pulling his ears and hair out and then they stuff Oliver in the coffin and they all sit on it for tea. It lends itself to comedy. Everything about the situation is humorous. Good comedy fights are harder to do than serious fights. The timing has to be exact. To get a comedy fight to work, it has to be really clean and that’s much harder to do.
PE: It is really hard to pick one, as always, and it changes every week. This week, I think I am most excited about “Food Glorious Food.” I love the dynamics of the number and our kiddos are just fantastic! I have so much fun working with them all, so I can’t wait for audiences to enjoy all their hard work and witness the world we have been so busy creating.
How does the choreography of the dances and the choreography of the fights work together?
PE: The choreography of the dances and fights are more separate in this production. They live in very different worlds in this show. David has done beautiful work as always for Oliver!
DL: In some situations, we worked right up against each other. The end of the number “Be back soon,” goes right into the scene of people pickpocketing and Oliver being caught in the chase. So, in that instance, Parker is doing that whole number in front and I’m doing that whole number from there to the end of the rest of the act. That doesn’t happen a lot. It just worked out in this show.
What three words best describe this production of Oliver?
DL: Deeply emotional. Relevant. Classic.
PE: Modernistic. Rooted. Compassionate.