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Interview with Director and Choreographer, Randy Skinner

Jul 13, 2012 07:07PM ● By Anonymous

Arguably best known for Broadway musical favorite, 42nd Street, award-winning performer, director and choreographer, Randy Skinner sat down with us to discuss his Annapolis debut, Infinity Theatre Company’s Dames at Sea. More of a conversation, than an interview, Randy shared with us stories from his 30 plus years of success on stage, in the classroom, and most recently, in the New York City jungle. 

Alexandra: So you’re in New York City working on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Tell me more.

Randy: Actually, that just happened. It’s that series, New York City Center Encores which is a very unusual kind of thing. The program aims to present shows that haven’t been seen in quite a while and you rehearse for 10 days and then, play for one week. They’re big events in New York. It’s fun, nerve-racking, intense and all of those good things.

How do you go about choosing your cast when they only have 10 days to prepare?

Well, for the ensemble you tend to choose people you already know and have worked with because then you’re on the same wave lengths. Now this particular show, the four ladies that were in the dancing ensemble, they were girls that I had cast many, many times. The guys, because they had to be believable as Olympic athletes in 1924, I didn’t have a lot of those kinds of guys in my staple. So we had several auditions. In the end, I had four new male dancers that I had never worked with.

And how did that go?

Great! They all worked incredibly hard. You trust your instincts. Of course you put them through your paces at the auditions so you have a pretty good sense by the time you hire them. I like to work with new people but usually you don’t take a chance on something likes Encores.

It was clear to me, after speaking with the artistic directors at Infinity Theatre, that Alan and Anna Ostroff are quite the couple. What do you think of their decision to bring talent from the Big Apple to Annapolis?

I think that’s their goal. They are doing a really great thing by starting a theatre company and like you said, trying to bring New York to Annapolis. They’re new to me on this project and I like them enormously. I think it’s going to be a good summer for them.

They credited you big time, and was it, Casting Director, Michael Cassara, who put all of you in touch?

Yes, it was my understanding that Alan and Anna were at a casting session just kind of talking about the shows and they were discussing who could put together Dames at Sea for them. They thought, ‘well maybe one of Randy’s right-hand people could come down and choreograph and put the show up.’ And Michael, I met him when he was in college at Otterbein, a small college in Westerville, Ohio. It’s a small city near Columbus, where I’m from originally. When I go home I often teach master classes at that college. So years ago I met Michael and now he’s a casting director in New York, so Alan and Anna were asking him, “Well, why don’t you call Randy? Maybe he will be available to do our show.” Michael got in touch with me and gave me the details and asked if I was interested. I met with Alan and Anna and just found them like you did, very charming, go-getters - really terrific people. So I said, “Yea, I have the free time and it would be fun to be a part of something so new.”

That is wonderful. I think people who are interested in Annapolis theater - they’re aware of the companies that exist. But those that aren’t familiar, who would be interested if they knew the caliber of the shows and performers but they just haven’t gone out to see a show yet, this will be the oomph that Infinity Theatre needs. As I started to say, Alan and Anna were crediting you for not treating Annapolis as a blip on the screen but really diving in and giving your full effort and making a show for the town.

Oh yea, yea, I always say that if I commit to a show, it’s as if it’s a Broadway opening. It doesn’t matter where it is or how big the show is or the kind of money that’s involved. That’s how I’ve always approached it which is why I’m very choosy with what I do because it’s something that I do put an enormous amount of effort into. I know the show quite well. Do you know the show at all?

Not more than the bit of research I did prior to talking with you, but I am intrigued. It seems like a great feel-good piece.

It is and actually, Annapolis being a naval town, it’s just kind of a perfect little choice to do a show like this there. I’m finding, when I was auditioning the different people, it’s a show now that generations don’t know. It really was quite popular back in the late 60s, 70s. It was done all the time because it had been off-Broadway with Bernadette Peters and that’s actually where she made her real mark. It became this little jewel, and theatres picked up on it because it feels like a big show. It’s has such a nice score and plenty of opportunities for dancing and yet, there’s only six people in it. So you don’t have enormous costs that are standard with big musicals, and yet, you’re feeling like you’re getting something very substantial. Plus, I think people are really surprised at how tuneful the score is.

