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by Naomi Serviss
On a chilly March morning, choreographer Joshua Bergasse studied his performers as they brought to life his latest creation for the NBC musical drama SMASH. The stage, in a Staten Island theater a short walk from the ferry terminal, was festooned with red, white and blue streamers and a huge American flag. Katharine McPhee, who portrays a just-in-from-Iowa ingénue pursuing her dream of Broadway stardom, shimmered in a spangly violet dress and platinum blond wig. Her role in this scene of the show within the show was Marilyn Monroe entertaining the troops during a 1950s USO tour.
As the ensemble danced, McPhee stopped singing mid-song. Bergasse rushed to the stage. "What's wrong Kat?" The problem alleviated – overly bright lights – the ensemble picked up the song again, and Bergasse (pronounced ber-GAHS) walked quickly back to his seat as the four-hour rehearsal resumed.
Bergasse, 39, has come a long way from ensemble dancing in national touring companies of Broadway shows. His stint on Broadway with HAIRSPRAY had been his most visible job before the consulting producer and director of SMASH, Michael Mayer, saw a reel of his work and beckoned Bergasse to the small screen in his first lead choreography job for the full season of a network show.
The prospect of joining such a high-profile show – Steven Spielberg is an executive producer; the cast includes Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston – was daunting at first. "I think I was a little nervous," Bergasse said. "The idea of working on such a big show was somewhat overwhelming."
But there were many draws to joining the creative team of the show, which pulls the curtain back on the backstage machinations involved when a new musical about Marilyn Monroe is created for Broadway.
"The script was great," Bergasse said. "Really, really clever." He saw an outlet for the sort of work inspired by the old MGM musicals he grew up watching and his biggest choreographic influences, giants like Bob Fosse, Michael Kidd, Jack Cole and Gene Kelly. "Those old shows used dance as part of the story, and I try to make the dance sequences part of the SMASH story," he said. "I absorbed a lot."
The first season of SMASH features original songs by executive producers and co-lyricists Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, both Tony and Grammy Award winners. Megan Hilty, a Broadway veteran, and the newcomer McPhee play actresses who are vying for the Marilyn lead and a shot at Broadway stardom.
Bergasse said the arc of each character follows "how they interpret and mirror Marilyn during the big production numbers."
Working on SMASH has enabled Bergasse to work in the realm of some of his favorite dance movies like SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and WEST SIDE STORY. "I probably watched 'West Side Story' more than any other movie," he said. "Those movies all tell a story, and what's great about this show is I get to work with great dancers and hire people I respect and admire."
Bergasse first danced in his hometown, Detroit, in his mother's dance school. "My mom was my first dance teacher so I grew up storytelling in dance."
He got the acting bug playing the role of Baby John in a Detroit production of WEST SIDE STORY.
"Sometimes I don't see the dance routine right away and I get terrified," he admitted. "I can circle around the number for days and I freak out, but once you get into the studio it just comes together." He even dreams about routines. "I totally dream about choreography and even solve problems. Isn't that weird?"
Shaiman heaped praise on Bergasse. "He's definitely the MVP of the show," he said during a lull in the rehearsal. "We have all been working very hard with intense deadlines and scrutiny. And what he pulls off is miraculous. He just keeps delivering great, great dances.
"He's an incredible dancer himself and is so adorable it's hard to concentrate," Shaiman joked, as the song "I Never Met a Wolf Who Didn't Like to Howl" was heard in playback.
"Bergasse has so much going on with the big numbers, and everything is cleverly staged," Shaiman said. "No matter how many dancers he works with at one time, he always figures out a way for all the characters to have an individual style. It's not just a dance class. He's always telling a story in the choreography."
A trio of musicians – guitar, sax, trumpet – dressed in red sports jackets, cream-colored slacks, white shirts and black bow-ties hit their marks atop a table in front of the American flag backdrop. Dancers in uniforms – servicemen at a USO event featuring none other than Marilyn Monroe – jitterbugged with an enthusiastic McPhee as Marilyn.
As his choreography came to life, Bergasse alternately ran from the television monitors to the stage while the hours flew by. Members of the ensemble were soon on their hands and knees, polishing the stage floor. Bergasse explained that the dance surface was a shiny marley floor and needed to be rubbed down. Scuff marks could make the dancers slip. He wanted the number to be stupendous, because it would be the last episode of the season, scheduled for May. Whether there will be a second season, he said, is anybody's guess.
SMASH airs on Monday nights at 10 Eastern time. Bergasse's choreography can also be seen in a Carnegie Hall performance of THE SOUND OF MUSIC on April 24.
Photo Credit: Naomi Serviss