After becoming a choreographer almost by accident, Randy Skinner went on to develop some of Broadway and the West End’s most enduring dance shows. He tells Jo Caird why a meticulous approach is a must when it comes to a large ensemble and how Hollywood’s golden age of musicals remains a constant source of inspiration
Randy Skinner never planned to become a choreographer. When, one night in 1980, legendary director and choreographer Gower Champion called out of the blue to offer the role of dance assistant on a Broadway adaptation of Hollywood movie 42nd Street, Skinner asked him: “Does this mean I can’t be in the show?”
“I was still thinking like a dancer, I was only 26 years old,” he says. “I still wanted to be one of the kids, to be one of the group and just have a good time and not have to solve problems.”
Nearly four decades on, he has been nominated for the Olivier award for best theatre choreographer for the West End run of his 2001 revival of 42nd Street. Now, Skinner has no regrets about becoming one of the grown-ups: “My life changed because of it.”
Skinner started dancing aged four, when his parents enrolled him in a local class with a little girl from the neighbourhood. Describing his parents, he says: “They were those sort of hands-on parents that were always letting us try to express ourselves and get us to the right teachers, and not everybody has that. So I feel very fortunate, particularly being a guy and growing up in the 1950s. That was not exactly the thing that people did back then.”
Skinner continued dancing through school and college, where his years of dance training meant he was sought after not just as a performer but as a choreographer for extracurricular productions alongside his speech and communication degree. “I always knew that I had an ability to do it: I could see things and, being a tapper, I could hear rhythms in my head. But it wasn’t a goal for me like it was for a lot of people,” he says.
Instead he focused on performing, taking on professional work each summer with the Kenley Players, a ‘summer stock’ touring company that employed some of the biggest musical theatre and film stars of the 20th century and played huge houses across the Midwest, including in Skinner’s home state of Ohio.
Working with the likes of Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, Mickey Rooney and Tommy Tune on shows including Anything Goes, Grease, The Pajama Game and Mack and Mabel was a “great learning experience”, says Skinner. The warm-up he uses when teaching theatre dance classes to this day is based on the one that Juliet Prowse gave each night before the show.
He moved to New York in 1976 and got his break in 1980 when the call came from Champion. Skinner didn’t know when he accepted the dance assistant job on 42nd Street that the director was seriously ill with a rare form of blood cancer, though this soon became apparent – and any thought of performing in the show went out of the window.
“We got into rehearsals and it was very obvious that there was no way you could split those duties as he needed us by his side because of dealing with his illness at the time,” Skinner says.
Champion died on the morning of press night, though producer David Merrick kept news of his death from the company until after the performance, famously coming on stage five minutes into a standing ovation to make his grim announcement. Skinner, who had been told that afternoon, was “kind of prepared for the news”, given how ill Champion had been in rehearsals. But, he says: “It’s always a bit of a shock when someone dies.”
It was a “wonderful working relationship”, he says: “Gower was very magnanimous in letting people know that we [Skinner and fellow dance assistant Karin Baker] were an integral part of the show and he gave us title-page credits. We were hopefully going to go on and do other shows together but it didn’t work out that way.”
Champion’s untimely death at 61 meant that it fell to Skinner and Baker to keep 42nd Street ticking over for the duration of its nearly eight-and-a-half year run on Broadway and to choreograph its various transfers, including a 1984 West End run.
Skinner’s professional life may have been dominated by 42nd Street during this period but he succeeded in squeezing in other exciting musical theatre projects, most notably an out-of-town production of the Rodgers and Hart musical Babes in Arms directed by Ginger Rogers, in which Skinner also performed. “Rogers was terrific to collaborate with and of course she knew from seeing me dance that my style was totally inspired by her and Fred Astaire,” he says.
If Fred and Ginger and their Hollywood peers were the inspiration for Skinner’s dance style, the movies they starred in during Hollywood’s golden age inform his sensibility as a choreographer. Nowhere do you see this more clearly than in his revival of 42nd Street.
