It was still early in the 2016-17 Broadway season, during September previews of Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical at Studio 54, that a musical number emerged as an instant classic of the musical comedy form. That roar you hear every night from midtown is the wild response to the company vivaciously tap-dancing while jumping rope — rope ornamented to look like Christmas garland — and singing Irving Berlin’s “Shaking the Blues Away.” Choreographer Denis Jones is the man who gave the cast enough rope for the production number — surely the high point of theatrical musical joy this fall.
Watch a portion of “Shaking the Blues Away” here and see that the jump rope number includes one long central jump rope into which three dancers leap and tap together, plus a number of shorter ropes for solo jumpers.
Check out a montage of numbers from Holiday Inn here.
Of Jones’ work on the show, which was first developed at Goodspeed Opera House and then at the Muny in St. Louis, Variety raved: “Choreographer Denis Jones is the star player of the production, keeping things playful by finding dance opportunities with wheelbarrows, firecrackers and Christmas garlands…”
Jones, long known and respected as a Broadway dancer, dance captain and an associate of director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, answered my questions about now ascending to the role of choreographer — first regionally and then on Broadway with Honeymoon in Vegas and now Holiday Inn — and how he built numbers in the latter show, which is directed by Gordon Greenberg, with a book by Greenberg and Chad Hodge. (It’s a revamp of the 1942 Fred Astaire-Bing Crosby picture, which begat Berlin’s “White Christmas” and “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.”)
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway production continues to Jan. 15, 2017.
By the way, despite our shared surname, I am not related to Denis Jones. (Except that we both have good taste.)
Let’s start by talking about the number that everyone talks about — that surprising “Shaking the Blues Away.” Take me back to the beginning: How did jumping rope emerge as a central idea?
Denis Jones: When I started working on “Shaking the Blues Away” for the Goodspeed Opera House production a couple of years ago, the only stage direction in the script was something like “Louise and Jim’s friends decorate for Christmas.” My first thought was, well, what would be in the room? Wreaths, Christmas ornaments, garland, etc. So I sent my associate to the hardware store to get some rope and we started there. I had a strong feeling of what the rhythm of the rope hitting the ground should be but then it was a bit of a process to figure out the tap rhythms inside of that. The idea started with just the two women jumping but a very ambitious dancer who was working with us wanted to get in on the fun and jumped in the middle, so it became a two into three dancer sequence which gave the moment a better build.
When we were doing the production up at Goodspeed, I checked in on the production well after it had opened and at that performance — something that rarely happens, but, you know, accidents happen — one of the dancers tripped on the rope and the moment fell apart. That’s when I thought that — as an insurance policy, should that ever happen again — I should follow up that moment with a group of dancers tapping with the single jump ropes. The margin of error is much smaller with the singles and it would be a dynamic follow-up if the first idea went wrong. I’m grateful that the rope got screwed up that night. Mistakes can be helpful. I think the single jump ropes help the whole sequence grow in size.
One of the things I love about the choreography in that number is that the idea of playing with garlands appears improvised: the “kids” are decorating an old country house and the rope garland “accidentally” unspools from a box, seemingly by mistake. And they decide to “play.” It makes it all seem organic and on the spot, rather than manufactured. Can you talk about that idea?
Denis Jones: For a number like “Shaking,” I felt like the whole thing wanted to feel unplanned; that each moment should seem spontaneous. This starts with the actor running down the stairs carrying a crate announcing “Tap shoes!” In an earlier number in the act, “Blue Skies,” Jim’s friends help him move all of his belongings from New York to the inn in Connecticut, which includes a box marked “tap shoes.” I’m pretty sure nobody in the audience notices this. I really just did it for myself to justify the box being there. Anyway, shoes start flying and we see the dancers putting them on. My sense of this is there’s something about actually seeing the actors changing their shoes onstage, not the most graceful action, that helps starting the dance seem like an improvised event, as opposed to everyone just arriving at Jim’s house in tap shoes, which really makes no sense. I love to tap but I don’t wear my tap shoes when I show up a Christmas parties.
Louise, who works at the farm, who I saw no logic in having tap shoes, comes in with two buckets on her feet, like buckets you’d milk a cow with that she grabbed from the barn. Then the guys put the Christmas wreaths on the ladies like tutus. Each of these events, I hope, add to the feeling that the characters are, in real time, just grabbing what’s in the room and goofing around. Same goes with the Christmas garland. It unspools from the crate it’s in because one of the actors “happens” to be standing on one end of it. Once it’s on the floor, two guys “happen” to pick it up at the same time and get the idea to start swinging it while two women see this, look at each other and decide to run in and start jumping. I talked about this a lot with the dancers while we were working on the number: the importance of eye contact with one another so the audience is tracking the characters getting the ideas and then acting on them.
