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9 to 5 the Musical choreographer Lisa Stevens: ‘I’ve had a few knock-downs, but I love what I do’

Choreographer Lisa Stevens

Making her solo West End debut with the stage version of 9 to 5 the Musical, the award-winning choreographer’s star continues to rise. Lisa Stevens talks to Mark Shenton about earning her stripes and reinventing the show post #MeToo

Choreographers often have to play the long game. Many start as hoofers and ‘gypsies’ – the rank-and-file members of the chorus – before climbing the ranks to become dance captains, then associate choreographers and finally choreographers in their own right. While many of the industry’s biggest names from Casey Nicholaw to Jerry Mitchell and Rob Ashford to Stephen Mear have taken this well-charted route to the top, some have skipped a few steps along the way.

One such choreographer is Lisa Stevens. “Things happened very quickly for me,” she says. “I was very lucky, and started choreographing in a backwards route. Rather than others who worked their way up, I started on a very high-profile show.” That show was Bombay Dreams, the Bollywood-influenced musical, in which she started in the London cast and ended up choreographing its first US tour.

Stevens’ star is on the rise, even if she has not reached the heights of those Broadway greats yet. Her biggest credits to date were on the original stage version of Disney’s High School Musical, and its sequel High School Musical 2. Between them, the shows ran for some six years in the US, the UK and beyond. Now she’s about to make her solo West End choreographic debut with the stage version of 9 to 5 the Musical. Stevens previously worked on earlier UK and US tours of the show alongside co-choreographer Jeff Calhoun, but this time she’s reinventing it entirely.

Amber Davies and the company of 9 to 5 in a sitzprobe of the production. Photo: Pamela Raith

“This production is probably the most thought-out, elaborate and relevant one, considering the era it was originally set in,” she says. “The content now is made modern by what’s been happening with women and the #MeToo movement and equality.”

9 to 5, in which three female office workers take on their bullying male boss, certainly has added resonance in 2019. “It matters now – there are moments in the show I feel like I’m hearing for the first time. We’ve struck some jokes out, what was funny then is not so funny now. It has become very real very fast. This is a completely new take and touch.”

She continues: “Even with the casting, we’ve lowered the age of the three ladies, too, which helps to colour it in a way that covers a spectrum of thought and experience in an audience. It’s possible for all age groups to relate to it, from teenagers – who are coming of age and into the workforce – to those who are having these issues and those who’ve done something about it.” This is a story about female empowerment, she stresses. “What I like about it is that they succeed through being innovative and using their intelligence. Their rewards are earned.”

Stevens’ choreography stripes are also well earned, and she speaks about the importance of female role models on her career, from working as a performer to those who mentored her after she joined their ranks. One of the most important was performer-turned-choreographer Ann Reinking. They worked together when Reinking first came to London in the 1990s as choreographer of the original London company of Chicago – Stevens’ London debut. “She was one of my idols growing up, so when I worked with her on Chicago there wasn’t a word of hers I missed.”

Q&A Lisa Stevens

What was your first job?
When I was nine, I did a TV show called the Green Double Decker Show. My uncle was the line producer, otherwise I wouldn’t have got the job.

What is your next job?
I’m working on my first Shakespeare play: Coriolanus,  for Bard on the Beach in Vancouver. It will have a mainly female cast and the warriors are women, so I’m doing the fight sequences like a ballet.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I think the thing that has impacted me most was to learn to let go of ego. It breeds insecurity and fear.

Who or what is your biggest influence?
Directors – and choreographers like Ann Reinking and Graciela Daniele.

If you hadn’t been a choreographer/performer, what would you have been?
From the time I was a little girl I wanted to be on stage and in the arts. I did go to college to study anatomy and physiology. But then I was involved in a car accident and it made me rethink where I wanted to take the direction of my life. It showed me that time could be very short, so I was going to pursue my ambitions to dance wholeheartedly.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Nope, none. If I ever did, I brushed them out – this is reality, there is no such thing as superstition or ritual – life is what it is, and you make it what it is.

