‘The Doors Didn’t Open Easily’ on Her Path to ‘Cinderella’

‘The Doors Didn’t Open Easily’ on Her Path to ‘Cinderella’

LONDON — Midway through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new “Cinderella,” the male ensemble throws itself into a thrusting, muscle-popping number that perfectly illustrates the musical’s fictional setting of Belleville, a town devoted to beauty in all its superficial forms. It’s also laugh-out-loud hilarious, a sly take on an objectification more usually embodied by a female chorus, and a witty amplification of the musical’s reimagining of the Cinderella myth.

That dance (which incorporates kettle bells), and all the others in this West End production, is the work of JoAnn M. Hunter, a longtime Broadway performer and choreographer who has quietly become an important figure in a field that boasts very few women, and even fewer women of color.

“A great number of choreographers go their own way,” Lloyd Webber said in a telephone interview, “but JoAnn is completely different, a wonderful collaborator who you can really talk to about what the show needs. She is hugely important to the look of the show.”

“Cinderella,” which finally opened on Aug. 18 at the Gillian Lynne Theater here after multiple pandemic-related delays, has a book by Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”) and lyrics by David Zippel (“City of Angels”). It’s Hunter’s third collaboration with Lloyd Webber and the director Laurence Connor, after the 2015 Broadway production of “School of Rock” and the much-lauded 2019 West End revival of “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

A few critics jibed at Fennell’s rewriting of the Cinderella story: The heroine, played by Carrie Hope Fletcher, is a spirited, grumpy Goth; Prince Charming is M.I.A.; and his younger brother, Prince Sebastian (Ivano Turco), is the shy and awkward hero. But most reviewers concurred that the new musical is a great deal of fun, helped along by the wittily inventive, hugely varied dances that characterize Hunter’s style.

“JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography keeps it all swishing along, from blowzily romantic waltzes to homoerotically charged rapier skirmishes,” Sam Marlowe wrote in The I.

Hunter, who is in her 50s, was born just outside of Tokyo, but grew up in Rhode Island with her Japanese mother and American father. She and her older brother were the only mixed-race children in their community. “I got taunted quite a lot, and I didn’t understand what was different about me,” she said.

Ballet, which she started studying at 10, proved a savior. “In dance class I didn’t feel different at all,” she said. “I was just a dancer, with dancer friends. I always wonder if that’s why I fell in love with the art form.”

At 16, she went to New York City on a summer dance scholarship. One night she bought a standing-room ticket for Bob Fosse’s Broadway musical “Dancin’.” As she watched, she made a silent vow: “I’m not going back home. This is where I belong.” What she saw, she said, was the possibility of “expressing all those things inside you.” Her family, she added, “never hugged, never said ‘I love you.’ But onstage I saw you had permission and freedom to show your feelings.”

She went back to Rhode Island just long enough to tell her mother she wasn’t returning to high school, then moved to New York, taking dance classes, working at Barney’s and attending audition after audition, but staying under the radar in spite of her efforts. “I couldn’t get arrested at the time,” she said wryly.

After working at the Opryland USA theme park in Nashville in the early 1980s (“we sang, we danced, we did four shows a day; I loved it”), she was hired for tours of “West Side Story” and “Cats.” But she experienced long periods of joblessness and insecurity.

There was hardly any diversity on Broadway in the late 1980s, she said, and she felt acutely aware of looking different than the “beautiful tall blond girls” at auditions. “People would look at me, and say, ‘What are you?’” she recounted. “I would answer, ‘whatever you need me to be.’”

She played the white cat in “Cats” for 15 months, and began to gain confidence. Then, in 1989, she had an experience that was pivotal for her subsequent choreographic career. She joined the cast of “Jerome Robbins’s Broadway,” an evening-length show of selections from Robbins’s choreography for musicals like “Fiddler on the Roof” and “On the Town.”

“Jerry was a tyrant,” she said, “but I adored working with him, and I think I was absorbing so many lessons without thinking about it. He was unsurpassed at telling a story through movement.”

Ensemble roles in Broadway shows (“Miss Saigon,” “Guys and Dolls,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”) followed, and soon Hunter began to work as a dance captain, the ensemble member who can teach the choreography for every character. While she was performing in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in 2002, the director, Rob Ashford, asked her to be his choreographic associate.