Obviously, the audience knows that this has all been rehearsed but, hopefully, they can feel like it’s all happening for the first time. I find when I’m watching shows there’s quite a difference between what I know and what I feel.
Because dancing is about beats and counting, is the jumping rope “natural” or difficult for dancers?
Denis Jones: I think the jump-rope tapping is one of those “you either got it or you ain’t” situations. It’s kinda hard. When we started rehearsals, we taught it to the full ensemble without the pressure of having to get it right. I told them, “Not everyone would be doing it and if it’s not your thing, no worries, there’s plenty to do in the number and I’ll just have you do something else in it.” It did turn into one of those things that the people who were into it were often doing it on their breaks to get it right. You give dancers a physical challenge and they are wired to rise to the occasion. And I think they enjoy it.
Did you have to go through many different weights of “rope” before figuring out which looked and sounded the best? Does the duty of finding the right garland fall to the props department? Up close, what’s the ornamentation on it? Little bulbs? Little gift packages?
Denis Jones: The rope has had a few different design iterations which was the creation of the team of props designers. I wanted something that made a loud crack when it hits the deck so it’s made of very dense plastic beads that look like popcorn and cranberries, which don’t break — except when they do. When we rehearsed it and the cast heard it the first time, everyone was a little startled because it’s really loud. With the orchestration it’s totally what it should be, but in a studio with just the piano it’s a little terrifying. Also when you see the garland up close, it’s pretty ugly. You’d never hang it on your tree. But in motion, it works nicely.
What did you learn at Goodspeed, and what grew or expanded, choreographically, once you moved to Broadway — either in that number or elsewhere in the show?
Denis Jones: Quite a bit of the choreography has changed since Goodspeed. I’d say probably 75 percent of it. Four songs were cut and one was added, for starters. “Plenty To Be Thankful For,” the Thanksgiving number, for a time was a tap number, which didn’t feel right. “Heat Wave” was four guys with Lila in a Carmen Miranda outfit. Also didn’t feel right. “Blue Skies” got a total overhaul. The number used to be more about Jim and his friends getting from New York to Connecticut, via a whole tapping train sequence but then I saw Shuffle Along which had a masterful first-act showstopper in the travel/tapping/train world and I kinda thought, “Well, I guess that idea is pretty much off the table.” Now the number is more about offloading Jim’s stuff — box of tap shoes! anyone? — and getting it into the inn. “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers,” now that we have the benefit of explosions built into the deck, is a rather different event as well.
I sometimes see shows with choreography where it’s clear that somebody doesn’t know how to “build” a number toward a satisfying climax — that old idea that you want to top yourself throughout a number, when appropriate. Do you love the puzzle of building a number toward a climax?
Denis Jones: I do enjoy the puzzle. Certainly it helps when you are working with an amazing song like “Shaking the Blues Away.” The puzzle pieces sometime take a while to form. The sequence in the song when the men are dancing with the ball ornaments has had a few versions — one up at Goodspeed where the guys danced with them as if they were very fragile and then at the end they bounce them on the floor. “Haha, they’re actually rubber! Get it?” The audience didn’t. Midway through the rehearsal period for Broadway, when I was planning a version where that sequence becomes a baseball game — another idea for which my enthusiasm was limited — I found out that Bryce Pinkham, who plays Jim, was a juggler and everything all of a sudden made sense to me. Guys dance in with the balls, Jim enters eating an apple, they toss balls to him, he juggles while they tap, he bites the apple on count seven. Boom. Done. Moving on. I think the number benefits from a series of ideas that, I hope, don’t overstay their welcome. I watched it the other night and I would actually cut a couple bars if I could. I think the build is helped by the sequences becoming more and more impressive. Audiences seem to really respond to the jump rope, but I think it benefits from following the number of events that precede it. If the number was all jump rope, I worry that people might get sick of it.
Beyond the signature jump rope number of Holiday Inn, can you point to one or two moments in the show that you’re proud of that people might not necessarily be hyper-aware of? A delicious little turn?
Denis Jones: I have a number of guilty pleasures in Holiday Inn. Who knows if the audience is with me on these, but they certainly give me a chuckle. Lila’s entrance in “Heat Wave” was something I totally took a cue from Mr. Berlin on. The first lyric is “A heatwave blew right into town last week” and I thought, oh, we should blow her onstage somehow, like if you were in a windstorm and a newspaper out of nowhere smacks you in the face. Splat. It’s a cartoon idea. We tried a couple versions in the studio, including throwing her from the wings, terrible idea, and then Megan Sikora, who plays Lila, suggested she bring in her trampoline, which she now bounces off of in the wings to land on Corbin Bleu, who plays Ted. The beauty of collaboration.
