NEW YORK — Susan Stroman looks up to the ceiling and confesses her folly to the overhead lights.
“I wanted to do a ballet musical,” she grouses, lifting her hands in mock helplessness. “And now I’m waitin’ for toe shoes!”
Leave it to Stroman to fill time with a joke. What else can she do? The action has ground to a halt in this studio above 42nd Street, where on a recent evening Stroman’s dancers, who are not your average crop of chorus girls, are taping and padding their toes, snugging them into pointe shoes and meticulously lacing up the ribbons.
Ballerinas can’t be rushed, no matter how eager Stroman is to move on with her rehearsal of “Little Dancer,” the musical she is readying for its world premiere.
The show’s subject is artistic survival and the obsessions that feed it. This is something Stroman, a five-time Tony Award winner for such bonanzas as “Contact” and “The Producers,” knows more than a little about. Still, the story is unusual fare for a musical: Set in 1880s Paris, “Little Dancer” examines the ties between Edgar Degas and the young ballet student who became the model for his most controversial work, the sculpture titled “Little Dancer Aged 14.”
The musical will start previews Oct. 25 at the Kennedy Center, where its star, New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck, has frequently charmed houses full of ballet aficionados. But ballet is a subtle art, compared with the broader demands of musical theater. Bridging those worlds is just one of Stroman’s challenges as director/choreographer.
The risks of this show are so pronounced, Stroman might as well be drawing hazard pay. “Little Dancer” is — laudably, but also dangerously — a rare original story, neither a revival nor a spinoff of a book or film. It is untested, exciting but also chancy. In Peck, “Little Dancer” has a gorgeous and charismatic ballerina, but not a marquee stage actress. The look and atmosphere of the show, 19th-century French ballet, is potentially fetching but doesn’t scream box-office gold.
Then there’s the question on the minds of many theater fans: Can Stroman score a hit after her recent disappointments?
Waiting on toe shoes is not the half of it. Although when the dancers finally appear in them, it’s pretty thrilling.
The pianist is pounding out a waltz as the line of women rushes forward. They spread their arms like wings, spin and toss their legs high. You feel their force building and building like a wave. One accidentally knocks into a music stand with a thunk of bone against wood, but she doesn’t stop.
Peck, who plays Degas’ model Marie van Goethem, dashes on to join the line and fades into it seamlessly, encircling her arm around another dancer’s waist as they whirl together. They sing a slightly ominous-sounding tune about the glamour of the ballet, and run into the wings.
The scene feels shaded with double meanings. The clarity and power of the dancing is a veneer, because in Degas’ day, if you ventured behind the scenes at the Paris Opera Ballet you might find the dancers in a more vulnerable position, fending off the advances of panting male admirers.
The plight of these women, and how Marie navigates that world, is a central thread of “Little Dancer.” Stroman is especially excited about how it takes shape in her second-act dream ballet, where Marie explores the options for her future.
Wait, did she just say dream ballet?
“The last time you ever saw a dream ballet in a musical was in the ’50s, right?” quips Ginger Thatcher, the associate choreographer.
“I thought, ‘No one’s going to do that again,’ ” Stroman says after the rehearsal, settling into a closet-size office on an upper floor. Following in Agnes de Mille’s footsteps, Stroman had created a sweeping ballet fantasy for a production of “Oklahoma!” in London in 1998. She’d had a great time with it, and critics raved about it. But she figured it was her one and only shot, telling herself, “No producer will ever want you to do another dream ballet.”
She breaks into a big, husky laugh.
“No one’s going to want to take time for that, to stop for a big ballet. That’s just the way theater is going. So I really relished that moment. And now it’s happened, so I got what I wished for. By creating it. Ha ha!”
Stroman tosses her head back and throws her arms wide.
“I’m back at feeling ecstatic about having a ballet in a big Broadway musical.”
Her blue eyes shine. Her face lights up. The whole room lights up. You can see why she has a reputation for reassuring investors and energizing collaborators. There’s a delightfulness about Stroman that feels genuine and also a little retro, as though she’s channeling the bighearted, wisecracking charm of Ginger Rogers.
Stroman, who just turned 60, is dressed all in black, in a blazer and slim jeans tucked into boots. With her blond hair falling over her shoulders, she looks improbably glamorous after a day cooped up in the studio. This is just one of her mysteries.
“Stro is a very strange, beautiful person,” says Mel Brooks, who worked with her on “The Producers,” the musical adaptation of his film, which she directed and choreographed. He recalls a time when she insisted they dine at the Russian Tea Room. Not for the food.
For the walls.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, ‘The walls, the walls are beautiful.’ That’s how she thinks. Me, I go to a restaurant and I’m looking at the chicken,” Brooks says. “I never forgot that. She thinks in color and texture and movement.”
