THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM, Act I
Choreographed by Jim Gregory
This column was published in the May 1983 Folknotes
Text in italics was added August 2004
The Robber Bridegroom is billed as "America’s Great Folk Musical". Since it won awards on Broadway in 1977, the play has been performed more and more often. Recent Connecticut productions were put on at UCONN and Waterbury. While working with the Producing Guild this Spring, I heard from three other choreographers who were involved in productions of "Robber" in New York, New Jersey, and a Waterbury high school. Partly because it incorporates so much traditional music, this play may be making a place for itself in the American theater. I would like to tell you about the music of the play, as well as my experience working on it.
The Robber Bridegroom blends traditional dance tunes with specially composed songs to make a musical whole. Just how musical? Act One comprises 6 dances and 9 songs; Act Two has 3 more dances plus 10 songs. The traditional tunes are nestled in the play like duck eggs along a Mississippi riverbank. It was my responsibility to see that they hatched right. Now it is up to the audience to see if the outcome waddles, swims or flies.
Act One opens with the melodious "Settler’s Fiddler Tune", which I surmise was written for this play, in the traditional style. Very quickly we get into the first dance, to the tune "Shoot the Owl". Now there is a figure that goes with that tune, but I chose not to use it. Instead I tried to interpret the flashier calls that are given onstage by a townsperson/caller. And that yielded quite a different square dance. When the cue says that "Everybody just melted together" we have eight dancers weave the ring. Sure there are four-hand stars and a grand right and left. But after a ladies chain the call is given "Lift your partner – ain’t that a load!" Lifts are not part of the American country dance tradition. So I borrowed a lift technique from Eastern European folkdancing to use on stage.
When we began our rehearsals in early April, square dancing was a new experience for many of the cast members. The first time they were able to run the dance straight through they let out a tremendous round of applause. And I’ll tell you, I felt warm all over. They ran it again, and applauded the very same way. … It began to dawn on me that was stage applause, done in character as the townspeople of Rodney, Mississippi.
The next dance number is "Colored Aristocracy", with the call "Suddenly the day looks sunny…". I consider that ragtime tune the danciest in the play. Here we see eight men moving four benches creating, among other things, a gigantic star. Yes, this number is basically a scene change. It was a new challenge for me to have to write dances that accomplish such a real, practical purpose as moving and setting up stage furnishings.
"Hell Among the Yearlings" again moves the benches, this time making a tunnel of them, through which the dancers sashay. American dancers make tunnels only by raising joined hands. The idea of a tunnel of hand-held equipment comes from English longsword dancing. Chris Hand-Parliman as Salome calls out the sashay – "Gallop through the live oak, gallop through the pine." In the midst of a good cast Chris impresses with her professionalism and personification of a delightfully wicked step-mother. Backstage after opening night she was telling me how much the play had inspired her, to do more with dancing.
The next dance up, "Bonaparte’s Retreat", is a kind of spoof on the character Salome. We see her suffer several comic rebuffs in her efforts to land a partner. "Grab yore mate and skedaddle all", warns Goat (Paul Grubbs). There is quite an odd assortment of characters. Goat is a boy, the Raven is a bird/townsperson, and Big Harp is nothing but a head wheeled ‘round in a trunk. At the end of "Bonaparte’s Retreat" Salome corners Goat, and they go straight on to the next dance.
"Soldier’s Joy" is a classic tune from England, and words have been set to it here about "my little step-daughter". The play calls for a Virginia reel to be danced and sung. To make a showier reel I adapted a figure from the Irish dance "Waves of Tory". Once the lines go forward and back the men arch over the women. The standard sashay down the middle gets some interesting uses, in one instance to transport a jar of peaches, in another to transport Goat. The biggest gamble here was to arrange it so the actors can speak their lines while they are still dancing. That was a new problem for me, and I was especially pleased by this number.
There’s one more dance in Act One, and then we will take a 15-minute intermission. When the little step-daughter appears to be missing, the townspeople organize a search party. The cue "Let’s search out the daughter" leads into the tune "Cluck Old Hen". I very quickly came to appreciate it as a good clogging tune; in fact I wrote in some clog steps for this number. But the main motif is searching. To represent that in dance I first tried the traditional figure "Take a Little Peek". The director could see that was not working theatrically.
(Twenty years later I still recall how melodramatic a spot that was for me. The director announces "this is not working" and orders the stage cleared. Standing alone there, I have all of a five-minute break to come up with the new dance routine that will work…or else what?) So I settled on a ‘Dip for the Oyster, Dive for the Clam’ figure, culminating in a peel-back promenade. Director Sal Marchese then ‘voiced’ the piece, so that individual dancers call out the step-daughter’s name, "Rosamund…Rosamund". That helped to clarify the action.