“I like to put up images live that are representative of the film musicals,” he says, pointing to scenes such as the one in which the ensemble, wearing nude body stockings, dance on a revolve reflected in a huge mirror that descends from on high.
A version of this number appeared in the 1933 film of 42nd Street but wasn’t included in Champion’s “more wholesome” 1980 production. Skinner was keen to reflect the daring nature of the movie in his revival, offering audiences a flavour of the days before the infamous Hays Code cracked down on supposed ‘immorality’ in movie-making.
What was your first non-theatre job? Working in concessions at the Beacon Theatre in New York.
What was your first professional theatre job? The Pajama Game, starring Juliet Prowse (1973), touring Ohio theatres.
What’s your next job? A new musical about the life of the iconic American painter Norman Rockwell.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t take anything personally, do your best and keep moving forward.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gower Champion.
If you hadn’t been a choreographer, what would you have been? Probably working in psychology, which was my minor at college.
Skinner’s revival isn’t just sexier than the original: it’s bigger too, boasting several new numbers including a spectacular finale. Skinner wanted to “pay respect to the past” with his version but knew that what might have impressed audiences in 1980 wasn’t necessarily going to cut in at the turn of the millennium. Fortunately, he says, he had deep-pocketed producers. “I was able to use my imagination and just create numbers that cost a lot of money.” It paid off: “People just loved it and they loved the size of it.”
A generous budget is a boon but it isn’t the be-all and end-all of musical theatre choreography – pacing is crucial. “You have to make sure each number is different and you have to make sure there’s an overall arc of the show so that you don’t just shoot your whole wad in the beginning and have no way to top it,” Skinner says.
It’s the same for all “dance-driven” shows, he says, citing his other long-running hit, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, which has been playing in various incarnations, including in the UK, since 2004.
“Each number has to have its own arc where you have a beginning, middle and end within the number itself, but then the overall show has to have an arc. It’s quite challenging when you’re working on a show in which you’re faced with 10 dance numbers. How do you spread them out and how do you take the audience on a journey?”
Skinner always starts with the music, immersing himself in a show’s score until he begins visualising the shapes that the dancers will take on the stage. If it’s a tap number he is choreographing, he considers not just the visual impact of the routine, but also how it will sound. Solo or small group numbers have the scope for some really complex rhythms, but even in big group numbers, Skinner describes himself as “very meticulous”.
“The kids all know exactly what part of the foot is supposed to be on the floor at each time, and that’s how you get intonation in tapping. Are the heels up, are the heels down? Flat foot or on your toes? You have a variety of sounds that you’re working with.”
It’s partly this sense of being overwhelmed by sound as well as dazzled by the sight of a 50-strong ensemble that makes 42nd Street such a spectacular experience for audiences. And it must have had an impact on the Olivier judges too. Skinner is certainly delighted by his nomination.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to be included in such a special event and also in a category where there are such gifted choreographers being recognised.
“It’s a very special category this year, with shows that have a lot of dancing in them and the shows are all so different. I feel incredibly honoured to be included among my fellow nominees.”
Born: 1952, Columbus, Ohio
Training: private dance schools; Upper Arlington High School; Ohio State University
Landmark Productions: Babes in Arms, Music Hall, Tarrytown, New York (1985), Ain’t Broadway Grand, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Broadway (1993), State Fair, Music Box Theatre, Broadway (1996), 42nd Street, Foxwoods Theatre, Broadway (2001), Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, Curran Theater, San Francisco, then Broadway, West End and US and UK tours (2004), After the Night and the Music, Biltmore Theatre, Broadway (2005), Lend Me a Tenor, Theatre Royal, Plymouth, then West End (2010), Dames at Sea, Helen Hayes Theatre, Broadway (2015)
Awards: Olivier nomination for best theatre choreographer for 42nd Street (2018)
Agent: Harris Spylios at Davis Spylios Management
42nd Street is running at Theatre Royal Drury Lane until October 20