Lorin Latarro Is Making Big Moves on Broadway

"You have to understand that I can’t do anything else. I mean, I am an expert in dance, and I love it. I've dedicated my entire life to it."

A woman in a red jacket holds a paper coffee cup in a studio during a rehearsal
Latarro at ‘Tommy’ rehearsals. Carrington Spires

Lorin Latarro is having a moment right now. It’s not her first time in the spotlight—she’s performed in fourteen Broadway shows and been part of the creative team for many plays and musicals—but this beam might be the brightest yet. This spring she is the choreographer for two of the season’s most anticipated Broadway hits: the revival of The Who’s TOMMY and Huey Lewis and the News’ The Heart of Rock and Roll.

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As with every moment of significance, other significant moments led up to it: when a famous German choreographer walked into Latarro’s dance class smoking a cigarette… when a performer in Swing! was injured and the show needed a last-minute replacement… when Latarro got a life-changing call while riding in the backseat of a cab.

But we could go back even further to when Latarro trained at a local dance studio in New Jersey and came into New York City on the weekends to see Broadway shows… when she watched the performers on stage and thought, “I want to do that.”

She and I spoke a few days before TOMMY opened in NYC, following the show’s critically acclaimed run in Chicago. We connected in a short break between Latarro bringing her 6-year-old daughter to the Trolls experience at CAMP 5th Avenue and leading a rehearsal. Just another day for a busy mother-director-choreographer. “There was a parent event that I couldn’t go to recently,” Latarro told Observer, “and my daughter told her teacher it was because I was busy choreographing rock and roll.” She laughed in the telling, but her daughter was right. She has made quite a name for herself by doing just that.

How did she get here? “Once a dancer, always a dancer,” she said when I mentioned my own training and injury. “Our brains are different from other people’s. It changes how you think about the world, being a dancer.” Maybe that’s why I see her journey to star choreographer in phrases and holds—in fast but perfectly controlled spins. Let’s break it down.

The famous German choreographer

Pina Bausch, queen of Tanztheater, was Latarro’s teacher during her first year at Juilliard. “She came into the room smoking,” she said with a degree of awe. “They allowed her to smoke!” Bausch took the class to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see her groundbreaking The Rite of Spring. “Imagine seeing this before understanding anything about who she was or what she did. We just sat there sobbing. It cracked open a universe for me about what movement could be, in such a deep way.”

Latarro’s time at Juilliard expanded her love for modern and contemporary dance. After graduating, she stayed in the concert dance world for several years, performing with the Martha Graham Dance Company, MOMIX and Robert Wilson. “Touring with dance companies was wonderful,” she said. “You get to see the world! But it’s also really hard. And I always wanted to be on Broadway, it was always something I had aspired to, so I jumped over.”

Two men and a woman stand in front of a wall hung with many photographs
Lorin with Huey Lewis and director Gordon Greenberg in rehearsal. Paul Aphisit

The last-minute replacement

Latarro had been in a swing dance show that Frankie Manning, the king of swing, helped choreograph. “I learned how to swing dance from the master,” she explained. So, when Swing! was looking for a replacement, she auditioned. “I had no equity card, no nothing, because I was a modern dancer. And they were like, ‘Who’s this kid who knows how to swing?’” And that’s how she made the leap to Broadway.

She stayed there for almost twenty years, performing in hits like Fosse, Guys and Dolls, A Chorus Line, and Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out. Tharp’s jukebox musical made a huge impact on Latarro as an artist. “It changed my life, being inside that show for two years. Because you’re storytelling with just your movements, just your body. And Twyla is an incredible director. It influenced everything I did thereafter.”

Latarro kept performing, but she also started assisting the shows’ creative teams. She noticed which movement styles and directors inspired her—Graham technique, of course, but also the works of Steven Hogget, Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Ann Reinking and Frankie Manning—and began choreographing pieces for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS events.

A man and a woman pose in front of a photo backdrop
Pete Townshend and Lorin Latarro at the opening night of ‘Tommy.’ Tricia Baron

The life-changing phone call

“He said, ‘It’s Michael Mayer,’ and I said, ‘I think you have the wrong number.’ And he said, ‘No, no, I know who you are. I’ve been following your choreography. You need to stop performing. You need to start choreographing full time.”