A lot more than this goes on of course. Act One includes such notable songs as "Once Upon the Natchez Trace", "Pricklepear & Lilybud", plus some good sight gags. The Act ends with a very romantic tableau for "Deeper in the Wood". Let’s go out to the lobby now. I’d like to answer the question most often asked of me: How did I get this job as choreographer?
When the Producing Guild decided to stage "Robber" they knew that director Marchese could certainly arrange some exciting, foot-stomping dances for it. But his feeling was that the dancing should be traditional as well as colorful, like the calls in the book. Mr. Marchese went to TAPCO, and Bob Reddington of TAPCO recommended me. Sal Marchese called me in December, and over lunch in January we sealed the deal. It helped that I had already done (non-theatrical) choreography for Reel Nutmeg and the Mountain Laurel Cloggers. In fact, the staff of the Producing Guild came to see us cloggers perform in Hartford, at Center Church’s Wednesday Noon Repertory, on January 26.
The Robber Bridegroom runs through Sunday June 12. You may still be able to get a ticket by calling the Box Office at 555-2143, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Act Two of "Robber" is going to be grist for another article. If you see the play in the meantime you may be able to identify the following numbers, all of which occur in Act Two.
We will learn the answers to all these and more, when we continue our inside look at The Robber Bridegroom, Act Two.
THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM, Act II
Choreography by Jim Gregory
This column was published in the January 1984 Folknotes
Text in italics was added August 2004
Our fifteen-minute intermission has run a bit long, as bands are wont to do. This month of January we are offering workshops on Scottish country dances – with live music (and long breaks) of course. You are invited to our dance hall to learn, among others, the Gay Gordons. That is the Scottish couple dance I worked into the Robber’s second act.
It has been a long intermission, so let me jog your memory. In the May 1983 Folknotes, I reported on rehearsals for the play. The September issue contained a whole article on the music and dance for "Robber" Act I. Now it is time to tell you about "The Robber Bridegroom" Act II.
"The Richmond Cotillion" is my favorite dance of the play. The dance virtually wrote itself for me. Way back before the cast had even begun rehearsing I had a session with the rehearsal pianist, Gail Emond. It’s not realistic to think a solo piano can capture the flavor of a string band, but when Gail started into "The Richmond Cotillion" I started moving across the floor in the pattern that became the dance for four couples. She played it so sparkling and clear – New England style – that I could just visualize what the dance should be.
Of course, there are different styles of playing this tune. The southern style, as recorded on the Broadway album, is homier and less discreetly phrased. But for several reasons I wanted the dance to be a real cotillion rather than a southern square. Though most of the play is set in the very rural south, this dance is set in New Orleans, which would have had some sophistication. Our production of "Robber" had the period look of the 1840s. Accordingly I tried to devise dances that could have been done in the 1840s. Yet the play is based on tall tales of 1795. I wanted at least one number to acknowledge this era, the heyday of American country dancing. I did so by choreographing the "Richmond Cotillion" from authentic early American steps.
The head couples go forward and back, then sashay through each other, partners ending with a two-hand turn. Side couples do the same and everyone turns. Then all four couples join hands and sashay around to the left with a rigadoon, slip back to the right, rigadoon again. The rigadoon is a showy Early American step. When I first started talking about it, the cast members kept hearing "Brigadoon."
The cotillion here is also a wedding dance; really, the play uses this dance as the wedding ceremony. So I wanted the dance to be formal as well as pretty. The robber and his bride Rosamund lead down the middle, shaking hands on either side, as if it were a reception line. Then the dancers sashay through with another rigadoon, and Rosamund jumps into the groom’s arms. The dancers behind them make a cathedral-like ceiling, framing the new couple.
For this dance I completely disregarded the written dance directions. What else could I do, if the dance wrote itself? For instance, two babies are supposed to be passed down the line, which would have really impeded the dance movement. And one of the calls is "Grab your partner, swing for your life." You can see that it was not in keeping with my ideas for this dance. Historically too, the swing was not known in 1795, nor even in the 1840s.
The dance that opens Act II is "Company’s Comin’," to the tune of "Flop Eared Mule." Here the lyrics are loaded with directions that could be incorporated into the dance. The song compiles the many things Rosamund must do to prepare for company, such as "sweep the floor, pick the greens, pluck the hen." I have the cast mimic the jobs they sing about, while some imitate on-stage musicians. I also wanted to show a lot of clogging here, and that ran into problems.
Cast members suffered a broken leg and broken foot during rehearsals. You might conjecture that most of the play’s physical danger lay in the dancing. The dancers were new to that art, but they performed well and without incident. In the title role Len Fredericks had a lot of acrobatics, yet he pulled them off without accident. So what went wrong?
