Randy Skinner, the Broadway veteran and choreographer of the “White Christmas” production opening tonight in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, hails from the old school.
As a kid growing up in Columbus, Ohio, Skinner fell in love with all the grandiose old movie musicals from the 1940s and ’50s, from “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “On the Town” to “Guys and Dolls” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” There was something about the gauzy style of the films – and especially the mad mixture of dance styles many of them contained – that made an indelible impression on him.
Since Skinner moved from Ohio to New York City in the 1970s, he has become one of the loudest and most successful proselytizers for infusing the theater with the look and feel of Old Hollywood. Early in his career, Skinner became a protégé of the legendary director Gower Champion and picked up plenty of tricks from Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse and other dancers from the golden age of movie musicals he worked with in his youth. In 2001, he choreographed a Tony-winning Broadway production of “42nd Street,” and he has worked on dozens of regional and concert productions of shows like “An American in Paris,” “No, No Nanette” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
In a phone interview from New York City in advance of tonight’s opening, Skinner waxed nostalgic about the films of his youth and the style and level of dancing they contained.
“I still think it’s where the best stuff has been done,” Skinner said. “When you watch those movies and see that level of dancing – now they got to shoot it a million times and reach for perfection, which we don’t have on the stage – but that’s always been my goal, to take that level that I love so much and just keep trying to put that on a stage.”
“White Christmas,” a dance-driven piece with additional fuel from Irving Berlin’s eclectic score, tells the story of a pair of war buddies who get mixed up with show biz and women in any number of charming ways. The film version has become a holiday classic somewhere between “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” beloved as much for its feel-good story line as for its famous title song and classics like “It’s Cold Outside” and “Sisters.”
For the stage version, a more grandiose version of which appeared at Shea’s in 2007, Skinner was laser-focused on re-creating the film’s meticulous tap numbers as well as the definitive period style of its jazz and ballroom scenes. It’s all an attempt, he added, to make sure nothing whatsoever is lost in translation between the film and the stage versions of the show and that the audience’s nostalgia meters are constantly maxed out.
“Your biggest challenge is to transfer something from the screen and make sure that people leave feeling they’ve had the experience of their memories,” he said. “If you look at all those old MGM movies from that period, it had everything in it because dance was such a part of people’s lives back then. People danced for social reasons and people partnered.”
The level of dance required for a show like “White Christmas,” Skinner added, is unusually demanding even in today’s highly competitive Broadway world, in which performers are expected to be expert singers, dancers and actors.
“We’re doing some pretty complicated things up there, and yet the goal is to make it look effortless. That’s the old Fred and Ginger trick – they spent months and months and months rehearsing those numbers, and yet it looked like it was just happening at the moment. So we all try to aspire to that,” he said.
The show features James Clow and David Elder, both actors with plenty of Broadway credits to their names, as war buddies Bob Wallace and Phil Davis. Stefanie Morse, a veteran of many Broadway tours, and Mara Davi, who played Janet Van de Graaf in “The Drowsy Chaperone” on Broadway, appear as sisters Betty and Judy Haynes.
Skinner conceded that re-creating old movie choreography in a modern musical theater world isn’t the easiest course to take – for directors, choreographers or performers. But he believes it’s the right one.
“The demands for the dancers are pretty high, and some people have it and obviously some people don’t,” Skinner said. “I am carrying that torch, and I feel good about it because people love it.”