Thursday, November 30, 2017

"Tiny, fey, Irish, honest, quiet, otherworldly, and superb"

Gemze de Lappe, far left, leads "Oklahoma" dancers through rehearsal in 2013.

    The hardest part of my job is convincing organizations to go along with a novel idea for a story. I'll think of an angle—who tunes pianos at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? how do they feed all those fish at the Shedd Aquarium?—and then spend YEARS trying to convince someone to let me in to report it. They resist, I believe, because it isn't the precise facet they want to ballyhoo at that particular moment. But it might also have something to do with my blunt, I-must-do-this-NOW manner. I hope not.
     My relationship with the Lyric Opera of Chicago is different, unique really. They will actually invite me drop by a rehearsal and look around for some aspect that I find interesting. This takes a bit of courage on their part, as they aren't always happy about what I ultimately fix on, or the approach I take. But they tolerate my attention, and I'm grateful for that.
     The moment that best illustrates this process is when, hanging out at the rehearsals for "Oklahoma" in 2013, I noticed a tiny, white-haired woman in her 90s going over choreography with the show's dancers.
     "Who's that?" I asked. It was Gemza de Lappe, who danced in the original touring production in 1943 and kept the flame of the show alive for the next 70 years. Obviously I had my subject.
     De Lappe died a few weeks ago, without any notice in Chicago, and I thought it apt to revisit my column on her life and work, and a few photos of her, snapped, alas, from a distance with a primitive iPhone 4S. 

     When Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers were writing their first musical together, "Oklahoma!," they wanted spunky farm girl Laurey Williams to dream "a big circus ballet" that would give the audience something gorgeous to see.
     That was the plan. Until they ran into the genius of Agnes de Mille, whom they had seen choreograph Aaron Copland's "Rodeo" and tapped to create the dances for "Oklahoma!" Though it was her first major Broadway show, she told the musical icons that a lighthearted ballet was a dreadful idea.
     "People don't have dreams like that," she said. "They have anxiety dreams. It should be a dream of Laurey's terrors. Also, you have no sex in this show. Nice girls dream rather dirty dreams. They do."
     That nightmare dance is the pivotal scene in this landmark musical, which opens May 4 at Lyric Opera of Chicago. After presenting the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical "Show Boat" as part of its subscription season last year, Lyric launches its American Musical Theater Initiative, a five-year series devoted to the works of Rodgers & Hammerstein, with "Oklahoma!" Programmed outside of Lyric's regular subscription season, the American Musical Theatre works are part of the company's campaign to reach new audiences.
     In "Oklahoma!," de Mille's choreography made a dramatic break from the "one-two-three-kick" routines of earlier musicals, the first where dance and songs are not threaded together by a flimsy plot, but welded into one cohesive work of art. A masterpiece.
     "The show changed the course of musical theater, it was a watershed event," said "Oklahoma!" director Gary Griffin, who previously directed "The Merry Widow" and "The Mikado" for Lyric. "This is the first show where dance rose to the level of significant storytelling, particularly the dream ballet, an essential [element] to the story."
     And essential to dance is rehearsal. This morning, in Room 350 of the Civic Opera Building, two performers go through their paces: dancers Jenna McClintock and Stephen Hanna, the "Dream Laurey" and the "Dream Curly," under the gaze of associate choreographer Victor Wisehart and choreographer Gemze de Lappe, a wisp of an elderly woman, who leaps off a chair and hurries over to where McClintock has just curtseyed.
     "It's too ladylike!" she says, trying to import a bit of High Plains sass. "You say, 'Hey! Yeah! Mornin'!' You don't say, 'Goood mornnning.' You say ..." and she bites off the word and tosses her head: 'Mornin'!"  