I also like — and nobody in the world would ever get this — in “Plenty To Be Thankful For,” the women are dressed like turkeys and, during the radio announcer’s speech, the guys, dressed as pilgrims, lift the turkeys on their shoulders and rotate them, as they flap their tiny turkey wings. I feel like if a turkey could dream, that dream would be to fly. Do you think turkeys dream? I don’t know, but seems like a bummer to be a bird who doesn’t fly. Anyway, the turkeys at Holiday Inn seem very happy to take flight.
Oh wait, one more. I call it the “Louise drive-by.” It’s in “You’re Easy to Dance With” in the second act. Louise, who thinks she has already had her dance audition within the number, randomly, gets spun in and out of Corbin’s arms, from one wing to the other. And she has a look on her face of “Why am I still in this number?” Makes me laugh every time. Also because Megan Lawrence, who plays Louise, is just hilarious in general.
I know of actors who say they are happiest in the process when they are in rehearsal figuring it out. What’s the happiest part of your process? Alone with associates in pre-production? Rehearsal? Watching a show?
Denis Jones: I pretty much love every step of the process, except, weirdly, opening night because that’s the moment when I’m officially rendered irrelevant. If I could spend every day of my life in rehearsal, I’d be happy. I do think, though, my favorite step is preproduction before rehearsals start. That’s when it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong, if ideas are good or bad. Doesn’t matter. It’s just freeform exploration with no pressure. Good ideas can emerge from terrible ones; solutions can reveal themselves when you are just jumping around acting like an idiot. And no decisions are final. I like that.
Can you share a little about your collaboration with the Holiday Inn dance arranger? Before you even create a step, do you have a piano arrangement of what the dance will be?
Denis Jones: I believe creating dance arrangements and choreography, under the best circumstances, should happen simultaneously. The way Sam Davis, our brilliant dance arranger, and I worked was I would talk to him about an idea for a section, he would start playing and we would arrive at what we thought the length of said section might be. Then I would start to set choreography on my associates while Sam would continue to bend, accent and structure melodies to support the movement. I often got ideas for choreography from Sam improvising on the piano, also. He’s a crazy genius on the keys. This process of the two of us marrying the music and the movement continued right up until opening night.
Is there a number you loved, that you choreographed and was staged, that ended up getting cut? Share a little?
Denis Jones: There was this great little section of “Plenty To Be Thankful For” when the number was tap. It was a “nerve tap” sequence — nerve tap being when the foot is making rapid-fire sounds with very little other body movement. Almost stillness. A bit of an homage to Ann Miller. I just loved it. But sometimes you gotta take one for the team. Sorry, nerve tap. I’ll put you in another show.
Take me back to you being a kid: Where did you grow up and what was your exposure to the arts and the musicals? Touring shows? Community theater? Movie musicals? Did you perform in high school?
Denis Jones: I grew up in San Francisco and was very much a theater kid from my earliest memories, rounding up the neighborhood kids to be in plays in the back yard, forcing my family to watch my magic shows, puppet shows — the works. Knowing I’d probably be into it, my father took me so see “Singin’ in the Rain,” which had been a favorite movie of his as a kid, and that was it — I wanted to be Gene Kelly. I started tap lessons and drama classes at A.C.T. and from that point on pretty much never imagined a life that wasn’t showbiz. Did all the shows at my school, and also was an imported male to do the shows at the neighboring Catholic girls school. That way I could rehearse two shows simultaneously — fancy. I did community theater, professional theater, commercials, all of it. Went to NYU, acting major, tours, one-nighters in 41 states, Equity card, yay! First Broadway show at 24, did five, two more as Jerry Mitchell’s associate, and here we are. I consider myself very fortunate to have made a life in this business on a path that definitely wasn’t all that mapped out. Half the battle is just sticking around. You gotta play the long game.
What’s coming up for you? Are you offered directing gigs? Do you feel it’s the next step for you?
Denis Jones: I have a number of projects I’m looking forward to in the new year, many of which I’m directing and choreographing, starting with Thoroughly Modern Millie back up at Goodspeed. I have been doing more of both recently. When I first started, I was worried that it might feel a little lonely [doing both direction and choreography], because I love being hand in hand with a great director figuring things out together. Gordon Greenberg, the director of Holiday Inn, and I have had a fantastic time working on the show together. But the fact is, no matter what your job title is, it’s all about collaboration. With the actors, designers, producers, dance associates, music team, etc. You are all holding hands and taking the leap together. Not lonely at all.
Read my 2003 interview with Gordon Greenberg, who also created the new musical Stars of David.