To say director/choreographer Warren Carlyle’s been busy is an understatement. He worked as choreographer on Eric Schaeffer’s Kennedy Center Follies revival, now on Broadway; was creative producer of An Evening with Hugh Jackman in San Francisco and Toronto; and is director/choreographer of Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway and Cotton Club Parade (which plays six performances at City Center, November 18–22, 2011). In addition, he’s choreographer for John Rando’s production of A Christmas Story,now on a five-city holiday tour (including Hershey, PA; Detroit, Raleigh, Tampa and Chicago). “My life’s so wonderful,” says Carlyle. “Every day I pinch myself. I still can’t believe it’s not the dream I spent my life dreaming. I’m having the time of my life working with the best in the world.”
In addition, in May, Carlyle choreographed Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Camelot, starring Brent Carver; and, last November, Randy Newman’s Musical, Harps & Angels at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum.
In the case of Follies, Carlyle had worked with Schaeffer on the Kennedy Center‘s May 2006 revival of Mame, starring Christine Baranski. “Believe it or not,” states Carlyle, “Eric and I began talking then about doing a revival of Follies. It only took five years!” Also upcoming for Carlyle, Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin, which was presented last year at La Jolla Playhouse, Carlyle says, “I’m not out of breath … yet!”
If you ever wonder why Carlyle crossed the pond from London to live in New York, it’s all about Broadway’s dancers. Without hesitation, he says, “The very best are here.” There’s another reason he’s never mentioned. “I wanted to be surrounded by dancers who’re so much better than I am,” he laughs. “I just wanted to be a small fish in a big pond and absorb it all. I’ve achieved that in spades.”
To be living in New York for 12 years and working with the cream of Broadway, he states, “Is simply unbelievable. I know I’ve come a long way, but I don’t stop and think about where I am. Frankly, I feel like I’m just beginning my life, just getting started. Really, I couldn’t imagine anything better.”
He states that success hasn’t changed him “except that I get up a lot earlier and the days are a lot longer.” What was the moment he knew he was on his way? “I don’t think I know that yet,” says the 39-year-old who began dancing right out of university in the U.K. “There’re lots of things to do. I just turn up and do the work and pray it turns out great. The work is special for me.”
The work is the culmination of a lot of dreams, but also lots of hard work. “To be honest, it rarely feels like work,” admits Carlyle. I love it. I jump out of bed and run to the rehearsal room. I get excited and jazzed by all the different people I’m working with and simply can’t wait to get started.”
He came up the ranks choreographing such musicals as Scrooge, the Sondheim revue Moving On, Pageant and The Goodbye Girl. Then, he was hand-picked by “the amazing” Susan Stroman to be her associate choreographer on Trevor Nunn’s 1997 production at the Royal National Theatre, Oklahoma! “Not a lot of people know that,” he points out “because I’ve taken a lot of the dance out of my bio. Now, I’m a director! I have to erase the past. But, of course, that’s how I met Hugh.”
“Working with Warren has been a complete joy in every way,” says Jackman. “We started out together, became great friends during the run of Oklahoma! It was clear to me then that Warren had big dreams, and a real joie de vivre. He was a born choreographer/director, and everyone on that production knew, Warren – a.k.a. Crazy Jake – was going places. It’s such a thrill to watch his rise.”
Carlyle went on to assist Stroman on The Producers in 2001, as well as its film adaptation, and on the 2002 Broadway transfer of Oklahoma!, only this time starring Patrick Wilson.
"Warren has a great passion for theater,” observes Stroman, “and comes armed with a tremendous knowledge of stage craft. He knows how to get the best out of people, always garnering their trust and respect. My time creating with Warren was joyous and inspiring. I am so pleased with all his deserved success."
Carlyle then branched out, not only choreographing but also directing 2008’s short-lived but rousing Tale of Two Cities. He says the transition to directing was easy, “I always felt I was directing. I’m fascinated by story. Even when choreographing, I’d always look for the story – what story am I telling and how much do I need to do to tell it. Now, I have the words and don’t have to make them up as I used to.”