I just went to see Oliver last night which has been done a million times and music makes it. It really does.

Oh yea. That’s kind of what’s lacking in modern times. We no longer always have these lush tuneful scores that were so abundant in past years. When you had Rogers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin, those songs are still done. Look back at film’s early history and you’ll think of the five songs or more that were nominated for Academy Awards. Most of those songs are still in the canon of popular music. Yet, you go back 10 years and you can’t even name the Oscar winning song from a movie because it just doesn’t seem to be that kind of thing anymore, where music goes into what we call the real pop canon of the world.

Mmm, hmm and it’s over produced and made too quickly that there’s just too much. It doesn’t stick out the same.

Yea. Well, I think that people always respond to a great melody. That’s something that also happened with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. We had an enormous hit. It was such a wonderful experience for everyone and Megan Hilty, who is the one of the girls that stars on Smash, the television show, she was just delightful in the role of Lorelei Lee. And, to hear those songs, again, with a 25 piece orchestra, was just thrilling. It’s the biggest thrill Encores has ever had in their 19 year history.

Now you mentioned Megan and I was going to ask you about her because, when I interviewed Alan with Anna, he had said to me, ‘Oh, have you seen Smash?’ As matter of fact, I saw the first episode but then it got away from me. But Alan told me that Megan was starring in your Encores performance since you were producing it, it was going to be a great thing. Would you say that the Encores was so much more successful this go around because of Megan’s presence?

It always helps to have somebody that’s currently on a television show or in a movie, of course. Those are your two really powerful mediums that reach out to the world. The critics were just so positive about it and I think most of us in the business are used to having different opinions when you put a show up. You have people who love you. You have your detractors. You have your fans, but when you have a show that’s a hundred percent positive, that always kind of makes you go, ‘Whoa. You know, this is really wonderful that this is happening.’ And then to have the audiences respond the same way. That’s what really produced it and word spread so quickly, particularly when you’re only in town for a week. And the ticket sales just took off. It became the hardest ticket to get.

I’m getting the impression that you like a challenge and you don’t like to do the same thing twice.

That’s very true, yes. I figured out a long time ago that there was really nothing I wanted to do over and over again full time. I had done some choreographing in college, but when I came to New York, my dream was to perform. A lot of people that direct and choreograph - they actually move to New York or Los Angeles with that goal in mind. I, on the other hand, was strictly interested in performing, at least, at first. But then I got into it, and I have a teaching degree from Ohio State University, so there was always that thing gnawing at me in the back of my mind that I would teach. Now I do a lot of teaching all over the country. I teach at colleges, festivals, and at the two schools here in New York - the big dance centers, Steps and Broadway Dance Center. In fact, I’m teaching today. I love it for two reasons. I use part of my brain that I studied so hard for in order to be a good teacher and then it’s a great way to scout for talent.

That’s wonderful. I was digging around online and you’re all over the place – rightly so, but how do you do it? One minute you’re in Ohio, then you’re in New York, then you’re going abroad. Your students are lucky that you are so dedicated and willing to share your skills, and of course, it works well for you when you’re looking to cast your next show.

Well, I was really fortunate. My hometown had a theater company called the Kenley Players. It was run by a man named John Kenley. He died a couple years ago at the age of a hundred and three. He was this amazing, kind of, old world impresario who played in three cities in Ohio - Warren, Dayton, and Columbus. And it was always nice because Columbus is my hometown so it was great to be able to perform right where I was born and raised, and he brought out the biggest stars to do these musicals and plays. And so, at a very young age, I got to meet some of the great Hollywood movie stars from, what we call, the Golden Age of Musicals. And they all, every one of them, sat down and told me face to face that you’ve got to be instrumental in carrying on our tradition of dancing because they all saw how much I loved it.

Wow.

I feel that is part of my mission to carry on that kind of tradition of ballet, jazz, and tap combined which is what the movies were about. When you go back and look at Fred and Ginger, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller and Eleanor Powell, all of these great dancers that the world produced, they were so well versed in all of the disciplines. And that’s kind of an art form we’ve lost touch with a little bit. You have really great tap dancers out there that devote their life to one style of dance. You have really strong jazz dancers and then, of course, you have your ballet world. But to find, what we call, those triple threat dancers, who are trained in a level of tap, jazz, and ballet, and even ballroom dancing, who can do it all… you don’t always have that anymore. So I teach with this in mind.

