How a Musical Gets To Broadway: The Making of Hot Feet

The opening dance number of Hot Feet makes director/choreographer Maurice Hines’ mission clear: He wants to dazzle audiences with dance tricks executed at breakneck speed (think multiple pirouettes, frenzied footwork and successive toe-touches). “It’s a marathon,� says 22-year-old Vivian Nixon, who dances the starring role of Kalimba and graduated from Fordham University/The Ailey School’s BFA program in May. “Everyone who is in the show will tell you that [Hines] will whip your butt,� she adds. “His choreography is very stylized and grounded, and he loves fantastical movements—leaps and flips. He uses a little bit of everything: There’s krumping, hip hop, ballet-infused points and jazz.�

 

Beginning Stages
Two years ago, when Earth, Wind and Fire singer and songwriter Maurice White told the William Morris Agency he was interested in starting a new project using his music, the agency connected him with Hines, seasoned choreographer, fellow WMA client and longtime fan of EWF. Hines suggested an urban retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes using EWF tunes like “Shining Star� and “Boogie Wonderland� (the finished product also includes new songs by White) to advance the story. WMA paired White and Hines with young MTV writer Heru Ptah to create an edgy, urban script. In the show, originally to be called Hott Feett (the quirky spelling was intended to make the title stand out), a devil character tells a young girl the story of an ambitious dancer who accepts a pair of magical red shoes that promise her success, but eventually lead to her demise. After a script reading in L.A., producer Rudy Durand and presenter Transamerica came on board.

Casting Call
Hines had his eye on Nixon for the starring role since he observed her in a jazz class at The Ailey School during her sophomore year. He invited her to a preliminary audition and, after seeing her perform his choreography, Hines informally offered Nixon the leading role—and she accepted on the spot. In late 2004 and early 2005, several auditions were held in NYC, L.A. and other major cities.

 

DS sat in on an audition in June 2005 at Chelsea Studios in NYC, where Hines sought additional ensemble dancers. Dozens of hopefuls learned a high-energy routine to catchy “September,� then men and women were paired up for a sexy duet sequence. Lastly, Hines gave each dancer an eight-count to improvise and show off his or her most impressive skills. “Since my brother and I came from the nightclubs, it’s all about getting people to look up from their peas and carrots,� Hines told the dancers. “You must make the audience applaud.� Dancers took turns showing off fouetté turns, leaps, acro and break-dancing tricks.

 

Hines was blatantly honest during the day-end cut. “You’re a very fierce dancer,� he told one girl, “but you danced better yesterday.� As he glanced at another dancer’s headshot, he said: “Who took your picture? Never call him again. You’re much prettier than that.� To another, he said, “I’ve gotta tell you, you have a spectacular personality. I’m going to keep you [for callbacks] just for that.�

Workshop Weeks
In preparation for a July 21, 2005, workshop performance in NYC, the cast learned the show—including more than 15 dances—in just three weeks. Though workshops are usually held in a studio with no costumes, Hott Feett debuted onstage at the Promenade Theater with informal costumes and props. In attendance: entertainment icons Leslie Uggams (Thoroughly Modern Millie), Debbie Allen (Nixon’s mother) and her sister (Nixon’s aunt) Phylicia Rashad.

 

The post-workshop months are a slow wait for performers, because a new show’s creative team is busy bringing together designers and other artists to solidify the technical and artistic elements of the stage production. A few recasting decisions were made, and at the suggestion of the show’s advertising agency, the title was simplified to Hot Feet. In the fall of 2005, Nixon, who had just been selected to join Ailey 2, heard that Hot Feet was gearing up for a journey to Broadway. She finished the season with the company, then left to start rehearsals.

Rehearsals and Tryout Run
Hot Feet set up camp at NYC’s Baryshnikov Arts Center for rehearsals throughout February and March 2006. At a dance run-through on March 4, Hines previewed revised numbers and costume sketches to investors, friends and the media.

 

From March 21 to April 9, Hot Feet played to local audiences and critics at Washington, DC’s National Theatre. In the last three days, the cast started working with a revised script that clarified the plot and improved character development, along with other staging and choreography tweaks. “Honestly, the critics really didn’t say anything good at all—at least The Washington Post didn’t. But we didn’t base our changes on the critics,� Nixon says, adding that criticism is expected for any Broadway show. With bursitis in her shoulder so severe she couldn’t lift her left arm, Nixon was forced to take it easy, do physical therapy and even sit out a few shows.

 

Broadway Previews and Opening
Nixon was cautious about her injured shoulder, but there was no room to be conservative, since Broadway previews were set to begin April 18. “I’ve been playing it smart and not dancing completely full out,� said Nixon on April 17. “But come tomorrow, that’s over.� Previews were then delayed until April 20 to allow for enough time to load in the show’s sets and equipment to the Hilton Theatre. During the April 22 evening show, Nixon sprained her ankle during “Boogie Wonderland,� but was able to bounce back quickly by sitting out for two shows and diligently icing her injury. During the daytime hours, the cast continued vigorous rehearsals to refine changes made during the DC pre-run. On April 30, Hot Feet had its official opening, followed by a party in the Hilton Hotel Grand Ballroom. Now, with the show set, the cast rehearses only as needed as it settles into its eight-shows-a-week schedule.

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