2014 Best Choreographer Nominee Interview: Rachel Bertone for Moonbox Productions' "Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)"

Photo by Justin Clynes

Photo by Justin Clynes

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews.

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Rachel Bertone has a gift for not only understanding dancers' bodies, but knowing and implementing diverse styles of dance in her choreography. Musical of Musicals (The Musical!) was a perfect show to direct and choreograph in order to highlight her love for the stage and showcase her impressive repertoire of choreography.  In her Interview, Rachel discusses how she got involved in Musical of Musicals, what every dancer or actor should know for a (dance) audition, and some of her many upcoming projects!

Rachel, it is so wonderful to interview you. Can you remind our readers a bit about yourself and what you’ve been doing this year?

Thanks, Brian! It’s really exciting to talk to you again and thank you for the nomination! Musical of Musicals was such a unique and rewarding experience for all of us! For those of your readers who don’t know me, I am a director and choreographer in the Boston theater scene. This past year, I’ve had the great pleasure to direct and choreograph Musical of Musicals, and choreograph South Pacific at Reagle Music Theatre and City of Angels at The Lyric Stage. When I’m not in the rehearsal room, I’m on faculty at The Boston Conservatory and The Jeannette Neill Dance Studio, where I teach musical theater jazz.

Tell us about your process for selecting MUSICAL OF MUSICALS (THE MUSICAL!). Why did you choose this musical? Do you need to be a musicals aficionado to enjoy the show?

That credit goes to my music director and partner-in-crime, Dan Rodriguez. You see, Musical of Musicals is both a satire of and homage to classic musical theater of the 20th century. Dan knew just how deep my love for classic musical theater goes and about all my experiences working on so many of the shows that Musical of Musicals references. So when he threw that suggestion out there, it was clear to him that I’d be a natural fit to direct and choreograph this show. And he was so right!

But, to be completely honest, I was actually pretty hesitant to take on the show at first. I thought that, as written (with only four characters dressed in black and playing all the parts), it wouldn’t be accessible to a broader audience that couldn’t catch all the lightning-fast musical references. As I started brainstorming the possibilities, however, I realized that if I created an ensemble for the show and staged it as a full musical, then we could tell a great story and give the audience something to really enjoy, even in the moments they weren’t catching the (often subtle) humor. So we did it our way—the response was incredible! But, without question, the people who enjoyed the show the most were probably the musical theater nerds who got all the little inside-jokes.

How did you prepare to direct this show? What were some of the challenges? How did your cast and production team help you?

I read A LOT of books and watched A LOT of musicals! The actors have a challenging job of needing to represent and embody 3-4 different characters in each section (for example, in the Sondheim section, the ingénue June represents various characters in his canon, including Dot from Sunday, Johanna from Sweeney, and Amy from Company). That is not an easy task as you can imagine. Luckily, many of my actors had performed some of the roles they were channeling and were able to bring that knowledge to the table. It was also important for me to help the actors find a through line for each character (even if it wasn’t written that way), both within each of the five acts, and throughout. Of course, I also had an amazing creative team who had worked on many of the originals referenced in Musical Musicals—so they were able to bring the elements of those worlds into their brilliant designs.

Do you prefer to direct or choreograph? Do you think that it is better for the same person to do both for the same production? Do you think that directing makes you a better choreographer or actress?

Without question, I prefer to direct AND choreograph because I strive to create a seamless blend between movement and storytelling. That said, with the right team, I’m perfectly happy filling just one of those roles. I’ve been a choreographer for many years now, and now that I’ve started directing too, I can see how directing has made a major impact on my choices as a choreographer.

What people might not realize though, is that it works both ways: my background as a choreographer strongly informs and strengthens my ability to direct as well.

What is your favorite musical? Musical style/period?

Easy! West Side Story. Where dance, character, and song work in perfect unison to support the story.

What is the hardest thing about choreographing? What is the easiest part?

I’ll actually answer this in the reverse order. The easiest part is choreographing when you are inspired. Often, especially when you are working with brilliant music (e.g., Bernstein, Kander and Ebb), all you need to do is listen to it once, and the whole dance just comes together in your head – like improvisation. But, it isn’t possible to be inspired all the time. Because being a choreographer is my profession, I don’t always have the luxury to wait for a magic moment of inspiration! This is the hardest part. During those times, I need to listen to the music over and over, and rely on my technique and training as a dancer, and my years of experience as a choreographer, to tie dancing, movement, and characters together through deliberate planning, and thinking, and working through each detail. But at the end of the day, all of it bleeds together, and you get a full piece of choreography!

What shows would you love to choreograph? Direct? Perform?

I would LOVE to direct and/or choreograph: Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Cabaret, Gypsy, Damn Yankees, On the Town, Seven Brides for Seven Bothers, and anything Fosse!

I grabbed the car. We’re going on a roadtrip. Where are we going and why are we going there? Who else is going with us?

WOOT! WOOT! We are going to Miami!! Because it is beautiful, sunny, and away from all my work.

If you had to eat something every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?

And still fit into my pants?? My mom’s amazing homemade peanut butter pie!!

Photo by Sharman Altshuler

Photo by Sharman Altshuler

What basic dance skills should a performer have if they want to audition for a musical? What are choreographers and directors looking for on the other side of the table during an open dance call? What about during a callback?

Ideally, actors should have a basic dance vocabulary going into a dance call. I always encourage actors to take different styles of dance classes—jazz, ballet, modern, tap—to become more comfortable with various forms of dance. This will help them pick up combos, execute steps with a sense of technique, and have the confidence and ability to dance with intention at the dance call. Without technique, you can quickly resort to your bad habits as nerves and exhaustion kick in, thereby preventing you from showing off your best self!

At a dance call, I always say I am looking for two things: specificity in movement and bold choices that show a character. I want storytellers, not technicians—although having both is, of course, ideal. As a side note, I strongly believe that dance training is essential for actors as well! The ability to morph into a new character depends largely on your ability to find new physical choices. Dance training gives you the language with which to explore your physicality.

Regarding callbacks: I am looking for similar things, although at that point, I usually give a more challenging combo and teach it more quickly. With short rehearsal processes, you really need to know how quickly someone can pick up, and if they can’t, how they deal with that. Biggest pointer: Enjoy yourself and have as much fun as you can!!

What makes you smile?

Vacationing with my boyfriend, teaching my students, watching my actors perform onstage, spending time with my family, watching Dr. Who (yup, I’m a dork), and answering this question.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

Yes, I do! I am about to choreograph Guys and Dolls at Reagle Music Theatre. The show opens in June and I’ll be reunited with the dynamite Reagle team that brought you Les Miserables and South Pacific!

Then in August I’m so excited to be directing a new work called Creative License that will be performed at the New York International Fringe Festival.

Finally, the most recent news is that I am going to direct and choreograph The Wild Party at Moonbox Productions next spring. We just had auditions and I’m very excited to take on this meaty musical!

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Thanks for supporting theater and for reading this far down!!