Choreographer Randy Skinner talks about turning the beloved movie White Christmas into a stage musical and how Broadway dance has changed over the last 30 years.
Dallas — Need a break from all that holiday shopping, cooking and decorating? Go see Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at the Music Hall at Fair Park Dec. 17-29, presented by Dallas Summer Musicals.
Based on the 1954 movie starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, White Christmas tell the story of two showbiz buddies who put on a show in a picturesque Vermont inn and happen to find their perfect mates along the way. White Christmas The Musical takes the versatile dance stylings of choreographer Randy Skinner and combines with Irving Berlin classics like “Happy Holiday,” “Sisters,” “Blue Skies” and the title song “White Christmas” for a memorable Holiday experience.
A native of Columbus, Ohio, Skinner graduated from the Ohio State University with a major in speech and communication and a minor in psychology before heading to New York City in 1976 in search of dance jobs. In 1980 Gower Champion asked him to be a dance assistant on 42nd Street. Skinner choreographed the Broadway revival of 42nd Street in 2001 and also choreographed and staged the production of the musical for companies in London, Germany, Australia, Amsterdam and two U.S. national companies. Along with White Christmas, Skinner also choreographed the musical State Fair. He has been nominated three times for Tony Awards and twice for Drama Desk Awards for Choreography.
TheaterJones asks Randy Skinner about the challenges associated with transferring a classic movie to the stage, his love of Golden Age musicals and the changes he has seen in the Broadway dance industry.
TheaterJones: What was the Broadway dance scene like when you first came to New York City?
Randy Skinner: Well, to be a Broadway dancer you always needed a wide range of techniques because the shows can have so many different kinds of styles. Not every show does, but particularly the shows I do are really reminiscent of what we call the Golden Age of musicals which you will certainly see in White Christmas.
When I work on a show I really look for dancers that are trained in what we call theater dance, but also jazz dance and of course tap. And a lot of my shows have ballroom in them which involve a lot of partnering. So, it’s a wide range of styles that show dancers need, particularly if you want to be able to audition for many types of shows. Sometimes you will have a show come around like Wicked which is basically all jazz dancing.
What are some of the major changes you have seen in the industry throughout your career?
With Broadway shows today you also have to be able to sing. Years ago the cast lists would have a singing ensemble and a dancing ensemble, but those days are gone because of the economy. Now you are looking for a group of kids who not only dance really well, but also have to sing. So there’s a lot of requirements for a young dancer today.
Have you seen a resurgence in the number of dancers who want to perform on Broadway in the last few years?
Oh, sure! Particularly with all these musical theater degrees that are in the universities now. You know years ago that didn’t exist and you went to school and you either majored in dance, theater/acting or music. But now you have a degree that I think entices a lot of young people to pursue a career on Broadway.
So then what did you major in at The Ohio State University?
I was put in dance class at the age of 4 so I had a really strong dance technique by the time I got college. So, I choose to major in something totally different and outside the field. I went the education route and majored in speech and communication with a minor in psychology and I also have a teaching certificate. And I use my degree every day of my life in this business.
Why did you decide to go the college route first?
I always knew that I was going to go to New York, but yes the plan was always to go to college. And I still think it’s a really good idea to go to college, but I think you have to be really savvy in your choice of school. Because if you do pick the right school that gives you four more years of really great concentrated training; that experience is truly invaluable. You also get more hands on training in a college atmosphere than you would in a dance class in New York or Los Angeles.
How did you get involved with White Christmas The Musical?
Well, I got the call one day from the director, who I had known, but had never worked together, and he wanted to meet with me and talk about the project and that’s basically how it is always done. You meet with people and talk it over and get a feel for one another. And that’s how it all happened 10 years ago. It’s hard to believe it has been that long.
Did you have any reservations going into the project since the movie has such a large following?
I have been through this before on several shows where you’re taking a really beloved movie and transferring it to stage, so I didn’t really have any nerves about it. I kind of knew what I had to do. Making a movie for the stage is definitely challenging because a movie musical doesn’t have nearly as many songs that a stage musical does. So, when you transfer something like that to the stage you really have to add a lot of music to the score to make it a full evening. And I knew we could do this really well.
But the biggest challenge is you have to really deliver the audience expectations. You have to come up with a way to make it for the stage where the audiences leaves at the end feeling like they had really seen the movie. Because I am used to doing really big, dance-driven shows I knew that we would be able to accomplish that.
I wasn’t quite aware of how popular the movie was because I was more in touch with the original movie Holiday Inn. That was the first movie the song “White Christmas” appeared in back in 1942. So, I thought it would be interesting to see if people know that movie like I do, but boy, everyone I talk to knows the 1954 movie so well.
For those who haven’t heard of him, who was the choreographer on the 1954 movie?
It was Robert Alton who was a big Hollywood choreographer and if you really know your movies then you would know him. But he was not a huge public name like Gower Champion, Michael Kidd or Bob Fosse. Alton did quite a few movies for MGM and he was a wonderful choreographer.
How did you blend some of the memorable dance scenes from the movie with your own movement?
Irving Berlin is one of my favorite composers so, that actually made the job somewhat easy because I was able to go with the director and pick the songs that we thought would be appropriate for the stage. We picked songs that were all before 1954. We didn’t want to include any songs Berlin wrote after the actual movie. So, I got to sit down and go ok what do I really want to dance too and that really gave me free range. And then you have to decide what kind of a dance is it going to be. Should it be a jazz or tap number? Should it have partnering or should it be a solo? That can guide you also and help make it a little bit different from the movie.
I always say the hardest thing is that each number you put in the show has to have its own kind of arc, a beginning, middle and end. But then the overall does show does too. So, it’s definitely a double challenge. Each number has to tell a complete story and then that has to fit into the bigger picture. In the end I really let the music dictate everything. As George Balanchine once said, ‘dancing is about the music’ and for me that is really true.
This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.