By LAUREN KAY
Now in its second year on Broadway, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
is becoming a holiday tradition in New York City. The show’s popularity is based partly on its feel-good plot, which includes two love stories and a musical-within-a-musical, and partly on its score, which features Irving Berlin standards like “Blue Skies” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” The package wouldn’t be nearly as shiny, however, without choreographer Randy Skinner. His work on this production was nominated for a Tony Award last year, and it extends his reputation for throwback-glamour style.
Famous for gliding turns, graceful arms, large-group unison dancing and fleet-footed tap sequences, Skinner’s choreography is reminiscent of classic movie musicals, and that’s no accident: He’s an avid fan of the MGM Golden Age. “As a kid I was immediately drawn to Fred and Ginger,” he says. “I adored the ease and majesty of the way they moved. It’s powerful material.”
In all his choreography, Skinner aims to stage the magic he saw on screen. He says, “My challenge is how do you get that type of perfection live onstage, push the envelope—and not kill your dancers eight times a week?”
Along with the influential films, the Ohio native says his style is underpinned by classical ballet, “where all great dancing comes from.” Skinner also was a performer himself, and that experience informs his creations. “Performing musicals set in the 30s and 40s, like No, No, Nanette and Funny Girl, made me aware of great choreographers and styles, and how they vary,” he says. Since White Christmas called for a backdrop of 1950s America, Skinner and the entire artistic team researched how to recreate that era. “We all agreed the show’s feel would be based on truth,” he says. “During the scene about The Ed Sullivan Show, our cast performs in front of a drop, just like in the real program.”
The fanciful and full-skirted fashions of the 50s played a role in the choreography, too. He explains, “Much of the dance is dictated by the clothes, like the way a full-cut skirt or dress sways when a character moves, or how you tilt your head when you wear a fedora, which the dancers do in ‘Blue Skies.’ There’s a kind of jazz to the 1950s clothes that comes alive in the dancing.”
Skinner also incorporated the dance standards of the time, as he does with each period show he choreographs. “There was a syllabus of steps on television shows and in the movies back then, like this arm position where the elbows are held to the sides and the hands are ‘turning knobs,’” he says. “I have a trio do that move, and if you look at some of the great vinyl record covers of the 50s, the singers are in the same position.
In contrast to today’s “fast and hard hitting” dance that makes no attempt to conceal intense work, Skinner says he always aims to emulate the movie musical tradition of making dance appear effortless. His favorite example of this in White Christmas
is “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” a ballroom piece danced by a pair of the show’s lovebirds. Played by Mara Davi and Tony Yazbeck, the couple sways and sails in turns, lifts and poses with the precision of ballroom and the pizzazz of theatre jazz. “I don’t think people realize how hard that number is,” Skinner says. “Mara and Tony have worked extensively on timing and turning to create that floating feeling. And yet it never shows.”
Lauren Kay is a contributing editor for Dance Spirit magazine and a dancer and writer in NYC.