By Steve Schonberg
The 2014-2015 Broadway season has been a litmus test for the continued success of the classic American musical in an increasingly contemporary world. Bartlett Sher’s luscious revivalof The King and I currently playing at Lincoln Center earned critical acclaim, demonstrating that the Golden Age musical can transform to platinum—antique, but tarnish free—when handled with a modern visionary’s care. At the Palace Theatre, An American in Paris is helping shape the new modern-classic hybrid with tasteful use of digital graphics and a renewed focus on the synergy between musical theater and ballet—a throwback to the days of masters like Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, TONY Award winner Christopher Wheeldon has brought a new jolt of excitement to this traditional dance form for mainstream, Broadway-bound audiences.
There’s a parallel too between the creative teams behind these gorgeous works, and the incredible talents recruited to bring them to life on stage. Unlike many Broadway musicals mounted today, these shows primarily center around the talent of stage stars vs. those who split their time equally elsewhere, such as on TV and in film. These performers, like Kelli O’Hara (TONY Award winner, Anna in The King and I), Tony Yazbeck (TONY Award nominee, Gabey in On The Town) and Broadway newcomer, ballet star Robbie Fairchild (TONY Award nominee, Jerry Mulligan in An American in Paris) represent some of the preeminent interpreters of the art form, even if their experiences and backgrounds vary greatly.
To explore this, I caught up with Yazbeck one recent Saturday afternoon, just before his call time for a matinee of On The Town, the classic Bernstein/Comden/Green musical. But, while Yazbeck puts in eight grueling shows a week wowing audiences at the Lyric Theatre as one of Broadway’s best dancers and overall triple threats, he still finds time to further elevate the classic musicals with his solo cabaret show, “The Floor Above Me,” (which will be released as a solo album in early August) and guest appearances including the upcoming Irving Berlin Tribute on June 8 at Broadway supper club, 54 Below (appearing at the 7PM show only).
“I’ve been drawn to [classic musicals] my whole life,” Yazbeck told me. “I’ve always felt like I’ve had a responsibility of sorts to be an extension of that era,” he added. But, a clue into what helps him and some of these other interpreters bring these shows to life with new color, life and verve as compared to other productions, he added, “I’ve never felt like I’ve wanted to copy anything or just reproduce. My dream is to always… somehow… make a fusion between that old MGM style and feeling, and what our contemporary, modern audience is attached to now to connect to them in some kind of emotionally-driven way.”
Frequently said to be to the “modern day Gene Kelly,” Yazbeck is a unique talent all unto himself, but he appreciates the comparison as a sign of deep respect and admiration, one he grew up with himself having “always been attached to that old school thing with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and all of those guys. Those were my inspirations,” he said. “I guess there’s something about what I love to do on the stage. It’s like I have to do it… I feel some sort of responsibility. This is what started everything. It was great because Gershwin, Bernstein, Irving Berlin, those guys were everything to me.”
As a child, Yazbeck was obsessed with honing his skills as a dancer—rehearsing for hours before school and at night—in the basement of his parent’s home in New Jersey. The hard work paid off when he got his first Broadway role, a newsboy in the 1989 revival of Gypsy starring Tyne Daly. Since then, he’s gone on to starring roles in Broadway shows including A Chorus Line, White Christmas, Chicago and Gypsy again, playing Tulsa in the 1998 revival starring Patti LuPone. Yet, like the icons he’s often compared to, Yazbeck extends the craft to prove himself as a true triple threat.
“The truth of the matter is, as a dancer you want to be an actor first,” Yazbeck told me, specifically about translating dance from a technique to a resource of the leading man. “A lot of people forget that… they just do the step in a way that in the style of that period… I think that’s a great approach to finding a technique in a class but when you’re listening to say Bernstein from On the Town, if you don’t feel that music in your gut and then connect it to what you’re doing movement wise, you’re just cheating the audience, in my opinion,” he said. “I think that’s probably the difference of say an artist like me or somebody else, I think it’s a feeling I get up there as I feel the music. It rocks my soul and I have to dance it a certain way.”
Providing an example, Yazbeck shared: “A lot of the stuff, say in On the Town [choreographed by Josh Bergasse], it’s masculine. There’s a lot of anger and celebration and joy all at once in one little passive movement. If you don’t get that out, they’re never going to feel anything, it doesn’t matter how great you straighten the leg or how many turns you do. I don’t think it matters unless you’re connecting what it feels like and the story of that dance to the audience.”
“Those orchestrations, they were done for a reason,” he continued, further illustrating the connection between the intention of the music and inspiration of dance that he focuses on in bringing these characters to life. “Those guys got together in collaboration in their twenties and they went, ‘how does this feel?’ Bernstein wrote something and then Jerry [Jerome] Robbins went, ‘Yeah, I could use that.’ They did that because they felt it together.”
Yazbeck has a particular appreciation too for the work of Irvin Berlin. “I think Irving Berlin has something a little deeper and darker about him that you can connect to in your loneliest moments,” he said. “It’s similar to Bernstein in that way but I also think there’s something just so intimate about how Irving Berlin writes,” which Yazbeck will share with fans at the 54 Below celebration through two songs: “Change Partners” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” “I don’t think people realize how the writers wrote back in the day and how vulnerable they were,” Yazbeck added. “Then you put it to the music… it makes me want to move… it makes me want to dance. That to me is the best [type of] song you can write.”
Although he brings this magic to life on the big and small stage from Broadway to cabaret, Yazbeck also has his eye set on continuing to advance the art form in film as a director and choreographer. “I know that’s down the line. We’ve have a resurgence of movie musicals and I’m curious to see if we can somehow find a contemporary way to get the ‘new’ song and dance movie musical together.” But, of course, the stage is Yazbeck’s home and he quickly added, “Obviously, I’d love to marry that on stage too. I’d love to find something that is very 2015 with the feeling of that old generation of MGM classic.”