A Role Rekindled
Sunday, March 26, 2006
Maurice Hines, onetime tap dance kid, longtime choreographer and elder brother of the late, great Gregory, was adamant about riding a showbiz wave on the Potomac. He'd been told to try out his musical in Chicago, but he'd developed a following in Washington and wanted to indulge his soft spot for the city -- wanted the security of nursing his project in a town with which he felt a bond.
"I said, 'I love D.C., and D.C. loves me back,' " he explains, sitting in an upstairs lobby of the National Theatre. He appeared several years ago in Arena Stage's well-received revival of "Guys and Dolls" and even went on tour with it.
And so Hines is here now, with 12 musicians, 25 dancers and the songbook of the '70s R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire for the world's first peek at "Hot Feet," an $8 million musical that next month gets its Broadway premiere. To help the show find its legs, to try to figure out what might need to be refined, tweaked or jettisoned, the musical is spending three weeks at the National. It's already run a week of preview performances, and on Tuesday will throw open the doors to critics, for an early barometer of how the production might be received in New York.
"Mostly, I feel nervous," says Hines's "Hot Feet" collaborator, Maurice White, the songwriting legend and driving force behind Earth Wind & Fire. "You don't want to mess your songs up. These are my babies."
Worry, of course, is not an exotic emotion in the wings and dressing rooms of the venerable playhouse on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. In the realm of sensations associated with whipping a musical into shape, you'd place anxiety on the National Register of Historic Feelings. What makes White's case of jitters so special, though, is not so much why it developed, but where.
"Hot Feet" is an anomaly. That it is trying out in Washington is a kind of flashback experience for the city, a reminder of the robust role it once played as a pre-Broadway town, a premier place to test the waters for a commercial boulevard comedy or a big-budget musical.
Washington was, in a bygone era, the quintessential tryout city. For decades, it formed a kind of Broadway audition circuit with such other cities on the fringes of New York's gravitational pull as Boston and Philadelphia and New Haven. As a result, Washington had a recurring supporting role in that reliable epic drama, the run-up to a Broadway opening. The out-of-town intrigue involved in getting a show to the Great White Way was even immortalized in the classic backstage film comedy "All About Eve" (the famous scene in which George Sanders -- playing the eely critic Addison DeWitt -- unmasks and humiliates backstabbing Eve Harrington occurs in New Haven, where Anne Baxter's Eve is in the pre-Broadway tryout of a new play).
In the heyday of the tryout, musicals and plays might start in any of those cities, and head to the others, where the authors refined the work. Washington is where Stephen Sondheim came up with "Comedy Tonight" as a new opening for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and, as a result, reversed the show's sagging fortunes.
The nation's capital can even claim the part of midwife in the birth of the modern American musical. "Show Boat" -- Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's sprawling masterwork, the production widely viewed as ushering in the age of the serious book musical -- had its world premiere at the National in the fall of 1927. "Cast and ensemble of 125," read the program.
The list of hits-in-the-making is impressive. "West Side Story" and "Hello, Dolly!," "Promises, Promises" and "The Odd Couple," "Amadeus" and "Annie," "M. Butterfly" and "Master Class," "Pippin" and "Crazy for You" all were unveiled for Washingtonians before the New York cognoscenti got to sink their teeth in. The turkeys were herded in this direction, too, such musicals as the utterly calamitous "Mata Hari" and the tepid "The Baker's Wife" and such quickly forgotten plays as "The Astrakhan Coat" and "The Porcelain Years."
Richard Kidwell, an assistant manager at the National in the mid-'60s and now the manager of the Kennedy Center Opera House, says that one pleasure of being in a theater while a piece was trying out was watching it evolve. At the Kennedy Center, he listened in as the director Harold Prince tried to figure out how a walkway would work in "Pacific Overtures." At the National, he got to see the refinements put into "I Do, I Do!" "It changed while I was there," he says. "Don't ask me how, but it did -- a lot."
Over the past 25 years, the tryout torrent here has all but dried up. Aside from its thriving nonprofit theater scene, Washington is pretty much a stop on the road for touring productions spawned by existing Broadway shows.