The number one reason to root for the success of Little Dancer, the musical, is that there is no Little Dancer, the movie. The story is entirely original, a historically informed speculation about the artist Edgar Degas and Marie van Goethem, the young Paris Opera trainee who became the model for his famous statue. The wonderfully choreographed and beautifully designed musical opened at the Kennedy Center last Thursday (after three and a half weeks of preview performances) and aims for a Broadway run during a season when the big-name new musicals include the film adaptations Honeymoon in Vegas, An American in Paris, and Finding Neverland.
Making movies into musicals is not new, but an alarming number of films—with varying degrees of artistic merit—are currently on the big-screen-to-Broadway pipeline. Standing and applauding Little Dancer on opening night was as much about passing out roses to deserving stars Boyd Gaines and Tiler Peck as it was about validating creativity and the seemingly bygone idea that if some of America’s best artists pool their resources and get backing from a benefactor like the Kennedy Center, they can still make great theater from scratch.
Pulling together all the artistic elements is director/choreographer Susan Stroman, who has been working on the project for years. Stroman has long been a champion of creating musicals that are thoroughly infused with dance. In 2000, she directed and choreographed Contact, a nearly dialogue-free show that dominated the Tonys. Two of her Contact stars, Gaines and Karen Ziemba, won awards for their roles and reunited to work with Stroman on Little Dancer. Neither do much dancing now, but many of ballet-trained cast members, especially Peck, a New York City Ballet principal, are outstanding in choreography that’s far better than most musical theater fare. Yes, there’s ballet, but there’s also movement that is smoothly integrated into the action, including a fantastic workaday dance set in a Parisian laundry.
Helping Stroman bring the scenes to life is a creative team representing the best of Broadway, old and new. Six-time Tony-winner William Ivey Long designed the costumes, turning ballerinas into butterflies and then back into Paris-on-a-budget schoolgirls. Beowulf Boritt, a much younger designer, created the sets, which recreate scenes from Degas’ iconic paintings, and Stephen Flaherty, composer of Ragtime and many more, has underscored nearly the entire production with bright and varied orchestral colors that match his colleague’s vibrant sets.
There is so, so much to love about Little Dancer. And yet, I’ve left one crucial collaborator off this long list of artists deserving praise: book writer and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. Perhaps it’s telling that in so many of her past projects—including Ragtime, Rocky and A Dancer’s Life—all she contributed were the lyrics. And now here she is charged with writing dialogue for an original story, without a novel, screenplay, or even much of a biography to lean on.
Several problems are apparent, not all of them Ahrens’ alone. There’s an inherent lack of tension—the characters face challenges, but no central tug-on-the-heartstrings conflict. Degas’ vision is failing. Marie longs to be an étoile, a star ballerina, but her mother is a mere drunkard/laundress/occasional lady of the night. At the Paris Opera, most of the men lingering in the wings want to hold more in their hands than just a sketchpad. Marie dodges them at her personal and professional peril, in hopes of instead slipping away on the Champs-Élysées with a handsome rehearsal violinist.
Actually, he’s repeatedly called “a fiddler.” Ahrens went out of her way to make this cast of somewhat stock French characters sound like anything but 19th-century Europeans. “I’ve had so many fines I deserve a discount!” Peck says, impetuously, after a ballet mistress chides her for being late to class yet again. She sounds more like an irate Black Friday Wal-Mart shopper than a Parisian teen. All of the dialogue is contemporary American, but a less casual syntax would better match the otherwise formal aesthetic of the show. Although the musical clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes, little time has been spent on exposition. You don’t know that Ziemba, as Marie’s mother, is the only character speaking with an accent because she’s a poor Belgian immigrant. And when the ballet master sends Marie and suitor off into “the corridors” of the Paris Opera, you don’t know (unless you are in the know) that the Palais Garnier is famous for its labyrinth of passages and cavernous basement with a lake.
The lyrics aren’t much better. “C’est le Ballet,” the recurring big number, is a tuneful scene-setter, but few songs move the story forward, and some are quite trivial (see: “A Hole in the Wall” and “A Box of Things”). No one is coming to Little Dancer for the singing, although Jenny Powers, as Marie’s courtesan older sister, does do some standout belting in a riotous scene at the Rat Mort. Peck convincingly plays a teenage ballerina, and Gaines makes a fine grouchy-but-debonair Degas.
It’s not giving away too much to say that Stroman stayed true to the little that’s known of Marie’s real-life story. She was dismissed from the ballet less than a year after Degas exhibited her likeness in 1881; no Billy Elliot happy ending here. Stroman and Boritt embraced that uncertainty by creating a whirlwind, atonal ballet finale and a magic-of-theater closing scene. In doing so, they acknowledge that whatever befell Marie beyond the story onstage likely wasn’t good, but in her immortalized quest to become a dancer, she has inspired many. The final image in the show is a gorgeous homage to the statue, and the whole show is one to art of all kinds. Little Dancer is a multidisciplinary achievement—how bittersweet, then, that what could prevent this original musical from becoming a theatrical success is the need of a playwright.
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