A Role Rekindled
'Hot Feet' Tryout Harks Back to D.C.'s Once-Familiar Status as a Steppingstone to the Great White Way

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

As late as the '60s, producers were sending a steady stream of untested shows through Washington each season. Now, entire years can pass without a production paying a visit here aiming for Broadway. The exceptions in the past four years have been the Kennedy Center's "Bounce," a Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical that failed to reach New York, and a revival at the National of "Man of La Mancha" with Brian Stokes Mitchell, which went on to a brief stay on Broadway.

What has changed is the economics of how commercial theater is developed. The exorbitant costs of taking an untried piece from city to city, the difficult logistics of transporting wildly complex scenery and equipment -- not to mention casts, crews and musicians -- have forced many producers to cut back on the number of places they can take a tryout show. The pattern changes, depending on the show. In some cases there's no out-of-town tryout at all; some hit shows are imports from London or off-Broadway, or begin life at regional theaters across the country.

The irony is that as the stakes have risen astronomically, the ability to reexamine a costly property city by city has been lost.

"It's gone and it's missed," says Emanuel Azenberg, the veteran Broadway producer who has long shepherded the works of Neil Simon to Broadway -- many of which tried out in Washington -- and whose musicals include "Ain't Misbehavin' " and "Movin' Out." "The physical scale has become too complicated."

A typical musical, he says, used to have 200 lighting instruments that needed to be transported, mounted and adjusted. Today, the number is closer to 900. Years ago, when he produced "The Rothschilds," "We traveled with four 40-foot trucks," he says. "Now, 'Movin' Out' has nine 53-foot trucks." For some productions, the caravans are far longer.

Azenberg produced a trial run of "Movin' Out" -- the Twyla Tharp show danced to Billy Joel's music -- in Chicago. The Second City, where "The Producers" tried out, has de facto become tryout central; San Francisco, where "Wicked" made an initial bow, is another city popular with producers. Azenberg and others say this partly has to do with agreements that have been struck with local unions to limit labor costs.

The technical complexities of a contemporary musical are completely apparent when you walk in on a rehearsal of "Hot Feet." The house looks more like a control room at NASA than the orchestra section of the National. Tables holding banks of computers are suspended over the seats. As 19-year-old Vivian Nixon, daughter of dancer Debbie Allen and a star of "Hot Feet," goes through her moves for the Act 1 finale, an army of technicians man the computers, calibrating the cues for lighting the show.

"Hot Feet" is a hybrid of old and new, an urban, dancing version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Red Shoes." With 18 numbers, it employs jazz, hip-hop and a higher-octane version of hip-hop called krumping. For the finale, Hines has choreographed a 24-minute ballet. " 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' it ain't," Hines says, referring to the previous tenant of the Hilton, the Broadway theater where "Hot Feet" is soon to be ensconced.

Two years ago, Hines flew to Los Angeles and pitched White his idea of updating "The Red Shoes." White, eager for a new platform for his group and its hits -- including "Shining Star" and "September" -- said yes in an instant.

"He walked into our office and it was a lovefest from Day One," says Herb Trawick, a "Hot Feet" co-producer and business associate of White's. And after a workshop last summer in Manhattan, executives of the insurance giant Transamerica agreed to bankroll the production.

Some of what's going on at the National, of course, is what always has occurred during tryout runs. Songs are being tinkered with -- White's written six new ones for this show -- and the book, by Heru Ptah, is being fine-tuned. "Some things are changing," White says, as he sits on a sofa in the theater's balcony lobby, looking like an expectant first-time father, not entirely sure what happens next.

Is it "Hello, Dolly!" redux -- the show left the National and went on to a 2,844-performance run at the St. James Theatre in New York -- or something closer to "Mata Hari"? As recounted in Ken Mandelbaum's "Not Since Carrie," a book of stories of musical flops and bombs, the 1967 "Mata Hari," featuring Marisa Mell as the World War I spy, was a notable disaster. At a preview performance, sponsored by Lady Bird Johnson, "The show ran well past midnight, scenery collapsed and the virtually nude Mell was accidentally spotlighted during a costume change," Mandelbaum wrote.

Max Woodward, now an executive involved with theater programming at the Kennedy Center, was at the National that evening 39 years ago. He remembers a beautiful production rife with hilarious miscues. "At the end, she's tied to a pole," he recalls about Mell. "And then after they shoot her, she reaches up and scratches her nose."

No one wishes a night like that on "Hot Feet." And some at the National are pleased to see a tryout tradition carrying on. Harry Teter, the National's general manager, remembers the night years ago at "Hello, Dolly!" when the creative team added a song in the second act, "When the Parade Passes By." Ah, for those halcyon tryout days at the National.

"It has birthed a lot of wonderful theater," Teter says. "I have often just stood here and thought, 'If this ground could talk.' "

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