Tom Desrocher broke his foot just rising from a cross-legged position. He kept coming to rehearsals, but the cast on his foot forced the director to re-block him. Mr. Marchese didn’t want that white cast center stage, nor did he want Tom lifting benches or dancing. So other actors were switched with Tom, the scenes changed and the dances retaught.
It was only about two weeks before opening night when an even bigger blow hit us. One of the leads suffered a break that put his whole leg in a cast. Jeff, playing Little Harp, had to take a fall, lie ‘dead’ while the scene went on, and then quickly make his exit. It was jumping up to exit that did it. He came to opening night on crutches—as a spectator. I still look back on that as a turning point, a "what might have been". Our key supporting actor is down and out, the play is at a crisis. Who will step up? Indeed can the show go on?
Seated next to the director is a lone choreographer…Heck, he’s been to all of the rehearsals, knows most of the songs, and every line of Little Harp’s. What theatrical paths might have opened up for my career had I offered to step in as Little Harp? I wonder. I took two nights to think it over at home, rechecking my calendar. Other gigs and commitments conflicted with three "Robber" performance dates. I decided I just couldn’t do it. Michael Thornton replaced Jeff, and did a marvelous job of working into the role. He learned his lines, his blocking, and his dancing moves.
So the dances didn’t injure anyone, while simple stage movement did. The play was already very time-consuming to rehearse, with blocking 28 actors, refining the humorous scenes, learning 19 songs, coordinating the musicians, and more to do. The time those injuries cost forced us to spend less time rehearsing the dances.
We had been able to go back over Act I and polish up the dances; we never did it for Act II. I would have liked to drill the cast members on clogging steps. Only a few steps could be shown; there was no time to brush them up. For one stretch I had to just sit on the bench while the director coped with these very big problems. When Mr. Marchese complimented me for being so patient, the whole cast gave me my biggest hand of the rehearsals. It was like an exclamation point on my feelings of frustration.
"Company’s Comin’" was thus the big clogging number that did not quite materialize. It originally had a visual pun on the "Birdie In A Cage" figure, with dancers circling around The Raven. The director came to see that this was not working, so he cut it out. Nothing was put back in. The number opened with two dancers pantomiming brooms as they swept and clogged toward each other. These two sweepers had been to a Mountain Laurel Cloggers workshop, so they knew just the right step. But when Tom broke his foot, one of the sweepers was switched to Tom’s place. The opening thus lost the mirror effect of two sweepers, and again there was no time to fix it.
Don’t get me wrong – I was proud of the dancing we were able to present. Several cast members told me they thought the dancing made the show. For my part, I thought the singing was the strong point. The cast had very good voices and great volume as an ensemble. The humorous duo "Poor Tied Up Darlin’" was sung better here, in my opinion, than on the Broadway recording (CBS Records, Collectors Series, P-14589). The cast generally agreed that "Sleepy Man" was their favorite song. Rosamund sings this lullaby to her dozing robber, as the men harmonize in the background. It’s very good on the album, and it was a showstopper for the Producing Guild. I mean, it could make me forget I was watching a play.
According to the director the musical highpoint of the play is "Goodbye Salome." Here the townspeople dispatch the wicked step-mother and sing in celebration. I wonder if some people thought I choreographed this song-and-dance number. No I did not. Director Marchese had told me from the beginning he’d be arranging it. He wanted a complex stage movement, but not a traditional dance. So he used a sinuous circle, some high kicking and fancy stepping, and gave it all a real Broadway feel.
Even with Salome out of the way the protagonists still have difficulties. The wrap-up of Act II is a boy loses girl/girl finds boy story. Rosamund must journey to New Orleans to find her robber. To the tune "Leather Britches" the cast sings "Pass her along, she’s near about a mother." My task was to represent her travels in dance.
The "Pass her along" became a figure that pops the travelers ahead through an arch. To convey the great distance covered, I have Rosamund and her escort dancing the "Gay Gordons." With its introverted floor pattern—forward, then reverse; while facing front, then back—the "Gay Gordons" provides a lot of movement without requiring extra stage space. If you’d like to learn exactly what I mean, you are invited to the Scottish workshop on January 27.
So Rosamund finds her robber; they become man and wife dancing "The Richmond Cotillion," and all the sympathetic characters live on happily. Even the audience could leave the theater chuckling and feeling that they too might live happily ever after. Isn’t it great what theater and the folk arts can do for your mental attitude?
In that thought I find a parting wish. May you enjoy folk music aplenty, the arts and a good attitude in the coming year.