GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Keith Kuhl of 'Smash'
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by Adrienne Onofri
Musical theater is getting a lot of Hollywood exposure in 2012 between the launch of NBC’s making-of-a-musical series Smash and the upcoming release of the star-studded Rock of Ages movie. Keith Kühl, a veteran of four Broadway shows, has a part in both. In Smash he’s one of the dancers in the Marilyn Monroe musical that’s being developed. Or more accurately, since the Marilyn project is Smash’s show-within-a-show, he portrays one of the dancers in the musical. In the first episode, Kühl was among the dozen chorus boys who performed “The National Pastime” with Megan Hilty as Marilyn (actually, as the actress portraying Marilyn). “You guys were delicious,” Debra Messing’s songwriter character, Julia, commented to them afterward.
Coming up in episode 5, Kühl performs in another Marilyn number with Hilty—one called “Let’s Be Bad” that’s a show-within-a-show-within-a-show, as it depicts a drugged-up Monroe while she’s being filmed. And later in the season, when Uma Thurman guest-stars as another actress coveting the musical’s lead role, he’s in a beatnik-style production number with her. There’ll also be a Bollywood number featuring the full cast. “Smash is the job of the century,” Kühl says. “This is the best job a dancer could ever have: a recurring dance job on a TV show.”
The heavily hyped new series is, according to Kühl (pronounced cool), a boon not just for those in musical theater but for television audiences as well. “It is such an eye into our world that the general public doesn’t know, and it’s fascinating,” he says. “The writing on the show is so good, you could take out all the singing and dancing and it’s still phenomenal. It’s an extremely well-scripted, well-produced drama, and the season from where it starts to where it ends is very dramatic, and very entertaining.”
While Smash’s premiere season airs, Kühl is awaiting the big-screen release (scheduled for June) of Rock of Ages, starring Tom Cruise, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand and Julianne Hough. In that movie, he’s in the scenes at the strip club run by Mary J. Blige—whose role, Justice, has been expanded from the stage version.
Kühl has been in other film adaptations of Broadway musicals: Susan Stroman’s The Producers and the made-for-TV productions of Annie and Cinderella, both choreographed by Rob Marshall. Kühl’s screen credits also include the Meryl Streep rom-com It’s Complicated, the Jim Carrey-as-Scrooge animated A Christmas Carol and episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, Monk, 30 Rock, American Dreams, Judging Amy and Mad About You. On stage he’s been in Broadway revivals of Fiddler on the Roof, Sweet Charity and Promises, Promises and on the Contact tour.
But none of that was what Kühl had originally aspired to. Born Keith Kool (he changed his spelling to the family’s Old World name, thinking Kool looked made-up), he wanted to dance because of the music videos of the late ’80s and early ’90s. “I watched Madonna, Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson and said, ‘I want to do that,’” he explains. And when he met Abdul at the 2010 Tonys, where she presented the award for best choreography and he performed with the cast of Promises, Promises (a nominee in that category), “I did go up to her and tell her the reason I’m a dancer is actually the ‘Cold Hearted’ video,” he says.
Kühl did fulfill his dream of dancing with pop stars. He’s performed with Cher on VH1 Divas Live, with Ricky Martin (whom he remembers especially as “a genuine and kind person”) at the Grammy Awards and other events, with Shakira at the Latin Grammys, with Pink on the Lady of Soul Awards and in Usher and Jessica Simpson videos. He was up for a gig on Madonna’s Drowned World Tour when he auditioned for Contact in 2000. Contact offered him a part, Madonna could not yet confirm his job, so he accepted the Contact role. And that redirected his career after nine years as a so-called commercial dancer in L.A.
Being a commercial dancer had itself been a career redirection. The New Mexico native had moved to Chicago right out of high school to train on a summer scholarship with the renowned Giordano Jazz Dance troupe. He became an apprentice at the end of the summer, and later a company member. Eventually, though, “I realized concert work wasn’t for me emotionally or physically,” Kühl says, explaining that he lacked the technique and flexibility needed for concert dance and felt the dysfunctional relationships within some companies were best avoided. After taking a class in Chicago taught by L.A.-based choreographer and teacher Joe Tremaine, Kühl was offered a scholarship to Tremaine Dance, so he moved to southern California. He also trained at the Edge Performing Arts Center while living in Los Angeles.
He left L.A. to go on the road with Contact, which had won the 2000 Tony for Best Musical. Prior to that, Kühl’s only theater experience was in summer productions of Evita and Grease at Albuquerque Civic Light Opera during high school. “I never wanted to live in New York or thought of theater—it was never anything I pursued,” he says, noting that he didn’t think he was up to the vocal demands of musical theater. Lucky for him, there was no singing in Contact: It comprises three playlets told entirely in dance. Kühl had a principal role—the servant—in the opening piece, inspired by Fragonard’s painting The Swing. Lucky for him as well, the tour was “treated amazingly by [producer] Lincoln Center,” Kühl says. “It completely changed my life.