Mayer invited her to be the associate choreographer for his 2010 show American Idiot, which changed everything. Latarro’s career as a choreographer and movement director took off like a shot. She choreographed, among other things, Broadway’s recent Into the Woods, Waitress, Mrs. Doubtfire, Les Liaisons Dangereuse with Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber, Waiting for Godot with Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stuart, Merrily We Roll Along at Roundabout, Assassins at Encores!, La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera, Chess at The Kennedy Center and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 21 Chump Street at BAM. She also recently directed Candace Bushnell’s Is There Still Sex in the City? at the Daryl Roth Theatre.

“With Waitress, I think people started to see what I was interested in doing,” Latarro said. “And I think for Tommy and Heart of Rock and Roll this season, people will start to see the bigger dances I love to do.”

The Who’s Tommy

Des McAnuff and Latarro first worked together when she performed in his revival of Guys and Dolls in 2009. When he asked her to choreograph his TOMMY revival, she was thrilled.

About the collaborative process of recreating TOMMY with McAnuff (director/book) and Pete Townshend (music/lyrics/book), Latarro told Observer, “Des is a true visionary. and he and Pete, this is their baby. So, we did a lot of talking. I tried to get inside Pete’s heartbeat and inside Des’s head. They wanted a fresh way in, and so we worked really hard together to find it.”

Latarro listened to the score over and over again and thought deeply about the story. “What I didn’t do,” she said, “is watch the original. I wanted to stay away from it. I didn’t want to see anything.” Instead, she focused on the dramaturgy. What were the characters trying to say? What did they need to communicate with their bodies? “I try to stay on the emotional experience the people on stage are having, because if they’re having an emotional experience, then we will too, by watching them. This couldn’t be a performative dance piece. They had to be in it.”

She also spoke at length with her husband, a neurosurgeon, about Conversion Disorder, which the character Tommy suffers from, and brought that knowledge into her movement direction. She spent time working with the child actors playing the young Tommys, helping them to not blink, to stay still, to keep their faces blank and limbs heavy… to move like they have “little 20-pound fish hooks on their middle fingers.”

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There are moments like these—the young Tommys’ physicality, the dreamlike operation, the bed-spinning depiction of abuse—that are handled subtly and beautifully, that lean into the surreal-minimalist aesthetic of the show (Oh, David Korins’ set design! Peter Nigrini’s projections!). And then there are breakout ensemble dance numbers that simply bring the house down. “Pinball Wizard,” which ends Act I, is one of these, and Latarro knows it. “They just let it all go. They just leave it on the floor every night. I call it ‘sixth gear’ where they’re just dancing. They have nothing left at the end of that number.” Other standout dance numbers are “Sparks,” “Sensation,” and “Pinball Wizard” (Reprise).

The Heart of Rock and Roll

As for her next show, Latarro says Heart of Rock and Roll is completely different: “It’s delicious and bubbly and set in the ‘80s, with big dance numbers that are presentational and fun. And I’ll tell you, the ‘80s was a great time for dance. Think about all those movies! Every movie ended in an eight-minute-long dance battle. Or, like, the trapeze act and the hip-hop street dancers getting together to beat the yuppies. That’s basically the plot of every ‘80s movie. Dancing is sort of fundamental in the show in a way that is exciting for me.”

When I mentioned that not everyone could choreograph so well in such a wide range of styles, she said, “Well, you have to understand that I can’t do anything else. I mean, I am an expert in dance, and I love it. I’ve dedicated my entire life to it. But I can’t cook. I can barely drive. This is who I am.”

And when I asked what’s next, Latarro claimed that after both her shows are up and running, she will take a well-deserved break. “I just need to be a mom for a little bit, pick my daughter up from school and be around.”

Once a dancer, always a dancer, though. I imagine her pausing to take a deep breath, then lifting her child close to her chest and spinning around and around, limbs as weightless as wings.

The Who’s TOMMY is playing at Nederlander Theatre (208 West 41st Street), and The Heart of Rock and Roll will open on April 22 at James Earl Jones Theater (138 W. 48th Street). 

Lorin Latarro Is Making Big Moves on Broadway