Schaeffer says his new commitment to musicals that move is not just because, as he puts it, he loves dance, audiences love dance and his theater now has the space for dance after an expansion four years ago.
The chief reason dancing can be featured at Signature is more fundamental than all that: At long last, there are local performers who can bring it.
“Before we’d say, ‘No, we can’t do that, we don’t have the dancers here,’ ” Schaeffer said in a recent interview. “Now it’s like, we can do this.”
While the Washington area boasts a generous number of actors and singers, actor-singer-dancers historically have been harder to find.
When Michael Bobbitt, producing artistic director of Adventure Theatre at Glen Echo Park, moved back here to perform in the mid-1990s after working in New York, he quickly realized his earlier training at the Washington School of Ballet set him apart from the rest of the area’s show-business field. Yet at that time, there wasn’t much of a payoff for his pirouettes.
“There were not that many musicals being done, with real dancing — and by that I mean leaps and turns and kicks — as opposed to movement,” he says. “Then I started choreographing and I was a little frustrated, frankly, by the level of dancing we had in our theater community. But now there’s a new crop of young choreographers coming up and pushing people to do more.”
A big part of the reason to push, he says, is that audiences have higher standards now, schooled to some degree by TV’s “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”
“The influence of the reality TV craze has bumped up choreography and dancing in musical theater not only in D.C.,” Bobbitt says. “We as choreographers and producers can’t get away with what we used to get away with, which was big smiles and jazz hands. We have to make people move.”
Bobbitt says the key to doing this is calling on a savvy choreographer who can polish the available talent. Veterans in the area of making ’em look good include Ilona Kessell at Olney Theatre and Signature Theatre’s longtime choreographer, Karma Camp. (She and her daughter, Brianne, re-created such vintage group dance-a-longs as the Madison and the Locomotion for “Hairspray.”)
There can be something of a divide between the stars of the show and the dance ensemble. For the leading actor-singer roles, Signature often hires seasoned talent from New York —for instance, it netted the snappy chanteuse Carolyn Cole to play “Hairspray’s” Tracy Turnblad, the corpulent, colorblind misfit who ends up integrating a TV dance show in racially charged Baltimore of the 1960s.