The Sister Act and Its Comparison to the Broadway Version

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Within the production of ‘Sister Act’ performed by University Centre Weston, I received the secondary role of Assistant Choreographer as well as ‘Sister Mary Lazarus’. Before the rehearsals began, I researched the role of a Choreographer to help with the creative process. On a theoretic level of a Choreographer, the style of the musical must be decided consequent to the terms of the “script interpretation, stage direction, music direction, choreography, casting, scenery, costumes, lighting and props”(Berkson, 1990). The Director supplies the image, who provides guidelines for the idiosyncrasy in which the musical will be presented. From this, the Choreographers job is to use the information and therefore essentially becomes an “expert on the body movement” (Berkson, 1990). The primary function for the Choreographer is “defining and suppling the specialised movement needed for the entire production”(Berkson, 1990), creating a piece of work that intrigues including what works for the musical content, looking at the effective use of the numerous individuals on stage. It is the Choreographer’s job to find what the motivation is, to make a statement that “advances the dramatic line and enhances audience interest”(Berkson, 1990), but also take into account the possibilities also the restrictions of the surrounding physical realities, such as the performers ability for example.

The Choreographer together with the Director are almost virtually indistinguishable, however the Choreographer translates certain “visual aspects of the Directors concept into physical realities”(Berkson, 1990). Within the rehearsal as well as the creative period, the Director Ged Stephenson including myself met up to elucidate what was necessary for the number ‘Long Black Dress’. We discussed the concept of the song including what Ged wanted from the piece, which was to look at the 1970s music such as Marvin Gaye. Using this information, inspired me to make the 3 characters seem self indulged within themselves. I also looked for the choreographic clues within the Sister Act script including taking into account of the staging already placed.

Observing and comparing my choreography to the Broadway production, performed on January 31st, 2012, I found that my work was slightly similar, such as Joey kneeling down and embracing the floor and walking his fingers up his thigh. However I noticed the Broadway Production, they paid more attention to smaller choreographic detail, for example grabbing onto their collars and simply at the same time looking right, which I couldn’t use due to the mixed cast, as some were less confident dancers as well as copyright. The gestures used in the Broadway Production were clearly perceived from great distance, meaning that every member of the audience was able to identify it. They were delivered and executed precisely without movements appearing stiff, however in the UCW production, the cast members who performed in “Long Black Dress” appeared stiff in some movements, yet it worked as it suited their portrayal of character, even though that it wasn’t choreographed to be stiff.

Another difference with both choreographic pieces was the use of lines and floor patterns. Myself used diagonal lines to show dimension on stage, as well has making sure the audience members had a clear view to see all performers. I gained this intention by observing the script where various ideas came into place which matched to a given word or phrase. Alternately in the Broadway production, the performers were staged horizontal, which one thought was slightly uninteresting. The diagonal floor pattern worked well with what was on stage, as I had to compromise with certain props and the way the stage was laid out.

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Within rehearsals I made sure that the setting of the rehearsal room was comfortable, constructive atmosphere, as this is included in my role as the Choreographer as I “must help the dancers grasp the material as quickly as possible”(Berkson, 1990), but still bearing in mind that due to the time limit, this could lead to nervousness of the cast, notably those with little dance experience, which two out of the three cast members within this song lacked. To overcome this I had the help of the dance captain who worked with the boys, who lacked dance experience in their own spare time.

The challenges I had to face was the casts’ lack of experience in dance and the staging for the dances as the lay out of the stage in rehearsals was completely different to how it was laid out in the theatre. Preferably in a professional show and not amateur, the rehearsal space should have been measured to the correct scale of the stage of the theatre as well as where certain props and staging would have been placed. If this was done correctly, when the cast, crew and creative team arrived to the theatre, time would not have been wasted mapping and changing choreography on opening night. I found having members of the cast who are not experienced dancers, were unable to pick up these changes quickly and confidently for the opening night, which highlighted areas for improvement and fluidity for the next rehearsal.

Working with Joe Miller was a very interesting encounter. I raised a question about what was his intention was in ‘Bless our Show’ as, unlike ‘Long Black Dress’ I did not choreograph this, I simply just added a few gestures to bring out the characters in the musical number. Joe Miller’s intention came from his own private opinion when he saw the UK tour in Bristol. He reflected how the lack of dance was due to the “cast being the orchestra”(Miller, 2017) and how he wanted to make the UCW production his “own” (Miller, 2017) and give Sister Act the “full dance capacity” (Miller, 2017) as the “more dance a musical has the better”(Miller, 2017). Within our interview, I asked Miller what he did in advance to the rehearsals and the process he took. As Miller wanted to make the musical his own incorporating his own style and his dance background, he decided to add tap into one of the dances. In the production of ‘Bless our show’ performed on Broadway April 2nd 2011, the style of tap was not incorporated in the musical number at all, however in the UCW production, Joe Miller added tap to the dance break because “why not” (Miller, 2017). Miller thought it would be “more fun to see a tap dancing nun” (Miller, 2017) and because there is “not a lot to do with nuns” (Miller, 2017) it was something to bring a “wow factor” (Miller, 2017). To make this number successful, Miller focused on the main characters such as Mary Patrick. He choreographed Mary Patrick to start the tap off as it shown her “quirkiness” (Miller, 2017) as the “crazy nun” (Miller, 2017), and then made her encourage the rest of the nuns to join in. In the Broadway production the nuns simply freestyle and a few do a cartwheels to show their excitement in the dance break. Deloris, in this production, simply looks around admiring how much liveliness she has bought to the nunnery. The UCW production performed something similar. Personally I believe that the version UCW did worked a lot better for the musical, however Miller would have liked the dance break to be “extended by the Musical Director”(Miller, 2017).

Throughout the whole experience and process of Sister Act, I personally would have preferred if the cast members came to practice with clothing similar to their costumes as “dancers usually rehearse in their most comfortable clothes” (Rickett-Young, 1996) and when they are “suddenly dressed in an unfamiliar costumes, their whole sense of movement may change” (Rickett-Young, 1996). I would have also preferred if the props used in certain dance numbers were made clear so there are no obstructions when it came to the full dress rehearsals as this became very difficult to modify with the amount of time left before the show run began.

If this was a professional production of Sister Act I would have taken into consideration on how many numbers were dance based and therefore casted the show based on a performers ability to dance. I would have evaluated the candidates by their technical ability, speed of learning, grasp of dynamics and their attitude towards the work and others, as I suspect the attitude of a cast member can latter the quality of the performance as well as the rehearsal period. I believe an improvement I can take from my experience being Assistant Choreographer for Sister Act would be the way one approaches others. In many rehearsals I became very hot headed and annoyed easily with the mix cast, as many were not disciplined to the correct manner that a Professional Show should be and therefore I should have been more assertive towards the group. Overall I have enjoyed my experience in Sister Act and will take on board what I have learnt.

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