In 1975, four shows into his Broadway career, Wayne Cilento found his calling. He found it in the seventh longest-running hit of all time and even became a part of that musical’s logo. He’s third from the left in that iconic stretch of 17 aspiring, auditioning dancers who make up A Chorus Line.
His character, athletic and aggressive, is named Mike, and he’s the first to burst into song. That song is “I Can Do That,” and it has become something of a mantra for Cilento over the years.
“Now, every time I say, ‘I can do that,’ it feels so weird coming out of my mouth,” he admits.
Turns out, he really can do that, having parlayed an acting-dancing career into one of directing and choreography. His choreography of Baby and The Who’s Tommy both won Tony Awards, and he has been nominated for Dream, Wicked, Sweet Charity and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. For the last two shows, he recreated Bob Fosse’s style of choreography.
These days you’ll find him at the Music Box Theater, wearing both hats (choreographer and director), readying the Broadway return of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ on March 19. He was in the original 1978 production, and the show put him in the Tony running for Best Featured Actor—even though very little acting (but lots of energy) was required for that assignment.
“I think it was because I had an abundant amount of material to do,” he now rationalizes. “I spoke. I sang. I danced. I was all over that stage. For this edition, I actually broke my part in the show down for four men, so four men are taking on me. That’s how much stuff I did in Dancin’—it just kinda accumulated and it featured me so well that I got a Tony nomination.”
Cilento, who hasn’t been on Broadway since he choreographed Holler If Ya Hear Me in 2014, was pitched the Dancin’ project four years ago and he said ‘Yes’—albeit, with an asterisk. “I felt that it needed to be upgraded. You can’t do a 45-year-old show in this generation—because of attention-spans. It was three acts. I made it two acts. I changed the atmospheric element of it, and the numbers kinda live in a different place—not a different place but in a different feeling of a place, as opposed to just an open stage which is more of a concert format. This is, I think, a little bit more of a theatrical film format. It moves like a film. Everything segues and moves, and it’s very fluid helping you get from place to place, from number to number.”
The steps are still Fosse’s, and most of the songs from the original remain the same. “We’ve updated the orchestrations and make them feel a little more contemporary. And there’s a whole ballet I created called ‘Big City Mime.’ That was in the original production when we were in Boston. We did it one evening, and he cut it. I thought that there was something in it.
“In ‘Big City Mime,’ I ventured into different shows that Bob has created in his career on Broadway. I take you on this journey, and it was about a guy who comes into the city and he experiences different things along the way, so I actually kept the format of what it was. I managed to pull choreography from different places that Bob had created, and then I inserted it in order to tell a story. It gets all the way to the end, and you see what happens.”
Cilento owes his introduction to Fosse to a fellow choreographer, Graciela Daniele. He had missed the audition for Dancin’ because he was out of town at the time, working on the Liza Minnelli musical The Act. Fosse had already finished his auditioning and his casting by the time Graciela brought him the word. “Bob, you really need to see Wayne.” He didn’t resist the idea.
Both shows docked at the Minskoff Rehearsal Studios—The Act was on one end and Dancin’ was on the other doing pre-production. “I knocked on the door at lunch time,” Cilento says. “Ann Reinking was in the room and Bob and Gordon Harold the piano player and a drummer. Bob taught me a couple of sections from the show. I danced with Annie, and Bob danced with the two of us, and then Bob asked if I want to sing. I said, ‘Sure’ and sang at the piano, and he raised my key three times. Then he shook my hand when the audition was over and said, ‘Thank you very much. It was really great, meeting you.’ And I walked out of there on Cloud Nine. I thought, ‘This is great. I’m sure I didn’t get the show, but I was thrilled to death.’
“The night The Act opened, I looked into the audience and found him staring right back at me. He rushed up to me at the opening-night party and said, ‘I want you in my show.’ I said, ‘But you told me you had it cast.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know, but I’ll figure it out.’ I said, ‘I’m in. I’ll do it.’
“I doubled for a while, doing two show simultaneously—rehearsing during the day and doing The Act at night. I would run in between and get whatever rehearsal I could from Dancin’””
Cilento began his Broadway career in 1973 on a Seesaw—the one written by Michael Bennett. It was a fortuitous first show. Ordinarily a choreographer and director, Bennett’s reigning passion at the time was to create a show that accurately conveyed a dancer’s life. To this end, he invited dancers to a late-night group therapy session to talk about it, and, from that talk, Bennett, James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante fashioned the Pulitzer Prize winning A Chorus Line, which Bennett directed and co-choreographed.
Cilento made a contribution. Mike’s assertive personality comes from Cilento, but not the story that “I Can Do That” tells. That belonged to Sammy Williams, who played Paul in A Chorus Line and delivers the emotional wallop at the end of the play. It was Williams who accompanied his sister to dance class, took a liking to it, and attended class when she was sick and couldn’t.
Cilento had a comparable story, and it almost made it into the show. “When we were about to open,” he remembers, “Michael came up to me and said, ‘You know, I don’t know if ‘I Can Do That’ is good enough, so I think you should go back to that story you told me about your friend, Joanne.” That was the name of a girl in the building that Cilento had grown up in. At seven or eight he was smitten with her that she got him to attend his first dance class.
So Bennett and Cilento quickly did choreography for a song called “Joanne.” “And I did it—one time—then he came back to me and said, ‘You’re going to go back to ‘I Can Do That,’” Cilento remembers.
As for the real Joanne, she was Cilento’s introduction to dance class, but his study was interrupted after the teacher of that first class recognized an innate dancer’s quality about him and used him to demonstrate moves. “All the kids had to stop and watch me, and I got really insecure and intimidated,” he says. “And I never went back till high school. I was about 17, and we were doing our first high school musical. It was Oklahoma! I was Curly in the dream ballet.”
His dream Laurey was Cathy Colety, who promptly married him and is still his wife. They have three sons and 12 grandchildren. “All ages, starting around 24 and all the way down to 2.”
Surely, there’s a dancer in there somewhere.