Jerry Mitchell saw his first Broadway musical, The Wiz, in the late 1970s when he was still a teenager living in Paw Paw, Michigan. "As a first-time theatergoer, I'll never forget it, because it blew me away," he says. "But as a choreographer I remember leaving the theater and thinking: Those dancers were not very together today."
Nearly three decades later, Mitchell is one of the most sought-after choreographers in the Broadway theater. Last year he won a Tony Award for his work on the revival of La cage aux folles. Other recent credits include The Full Monty and Hairspray, which is playing a return engagement at the Fox Theatre this week. Next year he will make his debut as a hyphenate, director-choreographer, of the new musical Legally Blonde. "It takes a lot of balls for a producer to entrust $14 million with somebody who hasn't got a few notches on their belt," Mitchell admits. But he thinks he's ready; he's been getting ready for a long time.
He first performed onstage at age eight; by thirteen he was choreographing shows. The summer after his freshman year at Webster University, he got his Equity card by dancing at the Muny. During his sophomore year, an appearance in a Dr Pepper commercial paid enough to allow him to visit New York for spring break. While there he auditioned for the legendary Agnes de Mille and was cast in her revival of Brigadoon. He never looked back except to study the steps of the dancers in the line behind him.
"During rehearsals I never wasted my time waiting out in the hall," says Mitchell. "I was in there with the choreography always. I was the kind of dancer who knew everyone's part. I knew what the dancers behind me were doing. I got hired three times to be a 'swing' because I knew the total picture, not just my steps in the picture. Choreographers and directors have to be able to see the whole picture."
Despite a successful career in the theater, Mitchell didn't get his first shot as a Broadway choreographer for twenty years. Then in 1999 Mike Isaacson at Fox Theatricals hired him to choreograph You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. That was followed by The Full Monty and then the rambunctious Hairspray.
For the adaptation of the John Waters movie about a TV dance show in 1962 Baltimore, Mitchell based his choreography on five steps from that era: "The pony, the Watusi, the twist, the hully gully and I can't remember the fifth," he says. But the steps were only the beginning of the process. "The choreographer is a storyteller, just as the book writers and songwriters are storytellers," Mitchell explains. "You can use steps to set a mood and express feelings.
"Hairspray is like an old-fashioned show, but we want to tell that story without too many blackouts. It needs to move as quickly as possible, because if you put too much weight on that light story, the soufflé is going to sink. We have to keep that balloon in the air. But while trying to do that, I also bore in mind something John Waters said to me. He said, 'Jerry, this show takes place in 1962. There was a great deal of innocence in America in 1962, and after Kennedy's assassination that innocence left our culture. So you have to go back and look at how people were dancing before 1962.' What I found out was that in '62 the white kids were dancing above the hip and the black kids were dancing below the hip. So as I developed Hairspray, that's what I tried to have happen."
Mitchell points to one of the show's signature numbers, "Welcome to the 60's," as an example of how choreography evolves through rehearsals: "When Marc [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman] wrote that song, it had no bridge, it had no break. It was just Tracy and Edna, our two leading characters, singing 'Welcome to the '60s, oh, oh, oh, go, go, go.' I said to the guys, 'This is going to get very redundant. We need to take them on the journey of the black sound coming in for the first time. We need to show how that music swept this nation into a whole other phase.'
"In my research I found a record album with three girls and a guy on the cover, and I said to myself, 'What if those three girls were our Greek chorus? What if they led Tracy and Edna on this journey?' So then we started to write for those three girls. They became the Dynamites; suddenly they had a voice. And we kept building and adding on. After our tryout in Seattle, I said, 'I want the whole company out here. This is a celebration. This is a transformation of our character who has been bound up in her house for twenty years.' Now when you see the number, and they sing, 'Go Momma, go, go, go,' the house goes up in flames because we did it right."
Speaking of doing things right, what's the best choreographed musical Mitchell has ever seen?
"It will be hard for anything to top the impression that A Chorus Line made on me at age sixteen when I saw it for the first time. I saw it in Chicago the same day I auditioned to get into Webster University. I had never seen that sort of seamless integration of choreography and story and music. I immediately went home and told my dance teacher, 'I don't know what this is turn, turn, out, in, jump, step but you have to teach it to me because I have to be in that show."
Two years later he was.
Today Mitchell counsels young hopefuls to persevere and practice. "Luck is the meeting of opportunity and preparedness," he says. "I got a lot of jobs, but I was ready." As he prepares to step to the highest rung on the ladder with Legally Blonde, there's a sense that he still is.