NEW YORK — Line up Kathleen Marshall’s three Tony Awards for choreography in the past decade, and it’s easy to spot the trend.
“I’m the vintage girl,” Marshall acknowledges with a laugh.
The busy director-choreographer is chatting in a downstairs lobby of the American Airlines Theatre, one of a cluster of stages run by Manhattan’s Roundabout Theatre Co. It’s where her 2006 revival of “The Pajama Game,” starring Harry Connick Jr. and Kelli O’Hara, earned Marshall Tony No. 2.
Her first trophy was for reviving the Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green lark “Wonderful Town” in 2003. Her third came in 2011 for the bubbly resuscitation of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” — another Roundabout show — that begins its month-long run Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
“She’s got the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers thing down,” says Rachel York, who is playing the nightclub chanteuse Reno Sweeney on tour. (Sutton Foster won a Tony in the role in New York.) “You really get caught up watching every kick and spin.”
Since breaking through as the choreographer of the sassy “Kiss Me, Kate” revival in 1999, Marshall has created her own niche with classic American musical comedies. The vogue for more than a decade has been for jokey knockoffs and lampoons — “The Producers,” “Urinetown,” “Spamalot,” “Book of Mormon” — but Marshall’s taste is doggedly old school.
“I love musicals that celebrate the form, as opposed to making fun of the form,” says Marshall, whose current Broadway offering is the George Gershwin catalogue musical “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” That show, which opened with O’Hara and Matthew Broderick, closes next Sunday after a year-long run.
Marshall’s nostalgic bent even comes through as she kicks around the idea of directing a straight play for Roundabout.
“My problem is that I like big old Kaufman and Hart three-act plays with 25 people in them,” Marshall says. Her wry grin indicates that the odds are against getting a green light for that. “They’re practically on the scale of musicals.”
Marshall, a youthful-looking 50, is crisply dressed — smart black skirt and cardigan, dangly earrings, straight hair pulled back. (She married producer Scott Landis in 2009; they have twin 3-year-old girls.) Her answers are as methodical and thorough as you would expect from an English major whose parents were academics.
“She’s the kind of director who gets everything done on time,” York says. “She’s very understated and does her job in a quiet way. But when you get to know her, you find this great sense of humor.”
That would seem to be essential for someone who has come to be identified with screwball material like “Anything Goes,” though die-hard theater buffs will note that her greatest exposure was probably as a judge on the NBC show “You’re the One That I Want” (an audition contest for the Broadway “Grease” she staged in 2007). “Anything Goes” may be the ultimate Marshall project — zany comedy, great score and acres of dancing, but historically enough of a problem to be a bit of a brainteaser as Marshall coaxed it into the 21st century.
She briskly lists the previous iterations: the 1934 original. A 1962 stage revision. On screen, a 1930s movie with Ethel Merman and Bing Crosby. A 1950s movie with Crosby and Mitzi Gaynor. Two other TV movies, and then the 1987 Lincoln Center production with Patti LuPone.
No two were alike in script, or even in song list.
“At some point the characters are all on a boat,” Marshall says of what they had in common. “They all have the title song, ‘You’re the Top,’ and ‘I Get a Kick Out of You.’ And otherwise, it is different Cole Porter songs coming and going.”
For the current show, John Weidman and Timothy Crouse have tightened their 1987 treatment. After watching every available film and scouring Porter’s superabundant lyrics — “He couldn’t help himself; he kept writing and writing,” Marshall says — this version was unveiled with added Porter material, new orchestrations for the new dance arrangements, and a new finale.
“Even though it’s a revival, I felt like I wanted to approach this as if it were a new show — to make it our own, in a way,” Marshall says.
This show-biz researching and directing and dancemaking is hardly an obvious line of work for someone who studied English at Smith College. Marshall got hooked on musicals as a kid, growing up in Pittsburgh listening to cast recordings and being taken to theater, opera and dance. As a dancer, she performed with Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and earned her Equity card there during her college summers.
At Smith, she studied dance with Gemze de Lappe, who was in the original 1943 “Oklahoma!” Now 91, de Lappe just re-created the Agnes DeMille choreography of “Oklahoma!” for Chicago Lyric Opera.
“She ran really tough ballet classes, and she did musical theater choreography classes,” Marshall recalls. “We did the ‘Carousel’ ballet as a dance concert. She was really influential.”
After school, Marshall was on the road as a dance captain in “Cats” when her older bother Rob (of “Chicago” movie fame) invited her to Toronto, where he was choreographing the pre-Broadway engagement of “Kiss of the Spider-Woman.” As Rob’s assistant, she got to watch a number of top-tier directors at work — Hal Prince, Jack O’Brien, Susan Schulman, Michael Blakemore, Jerry Zaks.
The director-choreographer education continued when Marshall was tapped to run the influential Encores! concert series at Manhattan’s City Center from 1996-2000. That’s where her first full project as both a director
and a choreographer, “Wonderful Town,” began.
Now Marshall has new material in the pipeline, namely a musical version of the Drew Barrymore movie “Ever After” (by the emerging songwriting team of Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler) that could land on Broadway within the year if the real estate puzzle breaks her way. Also new for the “vintage girl”: “Diner,” the Sheryl Crow musical of the Barry Levinson film. After workshops and a scuttled production once announced for San Francisco, the next step for “Diner” is not yet clear.
She’s also beginning to revive “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” and she has permission to rummage through composer-lyricist Meredith Willson’s trunk of songs. A production may materialize at a regional theater in the next year and a half.
“The folks who wrote these original musicals were real showmen,” Marshall says with affection. “They knew they were creating this as popular entertainment.”
She likes the choreography of Michael Kidd (“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”) for the athletic energy. She admires the style of Robert Alton, who did the original “Anything Goes” and the movie “White Christmas,” and is less taken with the trademarks that Bob Fosse stamped on show after show than with the variety of Jerome Robbins.
“The fun thing is once you find a reason to dance — your way in — then you can let loose,” Marshall says of her approach.
She uses the infectious title song of “Anything Goes” as an example of what she calls a “Pied Piper” moment led by the “glamorous, sexy, smart, tough dame,” Reno Sweeney.
“When she says to heck with convention, follow your heart — now you can do anything,” Marshall says. It’s critical, she notes, to have sterling singer-dancer-comedians like Foster or York sparking the party.
“I think that’s why the dance in ‘Anything Goes’ resonates so much,” she suggests, “is because you have principal characters out there leading all the production numbers, which means the story doesn’t stop. Reno does every step of ‘Anything Goes’ and ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow.’ ”
Very logical, the way Marshall philosophizes about the throwback fun of song and dance.
“I love theater that challenges and provokes, but I also think there’s a place in the world for theater that entertains and transports,” she reasons. “And I think you can do that with intelligence.”
music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. Tuesday though July 7 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.