With Jenna McClintock, left and Victor Wisehart, right.
     De Lappe is 91, and the last living link to the show's original choreography. The curtain rose on "Oklahoma!" on March 31, 1943; by that August, de Lappe was dancing in the national company of the smash hit.
     "It was wartime—it just rang a bell," she recalls. "Touched the whole populace of the United States."
     And not just the United States. She danced the Dream Laurey for 18 acclaimed months in London starting in 1947.
     "Tiny, fey, Irish, honest, quiet, otherworldly, and superb," one critic wrote of her dancing.
     Lyric's current cast is drawn not just from the world of opera but from musical theater: Laurey is Ashley Brown, who played Magnolia in Lyric's "Show Boat" and the title role in "Mary Poppins" on Broadway, and Curly is John Cudia, the only actor to play both the Phantom and Jean Valjean roles in the "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables" on Broadway.
     Cudia says that the musical's historical importance, evergreen popularity—thanks in part to beloved songs such as "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' "—and big, relevant themes make it perfect for the opera stage.
     "We all have things between us and what we really want," Cudia says. "Taking those journeys to get to a place of happiness and togetherness."
     While musicians can follow a score and actors a script, to make a dance really come alive requires a detail-obsessed choreographer. And de Lappe, who has been involved in so many productions of "Oklahoma!" over the years she has lost count, closely studies and then minutely adjusts every step, leap, turn, gesture, look, down to a flutter of fingertips.
     "I'm conscious of your thumb at your throat," she says after McClintock touches her larynx. "It's really just 'hauh!' That's better. Just two fingers."
     Often words fail her, and she sings, taps or shows the dancer what to do by doing it herself, imparting not only movement but attitude—a 19th century prairie shyness that 21st century dancers might not have encountered.
     "The other thing you got to work on is your hesitation," she tells McClintock. "It has to be much more big and decisive. 'Shall I? No, no. Yes!' It has to be clear as day, because otherwise ... this is not fast. This is yes, yes, yes, yes ..." De Lappe rises on her toes, a bit more with each "yes," then collapses and turns away at "no!"
     "You're a little bit undecided, so I think you should look down, and then change your mind. It's just a moment. And then go with that."
     While often emphatic, she is never harsh. There is no yelling.
     "Agnes never screamed," she says during a break. "She might be very forceful and very direct. But I never saw her get publicly angry."
     De Lappe's comments are peppered with dazzling smiles, ready praise and big hugs. She points out that David Adam Moore, who made his house debut at Lyric earlier this season as the brutish Stanley in "A Streetcar Named Desire," is even better in "Oklahoma!" than movie star Rod Steiger was as the menacing Jud Fry, because he has the handsomeness that would attract Laurey (he also has the physical prowess to dance Jud in the dream ballet, a part usually filled by another performer).
     This rehearsal goes on for three hours, with only the briefest of breaks. De Lappe's energy and focus never lag. Anyone who ever danced has to wonder how de Lappe has reached 91 uninjured, when many dancers a third her age find themselves hobbled.
     "They didn't force extensions and splits," she explains. "They didn't overstretch the body, like they do now."

   That's why her body is agile—that and her daily exercises—to the astonishment of dancers in the troupe, who have come into the rehearsal room to find her stretching on the barre.
     But how does she keep a fresh view of material she has worked with for nearly 70 years?
     "Well, first of all, it's very good material," she says.
     While de Lappe is trying to keep faithful to the original intent, she also understands that it must bear the imprint of whoever is performing.
     "As close to the same as possible within the freedom of the actor or dancer," she says. "You can't get a cookie-cutter copy. That has no life. You have to find the inner life of the performer and use that."
     Toward the end of the rehearsal, McClintock and Hanna run through the part they've been working on for hours, until suddenly it clicks: a smooth, frantic, graceful, hauntingly beautiful, complex yet seamless dance that brings to mind something Walter Kerr wrote after seeing de Lappe's choreography of a 1969 revival of "Oklahoma!"
     "Miss de Mille has been fortunate in having Gemze de Lappe to remember for her on this occasion. Miss de Lappe was one of the loveliest lead dancers Miss de Mille ever gave us, and the loveliness lingers in the sweetness and the shining respect with which she has restaged the numbers here."
     Yes, precisely, a fidelity to the past that nevertheless lives in the present. "Oklahoma!" has a triple history— a Prairie period piece created in the 1940s and staged in 2013, a large landscape populated with larger loves, sweetness with an undercurrent of eroticism and evil. Among the greatest American musicals, rarely performed on a stage dominated by European opera, it's the first musical where dance truly leapt into the spotlight.

                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 28, 2013


  1. Lovely piece - missed it the first time.

  2. Beautiful writing, beautiful story, an important snapshot of a moment in history.

  3. Never thought of Oklahoma as anything more than a piece of fluffy fun. Now I know better. Thanks, Neil.



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