Another idol was Graciela Daniele. “I wrote a fan letter to her after I’d seen her work, and she invited me for tea,” Stevens says. “We spent four hours talking about life and dance and its history and who she’d worked with. She imparted all this wisdom she’d learnt from Bob Fosse – I was very moved by this and could sense he was in the room, so now I’m carrying them with me as I move forward, and try to pass it on too.”

Daniele’s lessons to her still resonate. “She taught me that leaving your ego at the door is tough sometimes, but as long as you put your best work on stage, you can’t be touched.” Fosse also advised her that when starting out, “take everything and learn as much as you can from those experiences”.

Scene from High School Musical at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre in 2008

Stevens took it to heart when she appeared in her first West End show Chicago – “that show changed my life”, she says – and her last as a performer, Bombay Dreams. “I put myself in the position of being extremely useful for them. I knew the show inside out and helped with casting it in its second year in the West End. Then, when they needed someone to go over and help cast and mount it on Broadway, I volunteered. It was my transition to my life as a choreographer now.”

‘I’ve been lucky to work with an eclectic assortment of directors – from comedic directors to earnest, solemn ones’

After applying for a Green Card when she arrived in New York, it was approved the day that Bombay Dreams closed. “It was good timing,” she says. It was also a show that had a particular resonance for her: “Both my mother and father were born in India. My mother was a Persian Jew and my father was there during the British occupation, so I grew up with Bollywood movies on TV and a lot of the traditions stayed in our family.”

It was her father’s British heritage that had enabled her to leave her native Canada – she trained in Vancouver, pursuing her dream to be a dancer after a car crash showed her “time can be short” – and come to work in Britain. “I had expired the opportunities that Vancouver could provide and I wanted to see how I could compete in an arena that was of an endless calibre.” She came to England, and the first production she worked on was a pop show called What a Feeling, singing and dancing as back-up for Luke Goss, Sonia and Sinitta.

Lisa stevens’ top tips for aspiring choreographers

• Take everything and learn as much as you can from those experiences.
• No matter how good or bad the show is, always do your best work.
• Try not to become emotionally involved with your work – and do it for the right reasons, not for the awards or the critics.

Appropriately, feeling is also what matters most in choreography, too: “It has to facilitate the story – teaching audiences how to feel.” But it’s also about motivation: “I’ve been lucky to work with an eclectic assortment of directors, from comedic directors to earnest, solemn ones. In the last few years, I’ve started directing myself, and I use a lot of what they’ve taught me when I’m talking to dancers. It’s not just a strut or a walk – there has to be a reason for everything. When I started directing myself, I realised that it is symbiotic to my work as a choreographer: it’s the same thought process, one long thread, and it’s actually easier to do both at the same time.”

Today, she says, “I love what I do. I had a few hiccups along the way, and was knocked down a few times. But I now know that I needed to appreciate what I had in my brain and my heart and absorb positive things and receive help and support and ideas from others.”

Putting on 9 to 5 has not been without its own drama off stage, when Louise Redknapp – originally cast as Violet – fell on the way to rehearsals, resulting in a fractured wrist and 10 stitches to her chin. But Caroline Sheen has stepped in until Redknapp recovers, and Stevens says she has been quick to pick up the steps: “She learned it in less than five days from top to bottom. We threw a lot of material at her, she never moaned, took it all in her stride and worked darn hard. She saved the day.”

9 to 5 the Musical is at London’s Savoy Theatre until August 31. Further details at: thesavoytheatre.com

CV Lisa Stevens

Born: Ottawa, Canada (year undisclosed)
Training: Pacific Ballet Theatre, Goh Ballet, Royal Winnipeg Ballet
Landmark productions:
• Bombay Dreams (US tour)

• High School Musical (US, UK, Australia tour)
• High School Musical 2 (UK tour)
• 9 to 5 the Musical, Savoy Theatre (2019)
Agents: Peter DaCosta/Melissa Panton, DaCosta Talent

Bonnie Langford joins West End 9 to 5 the Musical cast

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