“The Producers” won a record-breaking 12 Tonys. “A great deal of that is really due to the talent and wacky ideas of Susan Stroman,” Brooks says. One of those ideas saved the wistful song “I Wanna Be a Producer,” which Brooks wrote for the unhappy accountant Leo Bloom, played by Matthew Broderick.
“I said, ‘Stro, I don’t think it lives up. It’s kind of primitive, kind of pedestrian,” Brooks recalls. “And she said, ‘You know what it is, it’s beautiful, it’s raw earth. Lemme plant some seeds in it and see what grows.’ And 10 months later, girls were stepping out of filing cabinets in beautiful silver helmets.
“She turned that little, simple song into an incredible show-stopping number, and that’s who Susan Stroman is,” he continues. “She sees the beauty and the glory of things that would go unnoticed by even the creator of the song.”
Now a French painter is Stroman’s raw earth. Although her dream ballet is more along the lines of a high-energy Broadway number, throughout “Little Dancer” she is taking her cues from Degas.
A devoted museumgoer, Stroman conducted much of her research by standing in front of his art. “I learned a lot about how I was going to do the movement just by looking at Degas’ paintings,” she says. “Many places in the show, I will hit different poses and stage pictures that are replicas of Degas’ paintings.”
It was a museum trip that inspired the idea for the show in the first place. About four years ago, Stroman was walking through the Musee d’Orsay in Paris when she encountered a bronze cast of his sculpture. She had loved it since she was a girl, and wondered anew about its backstory. Why had this great artist fixated on this funny-looking, cocky little girl?
When she got back to New York, the playwright and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, with whom Stroman had worked on a long-running production of “A Christmas Carol,” invited her over to toss around ideas for a show.
“The first thing out of Lynn’s mouth was, ‘Have you ever thought about Degas’ statue ‘Little Dancer Aged 14?’ and I go, ‘Oh, my God!” Stroman says, breaking into laughter again. “It’s like it was meant to be.”
“The story resonates with all of us,” Ahrens says, meaning her, Stroman and composer Steven Flaherty. The vicissitudes of being an artist, and being slapped for work that’s misunderstood, ring true for them as much as they did for Degas and young Marie. Especially for women in theater.
“There aren’t a lot of women directors in theater,” Ahrens says. “And this is a story that is a very, very powerful story for women, about survival, loyalty, having a dream and having your dream thwarted and coming out the other side.”
Like the characters in her musical, Stroman knows about survival, personally and professionally. She lost her husband, director Mike Ockrent, to leukemia in 1999. His illness had been devastating, yet Stroman’s high spirits throughout it were a thing of wonder, Ahrens recalls, saying, “I’ve never seen anybody persevere with such hope and joy, really, right till the end.”
Theater-wise, Stroman has had a particularly tough year. Two Broadway shows closed early: “Big Fish,” adapted from the Tim Burton film, shut down in December after less than three months, and “Bullets Over Broadway,” based on Woody Allen’s film, closed in August after five months. Both were $14 million productions with high expectations.
For that matter, none of Stroman’s latest productions have reeled in awards like such earlier successes as “Contact,” “The Producers,” “Showboat,” “Crazy for You” and “The Music Man.” Asked whether she relates to what Degas went through when his sculpture bombed, Stroman laughs. (It’s her default reaction, bless her.)
“I think you have a great passion for what you do, and if it’s not understood it makes you sad,” she says. “And the only thing you can do is go on.
“Listen, I love this business, but it does break my heart. A lot.”
On the other hand, she says, a lasting dividend of the theater world is “the life force around you all the time.” Degas — and Marie — must have felt this, too. Degas, a loner and a well-documented curmudgeon, drew continuous motivation from rehearsal studios and stage productions. Were they a way for him to experience human contact, and bask in the human spirit, in a way his personality wouldn’t otherwise allow?
Surely the theater was a refuge for young Marie, whose older sister became a prostitute and whose mother was an alcoholic laundress with a violent temper. In a scene in “Little Dancer,” we see the child physically abused.
In another scene, Mary Cassatt, the American painter (played by Janet Dickinson), visits Degas (Boyd Gaines) in his studio, where his walls are covered with sketches of the girl.
Cassatt thinks he’s nuts. Degas fires back: What draws him to the ballet — and what he wants to capture in his renditions — is “the truth of a girl who dances, even after she’s been beaten.”
You can take the line literally or metaphorically. Artists can take beatings in a number of ways. What better place than the theater, then and now, to find solace, and inspiration?
Stroman has a ritual to ensure her ongoing connection to this life force. The day after a show opens, she rounds up bodies and starts work on a new one.
“I have a meeting the next day for a new show, a new idea, a new writer, a new something,” she says.
“No matter what. You book a meeting and you keep going.”
Little Dancer, Oct. 25-Nov. 30 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets $45-$155, subject to change. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org .