Interview With Choreographer Darren Lee and Music Director Dan Lipton
I was fortunate enough to sit down and chat with Darren Lee, Herringbone’s choreographer, and Dan Lipton, who’s serving triple duty as music director, pianist, and performing as Thumbs Dubois. As a performer, Lee has appeared in ten Broadway shows including the 2005 revival of Pacific Overtures, for which he also served as Associate Choreographer. Most recently, he choreographed Kiss Me, Kate for the Glimmerglass Opera Festival and Miss Saigon for MUNY, which he also directed. Lipton was the original pianist for the Broadway musicals Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Full Monty. He appeared playing piano onstage in Tom Stoppard’s play The Coast of Utopia at Lincoln Center Theater. Lipton also music-directs and arranges concerts for performers including Audra McDonald, John Lloyd Young, and Kelli O’Hara.
-Patrick McKelvey, Literary Intern
Patrick: BD has said that he was immediately drawn to this piece and that he has been, in a sense, campaigning to perform it for years. I’m curious as to how you first came into the contact with Herringbone and what your initial reactions were.
Dan: [BD] called me in 1999. I’d just moved to New York in 1997, so I had barely worked yet, but I had done enough that my name got to him as a good pianist who’s kinda fearless. It’s very hard music, it’s a lot of notes: it scares people….
Darren: I had known BD socially for many years. BD had also known my work as a choreographer over that period of time and how it has progressed. He showed me the [Herringbone] material when we were doing Pacific Overtures. I thought it was incredibly unique and I thought that the music was excellent and I thought lyrically it was extremely interesting. But I really didn’t have any sort of idea of the depth, or impact, or the overall appeal, and the timeliness that this piece may have. That has been very exciting to explore since that initial reading. The script is dark and strange, and very difficult to hear in your head. All of these characters really do come to life and unfold in the actor’s performance.
Dan: The first time we did a reading of this it astounded me. It struck me as an undiscovered chestnut of awesome music. This score should definitely be heard! It doesn’t sound like it was written 25 years ago. It sounds like it could have been written yesterday. It has this old, vaudeville thing going on, but it’s also very modern, very dissonant. It’s a schizophrenic score that perfectly matches what the actor has to do. I remember it confused me the first few readings. I didn’t really know what was going on, but I got that it was deep. I got that it was challenging in that good way.
Darren: It’s very funny that way…. The [creators] worked very hard to make it a very intelligent piece of theater, both musically and in the script. We’re hoping to deliver that sort of depth because it is so built-in. It is not a fluffy musical about nothing, or a one man show where people are just entertained because he plays lots of different characters.
Patrick: Dan described Herringbone’s sound as contemporary. Roger Rees, the director, has previously discussed his fear of overplaying the vaudeville element in Herringbone. I’m wondering what you did in terms of musical direction and choreography to help alleviate Roger’s fears regarding periodization.
Dan: As far as interpreting the score, [composer Skip Kennon] is very specific in his writing. He’s very Sondheim-esque as far as every accent and every crescendo and every dynamic is all there so you don’t have to do much other than just execute it. That’s what I’ve always been coaching BD to do, stick to the ink. The ink works, and that’s rare, in theater. I think performers often have to lift the ink off the page to find things in their material. This is kind of the opposite. Anything BD does is just magnifying what’s already there.
The score sounds like the character. It doesn’t sound like 1930, it doesn’t sound like 1980 when it was written, and it doesn’t sound like 2008. It sounds like Herringbone.
Darren: From a movement standpoint, there’s a certain expectation that this is going to be told in a vaudeville vocabulary and I think we made a very large attempt to not make the parameters of our creation so narrow….We don’t have to have the exact steps that you would have on a vaudeville circuit. They’re inspired by that, but at times they’re more character driven and at times they’re even contemporary. People don’t associate, necessarily, with historical dance. They associate with the silhouette or the shape or the rhythm of something that is a pastiche or an ode to that, therefore they can access that in the contemporary world.
Dan: I think sometimes audiences are more willing to digest dark material if they have some distance from it. Setting a story with dark themes decades ago, it’s a little easier to get into because it’s not happening right now in your world. And I think we’re trying to toe that line. The story this guy’s telling takes place during the Depression, but the experience of you watching it is right now. We’re not making any apologies for that fact, no apologies that it’s 2008.
Patrick: Darren, you’ve worked as a choreographer on much larger musicals such as Thoroughly Modern Millie and Chicago, shows with huge ensemble numbers. I’m curious about your approaches to more conventional musicals and a show like Herringbone, in which there is still an ensemble, but that ensemble is embodied by a single performer. What pleasures and challenges did this opportunity offer?