As with Finian’s Rainbow [which he directed/choreographed for City Center’s Encores! and the move to Broadway; and which won him two 2010 Drama Desk nominations, “the segue of scenes into the song and dance was seamless because I thought of it with one mind, one brain.”
As mentioned above, Carlyle and Hugh Jackman maintained the friendship and bond established during Oklahoma! “Hugh’s incredible. Really something. And he was like that 15 years ago when we met. Hugh walked into a room and he owned it. He had star power. It was very clear he was destined for great things.”
What most people may not realize about Jackman, observes Carlyle, “is that he’s everything he appears to be and more. That’s truly him up there. That’s his honesty and humility. He’s the real thing. You not only get what you pay for, you get it in volumes. What makes Hugh a great actor is that he’s comfortable in any skin. There’re so many aspects to him – romance, heart, warmth and humor. He also has that little edge that says, ‘Don’t mess with me!’” Carlyle pointed out that Jackman can easily do Peter Allen, then turn around and become someone like Gene Kelly, then mesmerize audiences with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Soliloquy” from Carousel, as he does at the end of Act One. “His range,” states Carlyle, “is above and beyond anything I’ve experienced.”
He says having known Jackman for so long, he doesn’t have to edit himself. “I never have to think twice about making a suggestion. We speak to each other honestly. There’s a great trust and understanding.”
“I never forgot Warren’s way of bringing out the best in me and everyone around him,” states Jackman. “His energy is infectious, and he’s a natural leader. When I was looking for someone to help me stage this show, Warren immediately sprang to mind. I would never have gotten here without him. He has the rare ability of having real confidence in his vision and the extraordinary ability to listen to everyone around him, and to be able to push everyone to be their best.
“Warren’s also one of the most gracious, appreciative and humble people I know,” continues Jackman, “and has a work ethic that squeezes every ounce out of every day.”
As a director, says Carlyle, “I not only rely on dialogue with actors, but I feed off it. Every day working with Hugh has been an absolute joy because he’s the greatest collaborator – so full of ideas, willing to try anything and he trusts his instincts.”
Carlyle says that he and Jackman wanted to make Back on Broadway a love letter to New York. “It’s quite different than it was in San Francisco and Toronto. In Toronto, he didn’t sing ‘I Love New York.’ We had quite a wonderful time working on the Broadway medley, which debuted here. Hugh loves New York City. He and his family get about and do things.” That love of New York is something Carlyle shares. “I can simply say, I love it here!”
Cotton Club Parade, the inaugural co-production of City Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the reimagining of Duke Ellington revues of the late `20s at the legendary Harlem nightspot, is a big jump for Carlyle. “As far as the music, there’s nothing better than Ellington. But, being able to work with [music director] Wynton Marsalis [artistic director, JALC] is another dream come true. He’s not only a musical genius but the keeper of the flame for jazz in the U.S.”
He sees the revue as an opportunity “to evoke the Cotton Club era and the music I love so to recreate the excitement of seeing such performers as the Nicholas Brothers, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Lena Horne.”
The 30-member cast includes Grammy nominated singer/songwriter Carla Cook, Tony nominee Brandon Victor Dixon (The Color Purple and a Drama Desk nomination Off-Broadway for The Scottsboro Boys), tap/hip hop artist Jared Grimes, tap wiz Kendrick Jones and Tony winner Adriane Lenox. Marsalis will conduct a 15-piece orchestra.
Carlyle is hoping that, like Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, A Christmas Story will have a stopover in New York soon. He praises Joseph Robinette’s book, based on writings of humorist Jean Shepherd and the 1983 film and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s score. “The show’s joyous, riotous, fantastic and very special. I didn’t grow up watching the movie, but since moving here I’ve watched it at least 20 times every season. I not only know the characters, but I live them!”