I’m marveling about the shows that I’ve been fortunate to see. In my head, I was categorizing talent more broadly. They’re skilled in dancing, they’re skilled in acting, and they’re skilled in singing. But then, you’re expanding the element of dance by emphasizing the different genres. I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment when I was reading and saw that you were heavily involved with 42nd Street, both the original and the revival. I was in the audience in 2001.

Okay, you saw the revival. Yea, a lot of people talk about that revival as being one of the first shows they see or you’ll talk to a dancer and they’ll say ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what made me want to dance.’ 42nd Street has that kind of effect on people. And White Christmas does too which is actually going to be playing at the Kennedy Center this year. And yes, back to your point about triple threat, we do call performers triple threat performers when they can sing, dance, and act. Almost every musical requires that now because of the economics. You need a chorus that can really do it all, whereas years ago, you had separate choruses. Now I said that there are triple threat performers. I also look for that triple threat dancer who can do the three disciplines. So then, when you require that on top of needing to sing and act, it’s a challenge.

I bet. The standards are so high and you want recruit the best.

I think you’re going to have a great time, particularly since you’ll be discovering the show. It’s actually a bit of a takeoff from 42nd Street. That’s what Dames at Sea has always been about. There are elements of the show that represent the movie. And of course, Dames at Sea was put on stage before 42nd Street ever was. 42nd Street was 1980 and Dames at Sea was ’68. So they actually wrote this little jewel of a show that was a takeoff on the original 42nd Street movie, plus some of the Busby Berkeley films.

You’ve had plenty of experience on stage, off stage, either behind the scenes directing and choreographing or being the performer. Can you recall a time when there was a major glitch, like the lead fell sick, the night before the big premiere? What was your quick solution? Or, was there ever a time when something went terribly awry but it made for comedy later?

In Blonde’s we did have a situation. Three days into rehearsal, one of my male dancers came up to me and said, “I don’t think I can do the show.” He was having a knee problem due to an old injury that was aggravated by the intensity of rehearsal. I immediately thought, ‘Oh my gosh’ because Encores does not have understudies. It’s such a quick gig. ‘What are we going do here if he can’t do it?’ We couldn’t get him in to see a doctor until the next day. As a precaution, we looked into hiring a backup before our dancer went to the doctor. I conversed with my two assistants and found a guy that pulled off that Olympic athlete look. He came in the same day during lunch hour. We auditioned him quickly, and we decided to hire him so he could learn the show in case something happened to the other guy’s knee during the week. And I believe it’s the first time Encores has ever done that where we brought someone into learn along with the cast. It was a tense 24 hours.

Sounds like it.

Not knowing what would happen but it was good that we erred on the side of caution. Most shows have understudies built in, particularly in Broadway shows. When you go to regional theatre, it’s very rare that you have understudies. A lot of contracts with Actors Equity do not require covers, so you’re leaving yourself a little vulnerable when you don’t have understudies in place. Now, Anna and Alan have done a smart thing by having the interns as their actors’ backups, to keep the curtain up, so to speak.

It sounds like Alan and Anna had proper training in New York, the kind that prepared them for any vulnerability they might come across. And for an intern still in college, that’s got to be the biggest break, if the lead gets sick, for example.

It’s a great opportunity and it gives them another purpose besides working back stage. It certainly gives them experience. It’s a great intent so I’m glad we have that down there.

Since you’ve been so successful and have been with showbiz for quite a while now, can you name one production in specific that you consider your biggest achievement?

Well, I think most people would look at 42ndStreet as that because of the size of the show and the challenge of taking a beloved show reviving it, all the while paying respect to the past but also, bringing something new to it. That was a wonderful challenge in 2001. Of course, we had the producers that gave us that kind of budget, which was really nice, and allowed us to enhance the original show so much.

I love also White Christmas. I would say those two are my favorite shows. With White Christmas you have a score by Irving Berlin and I’ve always loved his music. So to be able to take a beloved movie musical and put it on stage was another opportunity like 42nd Street. Being able to take an iconic movie and then adapt it for the stage is challenging. You’re working with totally different mediums. But then you have to make an audience feel that they’re seeing the movie that is so familiar to them. And I’ve done a lot of that. I’ve done a lot of movie transfers stage. I like that challenge and so far so good.

