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NEW YORK — Susan Stroman has made her fair share of theater history. Though it didn’t feature any singing, “Contact,” a dance play she conceived and directed in 2000, won the Tony for Best Musical and paved the way for “Moving Out.” Stroman rechoreographed Agnes de Mille’s work in last year’s Broadway production of “Oklahoma” and she directed and choreographed “The Producers,” which won 12 Tonys, the most of any show ever.
So when the New York City Ballet commissioned a full-length ballet from her for its yearlong celebration of the centennial of Balanchine’s birth, Stroman jumped at the challenge. “Most people know Balanchine as a classical ballet choreographer,” she explains in a conference room deep in the bowels of Lincoln Center. “But I know him because of his link to the theater. I first saw his work in a revival of ‘On Your Toes’ and I followed him up here to ‘The Nutcracker.’”
“Double Feature,” which runs for seven performances beginning next week, is a full evening of Stroman’s work that combines silent film, classical ballet and musical theater. It begins with the sound of a projector, a strobe light and the entrance of 16 dancers in Louise Brooks wigs. “I initially started out to do a full-length ballet, but I couldn’t decide if I should do a melodrama or a comedy, so I did both,” Stroman says. The first act, “The Blue Necklace,” is the melodrama, and it features Irving Berlin music and “like in any good silent film,” she adds, “someone leaves a baby in an alleyway.” The second act, “Makin’ Whoopee!” is a screwball comedy about a man with a commitment problem who has to get married in order to inherit money from his uncle.
“The closest thing to a silent film is the ballet,” Stroman explains. “And I love silent films. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were both extraordinary dancers with great control over their bodies. They told stories through movement, and that’s what I do. I am a writer of dance. Everything I do is narrative. ”
With NYCB, Stroman has access to 60 dancers and a 64-piece orchestra, whereas Broadway musicals are on a much smaller scale. “And in the theater, because you have to be a jack of all trades, you might tweak a dance for the performers,” Stroman says. “Here, the dancers are able to do everything. They fly through the air and they stay up there.” At the same time, Stroman is used to longer runs and rehearsal periods. “But that’s their world, and I came in with a game plan.”
After the ballet premieres, Stroman is off to direct a production of Stephen Sondheim’s little-seen “The Frogs,” with Nathan Lane at the Vivian Beaumont, and then onto an even bigger leap: bringing “The Producers,” with Lane and Matthew Broderick, to the screen in 2005, a deal that was just finalized last week. “This is going to be my first movie to helm and it’s a pretty big one,” Stroman says, grabbing her hair like the Bride of Frankenstein to show the anxiety. “But I do understand Mel Brooks’ comedy and I’m not terrified. I’m excited. The whole show always makes history somehow. It’s this living, breathing piece of art.”
And in the next few weeks, she’ll be making appearances on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to help Larry David get into the character of Max Bialystock. “Larry David does all the choreography. You’ll see,” Stroman says. “Sometimes it’s hard to go back and watch the shows I’ve done again and again. But with ‘The Producers,’ I’m always laughing at the same jokes I’ve always laughed at.”
As for abandoning the theater for greener pastures on the West Coast, don’t count on it. She has lots of other projects in the works, but can’t really talk about them yet. “I love the theater so much, but I also love the idea of entering another medium. Even coming up to the New York City Ballet opened my mind to new ideas,” Stroman explains. “I’m always remembering that there’s not only one way to direct something, and to not always take the clichéd route.”