Listen closely at The 5th Avenue Theatre this month and you’ll hear an unusual sound there: the spindly rumble of pointe shoes meeting the floor. “Marie, Dancing Still,” in previews starting March 22, is that rarity: a ballet musical, with a dancing cast led by acclaimed New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck. Set in 19th century Paris, the show’s title character is a working-class ballet student who becomes the inspiration for Edgar Degas’ famous sculpture, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.”
“I think they’re starving for dance on Broadway,” said the show’s director/choreographer Susan Stroman, who joined Peck for an interview between tech rehearsals this month. “For quite a while there, shows have been smaller, less dance, more dramatic. Certainly there have been some wonderful shows, but I think people are yearning for dance.”
“Marie,” written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (“Ragtime,” “Once on This Island”), began its life in a production at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2014 (then called “Little Dancer”). It is, said Stroman, “a cross-fertilization of classical ballet, musical theater and art” — its sets and costumes, by Beowulf Boritt and William Ivey Long, were directly inspired by Degas’ beloved paintings and sculptures of the world of young ballerinas, in their bouffant tutus and ribbon sashes.
A five-time Tony Award winner, Stroman hopes to eventually take “Marie” to Broadway, where ballet-themed musicals have been a rare occurrence. (“The Red Shoes,” based on the classic 1948 movie about a ballerina torn between love and career, famously flopped on Broadway in 1993.) But there’s been more crossover lately, with ballet’s most in-demand choreographers (Christopher Wheeldon’s “An American in Paris,” Justin Peck’s “Carousel”) and star dancers (NYCB’s Robert Fairchild in “American in Paris”; NYCB’s Megan Fairchild and Tiler Peck, as well as American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland, in “On the Town”) leaving rosin’d footprints on the Broadway stage. And British choreographer Matthew Bourne’s lavish, dramatic spectacles, most notably his famous all-male “Swan Lake,” brought new audiences to ballet.
It’s a connection that feels natural to Stroman, who’s herself straddled the Broadway/ballet divide, creating works for NYCB and Pacific Northwest Ballet (the Dave Brubeck-scored “Take Five … More or Less” in 2008). For “Marie,” she’s reveled in the ballet vocabulary — “It’s been wonderful, because you don’t get that many opportunities to do that” in a Broadway career, she said. The show does have musical-theater dancing — yes, there’s a cancan — but “it’s great to be able to step back and do something that is so pure and yet, story-driven. A lot of times when you do ballet, you’re in a more abstract world.”
The biggest challenge, Stroman said, is finding performers up to the task. It’s very difficult to cast a ballet musical; the “Marie” ensemble requires dancers with a strong background in classical ballet, but also the ability to sing — while on pointe! — and act. “They’re rare,” said Stroman, “but it makes them even more special. So when you get a group of them, it’s like the heightened specialty that goes across the footlights. It’s thrilling.”
Peck, who kept her strength up by quietly devouring an entire pizza during the dinner-break interview, said that fellow cast members have told her that the audition process was incredibly demanding. “It was known as the hardest audition, ever,” she said, noting that many Broadway dancers can handle ballet steps in flat slippers, but pointe work is an entirely different level.
“Marie” has been a happy return for Peck, who originated the title role at the Kennedy Center. But her connection with Stroman goes much further back: to the director/choreographer’s “The Music Man,” which opened on Broadway in 2000. Peck, then just 11 and more interested in jazz dance than ballet, took over the role of Gracie Shinn, the mayor’s daughter, in the second year of the run. It was an association that changed the course of Peck’s life.
“I remember (Stroman) saying to me, it’s really easy to lose technique when you do the same show every single night, so it might be good for you to find somewhere good to train during the day,” Peck remembered. She began taking classes at NYCB’s School of American Ballet, and found that “something about the style of the Balanchine technique seemed a little jazzier to me, and I was like, OK, I don’t think ballet’s so boring any more. It was the perfect mix of all of my worlds.”
The rest, as they say, is history: Peck joined the company in 2005 and made a meteoric rise within it, attaining the top rank of principal dancer in 2009. Stroman, who remembered being dazzled when seeing Peck on the cover of Dance Magazine just a few years after “The Music Man” (“I thought, wait, this is that little 11-year-old?”), described her leading lady as combining “incredible technique,” natural stage presence and “a kind of fearlessness” that the best Broadway performers have.
Learning to sing for the role of Marie, Peck said, required using an entirely different set of muscles; ballet dancers, for example, are “used to not showing that we’re breathing on stage.” She studied with a voice coach and a diction coach, applying the same sort of discipline she brings to her daily life as a ballerina. (Though on leave from NYCB for “Marie,” Peck’s still trying to make time for daily ballet class while in Seattle, attending at PNB whenever she can.)
Though the team behind “Marie” clearly hopes that it will attract audiences from many different backgrounds — visual-art lovers, in particular, may well be intrigued — this musical is likely to have a special appeal to those who love ballet, and who might not otherwise make it to New York to see Peck dance. In one scene, she sits down and casually puts on her pointe shoes, while talking to Degas (Terrence Mann). It’s a little moment that resonates: for a ballerina, just a bit of careful lacing and tying and everydayness; for an audience, a window into a graceful other world.
“Marie, Dancing Still,” book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. March 22-April 14; 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $29-$155 (prices subject to change); 206-625-1900, 5thavenue.org