Friday, August 19, 2011

An Ostrander mistake? We know who staged "Crazy for You" but who is the choreographer?

Posted By on Fri, Aug 19, 2011 at 9:14 AM

Crazy for You at Theatre Memphis
  • Crazy for You at Theatre Memphis
Before the first inevitable shots are taken at the messenger let me begin with a few clear words about what this post isn't about.

This post is not about wrongdoing. It isn't intended to disparage the judges; to hurt or embarrass anyone ; or to question the worthiness of our working artists who are all underthanked and deserving of a play prize. But, cutting to the chase: Mistakes have been made.

The Choreography for Crazy for You at Theatre Memphis was created by Susan Stroman for the show's original Broadway run. Theatre Memphis licensed it. Kathy Caradine, who has been nominated for an Ostrander for choreography, taught Stroman's steps to the CFY cast—no easy task— adapting what couldn't be copied and bringing some original work to the table along the way. Caradine's creativity and commitment have never been in question. She's just not the sole or original author, and considering that other choreographers in this category began from scratch, it's probably time for the theater judges to revise their guidelines to include category definitions. For example, jukebox musicals aren't elegible for Tony awards in certain categories because the pop songs—often heavily rearranged for the stage—aren't original to the show. That's why the Addams Family was nominated for best score in 2010 and Million Dollar Quartet, a best musical nominee, wasn't, even if the songs in MDQ are better.

My assumption: Even if there's not a good universal notation system for choreography, dance is still a text, like a script or a musical score. The work can be copyrighted and licensed, after all. The subsequent question: If a theater buys the rights to use original Broadway choreography should the person who interprets and adapts it be listed as "choreographer?" Should they be eligible for an Ostrander in the choreography category? And in the case of licensed work and co-authorship could the judges ever actually understand enough about the specific process to know where the original dance score ends and the new work begins?

It's tempting to cut the judges some slack here. After all, Theatre Memphis' program for Crazy For You didn't note that the choreography was licensed and Stroman wasn't acknowledged anywhere. Email exchanges with Theatre Memphis's executive producer Debbie Litch suggest that this wasn't an oversight. According to Litch TM's contract allowed that the purchaser might not use all of the choreography and sources close to the show confirm that some of the work was heavily altered. But, as the Commercial Appeal's theater critic Christopher Blank pointed out in a feature titled "Choreography Key to Crazy For You," the routines followed Stroman's blueprint.

From the story:

When the Theatre Memphis' play selection committee chose "Crazy for You" as this season's closer (running through June 26), [Caradine] the native Memphian had to dust off her dancing shoes months ago. Tap dancing rehearsals began back in January. She is trying to remain faithful to Stroman's choreography.

"A lot of the tapping is of the Fred Astaire variety," she said. "It's highly syncopated. Five people in the cast have been driving up from Hernando to be in this show."

Director Robert Hetherington said that two strong local performers were cast in the leading roles: Jordan Nichols, who has worked in New York, and Emily Petit, a vocalist who has starred in several Theatre Memphis musicals.

"This show lives and dies on the strength of its choreography," Hetherington said. "There's just an enormous number of set changes."

Litch responds: "Theatre Memphis has nothing to regret by paying for the privilege to have the opportunity to use the choreography guide for CRAZY FOR YOU. Let’s concentrate on celebrating great theatre in our Memphis community and ensuring that we can all have the opportunity to produce the best theatre for our community. We were very open and happy that we could pay a royalty fee for the choreography guide by Susan Stroman. I only wish there were more choreographers like Susan Stroman and Jerome Robbins who care so much about their shows they will take the time to catalog it."

If you were looking for an "Oopsie" in there somewhere and didn't find one don't worry. There wasn't one although Litch promises that Stroman's contributions to Crazy for You will be acknowledged in the programs for TM's season opener Bye Bye Birdie, which takes its first bows this weekend.

And obviously, there's no reason to "regret" the licensing of work or recognizing the hard work of the artists who bring that work to life. But all of them need to be recognized, and accurately. And that's where the problem lies. The Ostrander judges weren't mistaken. They either knew in advance or were made aware of the fact that the choreography had been licensed, and closely followed.

Here are some comments from a judge who has asked to remain anonymous:

"The fact that the choreography was purchased was discussed at the table in whether [Crazy for You was] deserving of a nom. If I remember correctly we had received some more info from Theatre Memphis regarding additional choreo work that was done. I believe that was why it was included in the noms. Now, from a legal perspective should we list the original choreographer? Probably. Don't remember a dual listing being discussed."

From a legal perspective? Maybe, maybe not. A representative from Tams-Whitmark, the company that licenses the book, score, and choreography for Crazy for You said acknowledgement was expected but stopped just short of saying it was required. Litch says she reviewed all correspondance and couldn't find anything obligating the theater to credit Stroman.

"Kathy Caradine had to work for 10 weeks to interpret, adapt and add her own choreography to fit the skills and talents of the cast," Litch says. "Thanks to the hard work, vision and artistic expertise of Director Bob Hetherington plus Kathy’s hard work, expertise and creativity with the choreography as well as so many other outstanding designers and production team, CFY was an artistic and financial success with sold-out audiences for every show."

Sure. Hetherington's good. His production of Stuff Happenes at the U of M is one of the two best productions of this past theater season. And that show—a non-musical—made such creative use of rolling office chairs it probably deserves some nod for choreography too. But Hetherington's artistic contributions and how well the show sold are really beside the point. Music directors also work hard to interpret scores, rearranging and transposing when necessary, but nobody ever mistakes them for the composer, do they? It's probably worth noting that there is an award category for music direction and that the Ostrander judges are empowered to create special categories when they see fit.

The last and probably the most important question: What's the big damn deal? It's just a silly award, why should I or anybody else give a rat's hindquarters? Well, I can think of several reasons, but this is what it all boils down to: In the right or in the wrong legally it's annoying that Theatre Memphis would license and teach someone else's steps without acknowledging their contributions. Except for the fact that TM paid for the privilege to use or not use the choreography this whole circumstance reminds me of the great Chicago Uninetown kerfuffle of 2006, which you can read about here (and which cost a choreographer his Jeff Award and caused a lot of people a lot of headaches). In this case, the Ostrander judges' attempt to reward Caradine's good work—an urge I believe to be sincere and by all accounts deserved— extends the original oversight and may even encourage a practice that's, at the very least, less than desirable.

"If Kathy should be chosen among so many outstanding nominees, I would endorse any wording the committee would deem appropriate," Litch says. "Our goal is to produce the best production possible, one show at a time."

It's probably too late in the game to make any significant changes to the Ostrander program. If Caradine wins critics of the decision should applaud and understand that, all quibbles about authorship terminology aside, it's a sincere acknowledgement of what has been universally acknowledged as an extraordinary achievement. If she doesn't win she should probably be consoled for doing great work, and being shoehorned into the wrong category.

Feel-good conclusions aside, the whole circumstance is messy and all good intentions aside it looks like bad faith all around. I'm not saying or even suggesting that that's the case. But those are the optics. And, to borrow a line from Death of a Salesman, one of a few extraordinary achievements Ostrander isn't recognizing this season, "Attention must be paid."

Additional: Fight Choreographer Pam Hurley has also been nominated for Crazy for You. Hurley is an exceptionally well rounded theater artist and does great work. But isn't this also a separate category? I don't know the answer, and am curious as to what others think.

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