“JoAnn was always the smartest person in the room as well as the best dancer, and I knew she would be invaluable,” Ashford said in a telephone interview. Hunter, who had just gone through a divorce, wasn’t so sure. (She said her initial response was “aaarghhhh.”) But she had to take the chance.

“She is a real problem solver and a great collaborator,” Ashford said. “In a musical, a choreographer has to get inside a director’s head and translate that vision into their own creation. She was always about the goals of the show.”

The director Michael Mayer, who hired Hunter to oversee Bill T. Jones’s choreography for “Spring Awakening” in 2006, said in a telephone interview that one of her great gifts is to “understand why the steps are there, what the characters are trying to accomplish through the movement, and how the movement is in conversation with the rest of the elements of the show, even though at that point she hadn’t made up the moves.”

Hunter’s first independent choreography for a musical was for a 2008 U.S. touring production of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” “I remember thinking, I’m never going to know unless I try this,” Hunter said. “And if I’m bad, not too many people will have seen it!”

Asked whether she thought this kind of insecurity was particularly rife among women, Hunter looked thoughtful. Perhaps, she said. “Men tend to try things without worrying if they have the experience.” She added that the paucity of female choreographers on Broadway didn’t help her confidence.

Although there are still relatively few female choreographers working on Broadway, this has begun to change: Camille A. Brown, Michelle Dorrance, Ellenore Scott and Ayodele Casel are all choreographing upcoming Broadway shows. Hunter agreed that women are now somewhat more visible in musical theater. “It’s amazing to think as a dancer I only ever worked with two female directors, Susan Stroman and Tina Landau,” she said. “At the moment these issues are at the front of our brains, as is racial diversity. I hope it’s something enduring, not a fad.”

When she choreographed “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” she added, she was still too fearful about a choreographic career to give up the insurance having an Equity card provides. “I am afraid of failure; we all go through life thinking, ‘I’m going to be found out,’” she said. She laughed. “I’m still petrified.”

Her first Broadway commission came from Mayer, with the short-lived revival of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” Then came “School of Rock.”

Hunter said she had worked closely with Lloyd Webber on “Cinderella,” a great deal of which was developed during lockdown. “People don’t really understand that a choreographer on a musical does much more than the dance sequences,” she said. “You move people around, deal with the transitions, where the audience’s focus should go. You have to be totally connected to the vision of the composer, writer and director.”

The choreographer also often works with a dance arranger, she added, who adapts the score for dance sections. “A script direction might say, ‘goes into a dance moment,’” she explained. “But I think, ‘What do we want to say here?’ You might want a Latin feel, a tango rhythm, a French chanson, as a way of making mood and story more understandable.”

For the “Muscle Man” dance in “Cinderella,” for instance, she thought about what the musical was trying to say and suggested a sound equivalent. “They are such macho, testosterone guys, and I had the idea of using kettle bells, which sounds like something dropping and is funny.”

For “Cinderella,” Lloyd Webber did the dance arrangements himself. “I sketched out what I thought the dance music should be,” he said. “Then JoAnn took that, and actually stayed very faithful to it, but we added accents and she would ask for elements that the dance might need. It’s a really important collaboration, because you can’t look at the dance if you can’t listen to the music; it has to be good.”

Hunter said that while she doesn’t read music, she has an acute sense of instrumentation and rhythm. “I just say things like ‘I don’t want it so pingy-pingy!’” she said. “That way I can make funny funnier and sexy sexier.” She added, “I always want every movement to tell a story. When Prince Sebastian dances at the end, I told Ivano, it’s not about the dance, it’s about you speaking up for yourself.”

Her choreography, Ashford said, “has the great gift, which she learned from Robbins, of ‘just enough,’ of never taking longer than she needs.”

Hunter, who last year directed and choreographed “Unmasked,” a concert retrospective of Lloyd Webber’s career, is working as both director and choreographer on “SuperYou,” a new musical written by Lourds Lane. Hunter described it as “a superhero, self-empowering piece about women finding their own voice” and said she hopes it will go to Broadway.

Hunter added that she was still frequently the only woman on a creative team. “I’ve worked with great people, but the doors didn’t open easily,” she said. “I still feel I am constantly proving myself.”

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