“It opened my eyes in the sense that when I went back to L.A. after the tour I realized how crappy dancers in L.A. are treated,” he continues. “There’s no respect, there’s no regard, we’re basically treated like extras. Being in New York rehearsing for Contact, it was clear there’s a community, there’s a respect for dancers and dancing.”
He did go back to L.A. after his 2½ years in Contact, but when a commercial shoot brought him to New York, he decided to audition for the Broadway show being cast by the commercial’s choreographer. He balked when he was asked to sing at the audition, but the creative team must have liked him because they gave him some vocal coaching and cast him. So Kühl made his Broadway debut in the 2004 Alfred Molina-headlined revival of Fiddler on the Roof, playing one of the (gentile) Russians. Their big number: “To Life.” For authenticity, the stage for Fiddler was constructed out of antique wood planks from Russia, which had some gaps between them. It was a bit of a hazard for performers, and Kühl left the show after a year and a half when he injured himself for the second time.
He was soon back on Broadway in another 1960s revival: Sweet Charity, starring Christina Applegate. Kühl joined that show a couple of months into its run in mid-2005. Shortly before then, he was in the cast of the world premiere of Waiting for the Moon, Frank Wildhorn’s musical about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, which was produced at a regional theater in New Jersey, with choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler.
After Sweet Charity closed, Kühl was cast in Grendel, Julie Taymor’s opera based on Beowulf, which played in both Los Angeles and New York in the summer of 2006. Then Twyla Tharp selected him as a swing for The Times They Are A-Changin’, her danced-through Bob Dylan jukebox musical. Tharp was coming off Broadway success with a similar venture with Billy Joel songs, Movin’ Out, which ran for more than three years and was nominated for 10 Tonys. The Times They Are A-Changin’, however, would be panned and closed after only 28 performances in the fall of 2006. Kühl never got to do the show for an audience. The swings were set to go on the night the show got its closing notice, but with so few performances left, Tharp just let the regular cast do it. Nonetheless, he says of the show: “It was actually one of the greatest experiences of my career.” During rehearsals Tharp gave the swings their own rehearsal every morning. “Twyla Tharp demands and expects the best. What she thrives off of is people working the hardest they can, working to their limits. So [for] your greatness to be expected was amazing,” says Kühl.
The failure of Times They Are A-Changin’ turned out to be the first—and perhaps the mildest—in a string of hardships that put Kühl out of work for a couple of years. Soon after the show closed, his mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away within a month. His friend Daniel McDonald, who’d had the lead on the Contact tour, died a few weeks later, and his voice teacher, Peggy Atkinson, passed away a couple of months after that. He also had to have surgery on a tendon in elbow that had been injured on Times They Are A-Changin’. And his pregnant sister-in-law was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Kühl had gone to Albuquerque when his mother got sick, and he ended up staying there for a year, supporting his brother during his wife’s cancer treatment, helping both his brother and his sister raise their young children, and remodeling and selling their childhood home. “I can view that year being home as a great opportunity,” Kühl reflects, “because I helped my siblings raise their kids and now I’m very much involved in their lives. Before, I’d go home once or twice a year, so they wouldn’t know me. So I look at it as a blessing.”
Still, he adds, all the trauma “did affect my dancing when I came back, because I wasn’t at a stable place. Casting agents would call my agent and say, ‘What’s wrong with Keith?’” And he had to struggle through a number of professional setbacks after he returned to New York. In 2008 he was cast in Rob Ashford’s Broadway-bound revisal of Brigadoon—but the whole project was scuttled before its out-of-town tryout. The following spring, Kühl was supposed to replace John Selya in Guys and Dolls on Broadway, but the poorly received revival closed before he joined the cast. And all this was going on right as the economy was collapsing. Unemployed for nearly a year after returning to NYC, Kühl went to work as a housepainter for his former Fiddler on the Roof castmate Francis Toumbakaris’ home-improvement firm, Greek & Handy.
There came a time, Kühl says, that “I washed my hands of performing and dancing. I consciously made the decision to move on with my life and give up performing.” He was hired by personal trainer Tracy Anderson, who sent him to the Hamptons and L.A. to work with her celebrity clients. So he finally got to work with Madonna, even if it was as a personal trainer rather than backup dancer. He trained a bunch of other stars too, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Robert Downey Jr., Stella McCartney and Liv Tyler. “I went from painting apartments to driving Gwyneth Paltrow’s Jeep in the Hamptons, personal-training celebrities at her house and Jerry Seinfeld’s, to being in L.A. training Tobey Maguire at Leonardo DiCaprio’s house and having breakfast overlooking Malibu at Courteney Cox’s house with Jennifer Aniston before training them,” Kühl says.
Perhaps being around all those actors re-motivated him; whatever the cause, it turned out Kühl wasn’t quite ready to abandon his own life as a performer. And he got back in the game with a role in the Ashford-directed revival of Promises, Promises, which ran on Broadway from April through December 2010. (Ashford had provided one of Kühl’s few dancing jobs during his slump—in the songs-from-movies medley performed by Hugh Jackman and Beyoncé at the 2009 Oscars.)
