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On Broadway: can Fosse's Sweet Charity still lure audiences without his signature choreography?

Iconic. Iconic. Iconic. No matter whom you ask about Bob Fosse's choreography for tire original production of Sweet Charity, that word will come up--particularly in relation to "Big Spender," the, er, iconic number in which the taxi dancers of the Fan-Dango Ballroom, brazenly draped over a barre, display their, er, charms in hopes of snagging a patron for the evening.

The show, with a book by Neil Simon and a score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, was based on the classic Federico Fellini movie Nights of Cabiria. It replaced Fellini's waif-like Italian prostitute with the equally waif-like New York taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine, whose day-to-day existence is sketched out right at the top of the show:
 The minute you walked in the joint,
 I could tell you were a man of distinction,
 A real big spender.

It was an archetypal Fosse number--maybe the archetypal Fosse number: bold, stylized, sultry, and just this side of indecent. Once seen, it's not forgotten.

Which is precisely the problem.

Having agreed to do new choreography for this month's Broadway revival, with Christina Applegate as Charity and Denis O'Hare as the milquetoast who falls for her, Wayne Cilento had to find a way to refashion it. "If we were going to give this show a new life," he says, "how do we change it without being disrespectful? How do I do my thing while keeping the flavor and the feeling of what it was?"

He's not the first to deal with the issue. Every time producers decide to revive a musical, whether great or merely good, they must also decide whether to redo its dance numbers. Everything else about a show--its score, its book, its staging--may be fiddled with; but its choreography can be thrown out entirely, even when the dances are its most identifiable elements. We don't bat an eye nowadays when someone decides to refashion The Nutcracker. But it was a lot harder to imagine Wayne Cilento rechoreographing "Big Spender." Even for Wayne Cilento.

At an open rehearsal a few months before the show's April 21 opening, as packs of photographers snapped away, the Fan-Dango girls, circa 2005, offered the press a clue. Instead of a barre spanning file stage, there was a circular settee in the center. Instead of a constructed-for-the-stage artificiality, there was the feel of women and men sizing each other up in an actual dance hall. And every now and then, a cocked leg or a splayed hand recalled the Fosse original--as did the music.

At first, Cilento says, he had wanted new dance arrangements. "The original arrangements are so specific to the Fosse feel, and his dynamics," he says. "I've danced for him--I can second-guess it. The music was screaming out what the choreography was." But when he started working with his arranger, he says, he came to a disconcerting realization: "Not only was tire choreography iconic, but so was the music." He worried that audiences would feel they weren't getting Sweet Charity if they didn't hear the original arrangements, and he decided wholesale changes would be a mistake. That meant he would be trying to fit new steps to music designed for Fosse's.

Overcoming his hesitations, he started with the celebratory "I'm a Brass Band." "I liked how that fell together," he says, and it gave him the confidence to tackle "Rich Man's Frug" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now." Each number, he found, posed its own challenges. "Friends," for example, was designed to show off "the quirky little pops and beats" of the show's original star, Gwen Verdon. "We kept the structure," Cilento says, "but we played around with how Christina moved and what she would do." Finally, having found a way into the other major numbers, he says, "I had to get to 'Big Spender.' It was almost like being in denial."

Cilento had decided not to do any research into the original production, but he knew perfectly well what he had to contend with. "How do you do the number without the barre?" he wondered. With the director, Walter Bobbie, he decided to stop worrying about the number per se. They opted to "talk about what the show is doing instead. In the original, I don't think you ever felt you were in that environment--girls dancing with guys." Having decided to go for a more naturalistic "Big Spender," he toyed with the idea of bringing in a barre at the end, "to give the audience that satisfaction, that 'Oh, thank God!' moment." Ultimately, he went with a finale that pays homage to the barre without actually using it.

Cilento, a 55-year-old New York native, first attracted attention in the original cast of A Chorus Line, playing the guy who follows his sister to dancing school and sings, "I Can Do That!" It's a little more daunting to look at Bob Fosse--"a god of a choreographer"--and say the same thing. Cilento admits that the assignment gave him pause. "But," he says, "even with all my fear, I thought, 'If I walk away from this because I don't think it's right to change it, they're going to get someone else to do it. If someone's going to be doing it, it should be me.' I felt I could do him justice. I went in there with total respect, hoping to come up with my own presence. If you look very closely, there's maybe one or two steps of his vocabulary woven in with mine-it's almost a collaboration between Bob and myself."

Sylviane Gold has written about theater for Newsday and The New York Times.
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Author:Gold, Sylviane
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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