Well, it’s seems like everything you’ve done, people really gravitate towards.

Well, like you said earlier on, it really helps when you have a great score. I think first and foremost that still is what attracts people to shows. Now, today, I will again say, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is probably the lightest, most frothy book you could ever have in a show. Just a paper thin plot and yet, it’s full of humor and it actually says something powerful at the end about women. You also have this glorious score and if it’s done well, cast well, and if you put it up with really good values and good choreography and you have humor, that proves to me that you can take a show that was from an entirely different era and have it work today. I like that reinforcement because I’m drawn to material from the past. Music is what I respond to. When I sit down to listen to a score for the first time that I have never heard before that’s a whole other way of putting my ear there.

Of course. It hits you differently.

It hits you differently. Can you imagine being the first audience for South Pacific or Oklahoma and you hear these melodies come at you? It must have been thrilling. I think people really respond when they hear a score that just lifts them and takes them to another world. People are moved by it.

Yes and it’s not history lost where only our grandparents got to enjoy it or our parents. It’s something that every generation will get the chance to see and hear if there are people like you out there that still want to produce it.

That’s what makes it classic. There’s a place for it in every generation. You know?

Is there a piece of advice you always hang onto that you were told, that you repeat in your mind, and it’s sort of your mantra?

Yes, there is and I don’t know if I paid attention to it when it was sent to me but it sure comes back now.

That’s honest.

Gower Champion was the man who selected me to be a part of the original 42nd Street, and who I consider a mentor, of course. He sat me down at lunch one day and said, “You really should start choreographing now.” This was in 1980 and I was really young and I had only really thought about performing. I looked at him and said, “Oh, Gower, gosh, all I really want to do is dance,” even though I was helping him create this enormous Broadway musical. I still had in my mind, ‘Okay, when this job is done, I am going to go back and keep dancing.’ Well, he died opening night and I inherited the show along with the rest of the creative team and it became such an enormous hit that we were putting it out all over the world. And my life kind of changed. It really started going in the direction of choreography. But what he was saying to me was, ‘No, you don’t have to give up dancing or give up performing but if you have talent in other areas, start developing them right now.’ And the next statement that he was going to say but he didn’t really pursue it was, ‘It will give you longevity in the industry.’

Now, this was not a lesson that was actually taught to me, but I realized it very quickly after my 42nd Street experience. And you probably can relate to this in your field. I also teach in colleges that ‘all one can really do is prepare themselves for that break that might happen.’ But you have to rise to the task when the break presents itself. And that’s where the discipline comes in. I had that break of a lifetime, where everything aligned just right to have me cross paths with somebody that could change my life. He called me up on the phone. It was a wintery night in February. I did not know him personally. Then he said, “I’ve heard about you. You have been recommended to me. I would like for you to come in and dance with me and spend the day with me.” And I’ll never forget it. I was so primed for that opportunity because of my training and my knowledge in the field. I love old movies so much and loving that era, I was able to relate to Gower and Marge who were from the Golden Age of Musicals. I brought that kind of love into the room with me that day and I think he was endeared to the fact that I so admired old films. That’s something I’m very firm about when I’m espousing words of wisdom to younger people. I go, “Look, keep training, keep seeing things. Go to as much as you can go to. Read about the great people that you admire. Watch the movies.” The information is out there.

Thinking out of the box and exploring areas that might not have been in my foreground has made for a very interesting career in my life. I’ve enormously enjoyed not having to be trapped in one thing and getting to wear different hats. It has given me a kind of life that I can say to myself, ‘I can kind of count on this.’ The world tries to pigeonhole us. There’s no doubt about it, but we can definitely avoid that if we have some foresight into another kind of plan. So very, very wise advice from Mr. Champion.

Dames at Sea runs from July 13 - August 5, 2012 at Infinity Theatre Company at The CTA Theatre Complex – 1661 Bay Head Road, Annapolis, Maryland. Performances are Thursdays at 2pm and 7pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Purchase tickets here. Need directions, click here.