So there it is, for anyone who thinks they’ll never get the job they want and is considering giving up on their dreams. It took Kühl about three years, but he’s back in the game in a big way. He’s in one of this year's most-buzzed-about new TV series, and he performed on one of last year’s high-profile TV events, Oprah's Farewell Spectacular. He was just seen on Saturday Night Live, dancing with host Maya Rudolph at the beginning of the Feb. 18 episode. (He’s also been on Saturday Night Live episodes hosted by Jason Segel and Scarlett Johansson.) And last month he filmed the video for Madonna's new single, “Give Me All Your Luvin’.”
He also recently worked on a feature film due out in November called The Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell (an Oscar nominee for his last pic, The Fighter) and starring Robert De Niro (two-time Oscar winner), Jennifer Lawrence (2011 Oscar nominee) and Bradley Cooper (reigning Sexiest Man Alive). As the movie’s assistant choreographer, Kühl coached Cooper and Lawrence for a dance-contest scene—and for those already swooning over Cooper, Kühl has a warning: “He can dance!”
Much earlier in his life, Kühl had endured other travails. He stopped dancing for a few years in adolescence when he fell in with a partying crowd and began using drugs. Resuming dance saved him (most of his friends from that time have never kicked their drug habits, Kühl says), but he suffered a loss his senior year in high school when his father, Roland, died of complications from alcoholism. Roland Kool had been a nationally ranked hurdler and competed in the Pan American Games, then went on to become a well-respected attorney in Albuquerque. He’d also enjoyed painting as a youth but was forbidden to do so after high school by his own father and was never completely happy after that, which led him to drink. “The time of his death was crucial to my future,” Keith says. “I took my father’s life as an example and chose at that point to follow my dream and passion in life and dance no matter where it took me, in order to be happy with my life.”
Keith had started dancing as one of the myriad activities his mother engaged her children in. She’d grown up poor, had to get a job at age 12 and couldn’t afford to go to the Olympics for which she’d qualified in swimming (this was in the days before sponsorship of athletes). So she wanted her kids to have as many opportunities as possible: “We were driven from soccer to basketball, baseball, swimming, diving, gymnastics, water skiing, snow skiing, tennis, etcetera,” Keith recalls. Like his mother, he was a champion swimmer, ranking 10th statewide in the 100-yard breaststroke at one point. But by the middle of high school he gave up all other activities to concentrate on dancing and was taking up to four classes a day. (His brother and sister, both older, had also been put in dance classes when they were little but didn’t like them.) Kühl trained first at Lana’s School of Dance, then with the local Exposé dance company run by Edye Baca Allen, and studied ballet with Patricia Dickinson for classical. Dickinson introduced him to Gus Giordano when the modern-dance maestro came to Albuquerque to teach, leading to Kühl’s apprenticeship in Giordano’s Chicago troupe.
“My career is far past what I ever dreamed of when I chose to be a dancer,” Kühl remarks. “I wouldn’t be here without the foundation of my dance teachers back in Albuquerque and also my training in Chicago and L.A. I was lucky enough to have scholarships everywhere, so I was basically given all these teachers’ knowledge and love for arts, and am forever grateful.”
He did have the opportunity to attend college, as one of Giordano’s instructors who taught at the University of Arizona arranged for a full scholarship there; he chose to keep dancing with Giordano instead. Today Kühl says he would have liked experiencing college life, but he’s not missing out on higher education altogether: About a year and a half ago, he enrolled in the New York School of Interior Design and plans to continue taking classes there time permitting.
Now that singing and dancing have found a place on television, thanks to Glee, Smash and innumerable reality talent competitions, Kühl—with his dual Hollywood and Broadway backgrounds—is well positioned for continued success. And he loves bridging the two worlds. “They both feed me in their own way,” he says. “Theater is magical because you have a live audience and you have one time to do it. But there is something adrenaline-driven about the camera and the red lights. There’s so much pressure and money put into film and television that there’s not room for you to mess up. So it’s almost like a thrill, an adventure...because you know that they have proof of your work.”
Comparing the different dancing he’s done professionally, Kühl explains: “L.A. work is very hip, very modern and very present. It’s a lot about sex and youth and image, whereas New York is more about tradition and the classics. The L.A. style is constantly updated and evolving, which I love. But I love the industry more in New York.”
Photos of Keith, from top: lifting Megan Hilty in the baseball number on Smash’s pilot episode; left, on the Smash set with castmates Alex Michael Stoll and Vivian Nixon; with Mindy Franzese Wild in Contact; with fellow performer Karine Plantadit backstage at the Oscars in 2009; with his nephews, (clockwise from front) Carson, Roland, Koby and Kaden, last Thanksgiving; with Promises, Promises star Kristin Chenoweth; second from right, with Megan Hilty and the other workshop dancers in Smash; in costume for Rock of Ages with two other dancers in the upcoming film. [Contact photo by John Storey/San Francisco Chronicle]