'Carousel' choreographer tells a story with dance

Choreographer Parker Esse, center, and his assistant Jessica Hartman, right, work with Sam Rogers, left, as the cast of the Goodspeed production of 'Carousel' rehearses on  July 5.
Choreographer Parker Esse, center, and his assistant Jessica Hartman, right, work with Sam Rogers, left, as the cast of the Goodspeed production of "Carousel" rehearses on July 5.

Choreographer Parker Esse won much acclaim and a coveted Helen Hayes Award for his work on the "Oklahoma!" revival at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Now, he's taking on another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic - "Carousel."

Esse has created the choreography for the production at Goodspeed Opera House. It's a return visit for him, since he had been assistant choreographer on "Babes in Arms" and associate director and choreographer for "Lucky Guy."

Esse's dancing days date back to when he was 6 years old, growing up in Houston. When he was in high school, he did summer stock shows every summer in Galveston.

A year after graduating from NYU's Cap 21 musical theater conservatory, he was hired for "Fosse" on Broadway. He performed in the show for two years and then moved on to such productions as "Swing." He eventually realized he loved a choreographer's creative process and segued into that work.

He says he tends to do a lot of "athletic, grounded, physical" choreography. Beyond that, though, he wants his choreography "grounded in truth." Meaning, for instance, that the movements for the men in Goodspeed's "Carousel" are "very masculine, because these (characters are) fishermen and strong men; they work very hard."

"Carousel," which debuted in 1945, was groundbreaking in its willingness to deal with darker subjects than musicals previously had. Carnival barker Billy Bigelow and mill worker Julie Jordan fall in love, although his temper is an issue; he hits her at one point. They are expecting a baby, and, in dire need of money, Billy takes part in a robbery and dies during the heist. Fifteen years later, he's allowed to come back to Earth for one day to atone, and he sees that his now-teenaged daughter, Louise, is an outcast because of her father's criminal past.

During a break in rehearsals, Esse talked about his work on "Carousel."

Esse spoke with director Rob Ruggiero about the vision and the choreography for "Carousel":

"He and I had so many talks early on about realism and the fact that any time there's movement or dance in the show, it comes from truth. It's all story-based. So it never looks like Rob's work left off, I started mine, and then we got back to the script. It's all the same story, it's all the same vision. ...

"Every time I construct a musical number, I think about that. I storyboard the entire song, from beginning to end. The music itself speaks to me. What an amazing score to work with. With Rodgers and Hammerstein's music, the storytelling is in the music. If I listen to it enough and I feel where the music changes dynamically, it tells me where the vision of one section to the next is."

While "Carousel" has its share of humor, it also has a powerful message:

"It's about redemption and second chances and love. I think it's a story about two damaged people that want to love each other and have such a difficult time getting beyond their obstacles, their damaged selves. It takes Billy dying for Julie to say, 'I love you.' ... There's something heartbreaking about it, but there's also something promising about it, that even Billy, as damaged of a soul as he was when he was on Earth, he still has redeeming qualities. The message we're left with at the end of the show is: move on. There is a brighter tomorrow, and there's hope."

One of "Carousel's" famous features is the ballet at the start of act two:

"We've jumped 15 years when we meet Louise. It's my job to show how she relates to the community after Billy's gone. ... It's a nine-minute ballet where I have to take the audience through this journey, all the colors of Louise and how she's treated by different people. ...

"The parallel I wanted to create is, Billy sees how she's being (mis)treated by the community. He's seeing himself in Louise. 'Gosh, it's happening to her, too. I can't let this happen.' ... He feels responsible."

Esse didn't want to merely recreate the iconic choreography Agnes de Mille did for the original "Carousel," just as he didn't when working on a revival of "Oklahoma," whose first production de Mille choreographed:

"The beautiful thing about Agnes is she paved the way as far as storytelling in musical theater. If you look at 'Oklahoma' and 'Carousel,' it's clear dance was being accepted as a way of furthering the plot in a musical. ... As far as her style of choreography, that was hers. It was amazing. But I've been given an opportunity to do my own work here and create my own style with the show. It's been very nice to have that opportunity."

As a peek into how Esse creates choreography, here is how he devised the dance for "June Is Busting Out All Over":

"I wanted to create a feeling of tension and the hormones rushing with the men and women. Because it's that time, when the flowers are blooming. The men, it's been five, six weeks since they've seen the women, and now it's starting to warm up, and the women have been longing for the men. That's the undercurrent through that entire number. So when I shaped that number, I wanted the audience to feel that - that bubbling attraction between the men and the women.

"I chose found objects on stage. I chose the chairs already onstage with Nettie's cafe, and I use them within the dance to create an almost cat-and-mouse kind of play between the men and women. It's what I call the chair dance. It's really the men chasing the girls, and the girls playing hard to get. Even though they're playing hard to get, they want the guys to kiss them and sweep them off their feet. ...

"(For one) couple, he really wants to impress this girl. He puts her front and center and does a series of turns, doubting that he'll be able to really pull it off but just going for it. 'I'm going to go for it, honey, this is for you!' He starts turning and then he realizes, it's going okay. Then he does another set, and it gets more complicated. He does a third set, and it gets even more complicated and then, boom, he did it. She's so excited for him and runs into his arms. The whole community is proud of him and excited, which takes us back into the vocal section (of the number)."

Choreographer Parker Esse, right, and director Rob Ruggiero consult as the cast of the Goodspeed production of 'Carousel' rehearse.
Choreographer Parker Esse, right, and director Rob Ruggiero consult as the cast of the Goodspeed production of "Carousel" rehearse.

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