Twyla Tharp’s America Takes Over Broadway

Twyla Tharp once said to me, “George Balanchine is God.” She herself doesn’t seem interested in being God; the universe, the nature of man and love, the future of the art-these aren’t the things that concern her. On the other hand, she’s just accomplished something that God clearly hasn’t had time for: With Movin’ Out , she’s revitalized Broadway. Call it a musical, call it a show, call it a ballet, call it a dance extravaganza, call it the story of America from pre- to post-Vietnam, call it a tribute to Billy Joel, call it an act of megalomania-why not just call it a hit? Hits are what Twyla Tharp has always been about, even as she’s also been about expanding what dance can do and what she can do. Yes, she’s ambitious, both for herself and for her art, and yes, her reach on occasion exceeds her grasp. But so what? Who else has her reach? And who else has her authority? Movin’ Out has dozens of first-rate dancers and musicians, plus a brilliant backup team of designers, but-trust me-it’s a one-woman show.

A lot of print has been expended on the story Tharp is trying to tell here-the story of Eddie and Brenda and Tony and Judy and James, pals back in high school, whose lives are shattered by Vietnam and then, slowly, repaired-except for James, who is killed in battle at the end of Act I. (He makes a comeback appearance in a visionary scene in Act II, and a good thing too, considering how compelling Benjamin G. Bowman is both as a decent young kid and a dying grunt.) For the record: Eddie and Brenda break up, Brenda and Tony fool around, James and Judy get married (there’s a wonderful touch when he gets down on one knee to propose and one of his hands flutters for a moment against his heart), Vietnam, postwar degradation-dope, orgies, panhandling, disco -and finally healing and reconciliation, with Tony and Brenda back together and friends reunited.

I call this a story, but it isn’t one, actually, and it certainly isn’t a plot; it’s a series of generic situations linked by the sensibility and sound of Billy Joel’s songs and the fecundity of Tharp’s dance language. The dances don’t illustrate the songs as much as embody them-and, at times, leave them behind. Yet the songs give Tharp a chance not only to return to her lifelong obsession with American youth as expressed in the way it dances and moves, but also to extend her range into war, death and regeneration. The initial Vietnam sequence is harrowingly effective, all tracer bullets and explosions, bravado and terror; no one has done this better. The orgy scene is much less original; it seems to be just going through the motions (which include shooting up, humping and the odd whip).

The more storylike moments of renewal-Judy and Eddie run into each other while jogging, everyone gets together at a reunion in the final scene-are far less convincing than what is the real climax of Movin’ Out , a tremendous outburst of joyous dance energy from Eddie and the ensemble to “River of Dreams,” “Keeping the Faith” and “Only the Good Die Young.” From the opening words-”In the middle of the night”-this number blasts the theater apart, not only through its daredevil lifts and throws and slides, the nonstop propulsive excitement of all these terrific dancers going all-out, but because Tharp makes us accept that in her world-and, for the moment, in ours-what really heals is dance itself. The jogging, the reunion, the hugs, the uncorked bottle of champagne-these are sentimental clichés that are Tharp’s accommodations to the genre she’s embracing, the Broadway show.

She goes really wrong only once, when she has Judy-in an ugly black dress with little slits in it and an even uglier hairdo-bourréeing and jetéing through the Vietnam vision scene while tormented soldiers convulse around her. This is not only mawkish and pretentious, it’s the one place where the marriage of Tharp’s modern-dance vocabulary and classical-ballet vocabulary fails to work: The two styles fight each other, and ballet loses. Judy’s trajectory from official Nice Young Girl to tragic emblem-that is, we might say, from jitterbugger to ballerina-isn’t earned; I suspect it has to do with the casting of Ashley Tuttle, a core member of Tharp’s regular company, who happens to be an exquisite classical dancer (she’s a principal at American Ballet Theatre-an exemplary Giselle). You can put Tuttle in a cute teenage outfit and have her hanging out with the local grease monkeys, but the Giselle comes through; beneath the hip-hop, her movement is irredeemably refined.

You can also spot the classicist beneath the prole in the performance of the two lead men, John Selya as Eddie and Keith Roberts as Tony. Both are refugees from A.B.T., and both are the beneficiaries of Tharp’s unerring intuition about what a dancer’s strengths may be-in this, she does resemble Balanchine. In the last several years, she’s revealed these two as tremendous technicians and profound interpreters of her kind of dance. The same is true of her leading woman, Elizabeth Parkinson, a red-haired beauty who can be both dominating and lyrical, as required. These three are so powerful, so secure, so convincing as they toss off the wickedly demanding feats Tharp requires of them that you wholly accept them as the characters they’re meant to be portraying.

And yet when you watch the alternate dancers who perform the leading roles at matinees, something interesting happens to the show. They don’t have the total dance authority of the first cast, and that may be why they seem closer to the actual world of Billy Joel-you can imagine them emerging from a youth of broken-down convertibles, cheerleaders, jukeboxes, acne. William Marrié, the brilliant substitute for John Selya, is a little less convincing as a dancer and a little more convincing as an Eddie. Karine Bageot (Alvin Ailey, The Lion King , currently on the screen in Frida ) softens Brenda-she’s all smiles and sex appeal-whereas Parkinson is as spiky, as tough and as demanding as … Twyla Tharp herself. Ron DeJesus, the substitute Tony and another first-rate dancer, could have come out of the projects, while Keith Roberts, with his all-American good looks and impeccable technique, could only have come out of ballet school. So although it would be a serious loss to miss Selya, Roberts, Parkinson and Tuttle (luckily, Bowman plays every James), don’t feel cheated if you find yourself at a matinee. And in one regard, you’ll definitely come out ahead: good as Michael Cavanaugh is as the piano-and-song man in charge of the music side of things, Wade Preston is better-the voice is deeper, more emotionally charged, more affecting. He even looks more like Billy Joel.

Movin’ Out , then, is a landmark Broadway event, though it may also prove to be a dead end. There are no other Twyla Tharps out there-just compare her work to, say, Susan Stroman’s in the insanely overpraised Contact , which serves up one cliché after another without mercy or remission. Tharp’s only competition is her friend and onetime collaborator, the late Jerome Robbins (years ago, they made a piece together, Brahms/Handel Variations , for City Ballet.) Like Robbins, Tharp has large, ambitious concepts; and like him, she’s not only an obsessive worker but a tyrant, demanding the best out of everyone, starting with herself, and usually getting it. You could say that Movin’ Out is the first real successor to West Side Story , although that show had the advantage of a clear and powerful storyline- Romeo and Juliet , remember? But watching this new show, I thought of Robbins more specifically in relation to his Dances at a Gathering . There’s a famous moment at the end of that ballet when the central male dancer-Edward Villella, originally-bends down and reverently touches the floor, which is where all dancing begins. Towards the end of Movin’ Out , Tharp-in homage? going Robbins one better?-has Keith Roberts bend down and seem to kiss the floor. I guess the stakes are higher these days. But then, with Twyla Tharp, the stakes are always high. Like all real artists, she’s a gambler, and this time she’s hit the jackpot.