Darren: In a traditional musical where you have a dance ensemble, you use that group of dancers to serve generally as metaphoric equivalent. They’re there to be the backbone, or the feeling, of the presentational aspect of a musical number. When you’re dealing with a single actor, it’s much more like staging someone’s solo in a particular show. You have to deal with the parameters under which that character would be able to move. So this show has been much more like dealing with a bunch of solos. The difficult thing about that is that you’re requiring a single actor to move not only in a bunch of styles, but as a bunch of different characters. So within a single number, BD will be dancing as a young woman and then he has to be dancing as a child. We’ve seen that done through voice and through body structure and posture. Through dance it’s the same thing. It requires a full understanding of how that one character would dance, and a full understanding of how the other characters would dance, and then the ability to switch between the two so that you show that there’s contrast. It’s both challenging and thrilling to work on a piece like this—completely different really than you would work with an ensemble.
Patrick: Dan, in addition to your responsibilities as music director, you also perform the onstage role of the pianist, Thumbs Dubois. You’ve previously mentioned the ways in which the virtuosity required of that character makes it somewhat of a sister role to Herringbone and I was hoping you might elaborate on that.
Dan: I remember the first reading we did in ‘99 and [BD] asked me to say this line and I went, “Oh—I have a line?” He has a lot more work than me, but I’m pretty much an equal partner in that there are a lot of notes, and it’s hard. For this production, I’m going to attempt to memorize it all, to get more on the tightrope with him. Luckily, I’ve been playing this music so long that it’s a little easier than something that was just put in front of me.
It’s a weird mix of getting all the notes down, but then I’m also actually playing two characters onstage during the play. I’m in a costume, I have a few lines, and I have to react to him. Even when I’m playing some really complex passage, I sometimes have to look up and connect with him. I’m not a trained actor, but I happen to have fallen into a groove now where I perform a lot onstage. I’ve done gigs in Broadway pits where no one sees you, so it seems like less is at stake. Being so visible here, there’s a lot more weight on my shoulders and that’s why its fun.
Patrick: You were both involved with a previous incarnation of Herringbone at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Can you talk specifically about what you learned from doing the show at Williamstown and what we might be able to expect to be different for the production at McCarter?
Darren: The Williamstown production was, in many ways, BD’s way of saying “Look: This thing that I’ve been championing for a really long time has value, and it has a voice, and it has a point of view, and it has timelessness.” I think we did our best in the time that was allotted to be true to the material and to present the best version of what it was going to be. I think what I learned from that production was that we are no longer in the position to [have to] prove that the show is valid or that the show can be done or that the show has something to say. Now we are in this wonderful position, especially in the production that McCarter’s going to be able to allow, to take elements that can be creatively enhanced technically, or look at things that didn’t quite land and analyze what we can do to make it better. One of the largest things that we’ve tried to accomplish in this particular production is to understand for BD why he needs to tell this story. I mean, there’s a real reason why he’s held on for this long and there’s a real reason why it means something to him. It’s taken him a bit of time to do the work to flesh out what that is. To take that sheer idea, to integrate it directly into the show itself, has been something really thrilling and really exciting. It is the essence of theater. It’s why you do it, it’s why you do it at the time you do it, with the people you do it with, and the vocabulary you do it with.
Dan: Williamstown last year was an eye-opener because I’d done so many readings of it before and those were just me and him in a room, and finally, “Oh my god, I have bass and drums! Wow, we have lights! Wow, we have costumes! This is an actual show, it’s not just in my head anymore.” But now with the support that McCarter has provided, as far as the budget and the stagecraft that we’re able to do here in a larger space, and the fact that we have this amazing design team of all Tony-winning Broadway designers, it opens the whole thing up. Williamstown was more like a simple blackbox production.
Darren: To me, the benefit of having done it completely bare-bones, is that when you decide to add something, when you decide to go with a technical choice, you make that decision very carefully, with a lot of knowledge. We know the show works in a very simple form, so we know that that is gold. We know not to mess with that that much. We know that if we are to add technical items to the show, things that cost money, it is not to draw attention to the fact that this is a higher tech version of the show, it is to use those elements to enhance the story in a way that just makes it better, more accessible.Dan: It might be worth mentioning, I think, that this will be the most elaborate production this show has ever received. The original production at Playwrights’ Horizons was tiny. The McCarter is the biggest space it’s probably ever played. We have an actor who has lived with this piece for decades. This degree of craft and how sharp these characters are drawn is stuff that he’s worked on, maybe just subconsciously, but since he first saw the original production in 1981. You’re going to get the real, fullest realization of this thing anybody has ever seen.