During rehearsals for Pump Boys and Dinettes over the weekend, choreographer Peggy Hickey and I sat down for a chat. I’d been sitting next to her in rehearsals, and watching her choreograph the dances in the show without a single note written for herself, marveling at her ability to choreograph something that makes so much sense on the spur of the moment. This is not an easy task, but when the dancers are musicians with guitars – or a piano – to play while dancing, well, it’s more than “not easy…”
Peggy began as a dancer, in musical theatre, and found her way to the corps de ballet in the opera. When LA Opera was just beginning, they needed a choreographer, and they needed one fast. Peggy was already dancing for them, so they asked her to choreograph as well. Peggy leapt in, with both feet, and began a career which spans opera, musical theatre, Shakespeare, music videos (she was awarded the MTV Video Music Award for Best Choreography for her work on Grammy-Award winner Beck’s “The New Pollution”), television (she’s choreographed for the popular series 90210, Samantha Who? and General Hospital, among others) and the silver screen (if you saw The Brady Bunch Movie, you’ve seen her work). Our conversation was especially interesting to me, because Peggy could share the processes for working in all of these genres, as well as how her process on a musical revue is different than your traditional musical.
In any genre, though, she suggests that the goal is always the same: “The best of opera and theatre and musical theatre is when you get past all of that and you’re just telling the story. That’s the universal thing that makes you good or bad at what you’re doing, no matter what the genre. Even something as light as Pump Boys, if you can find what these people want, and that it makes people in the audience feel the same or feel something about it – that’s the goal, to make people feel something.”
Here are some excerpts from our conversation – in which she reveals her upcoming Broadway debut:
JW: Can you tell me how you started working with director Mark Cuddy?
Well, I was introduced to Mark by a friend at Sacramento Theatre Company many, many years ago. And my friend Gregg Coffin (composer of Geva’s A Christmas Carol and Five Course Love), who also lives in Sacremento, kept saying “Oh, my friend Mark Cuddy…” “I’m working with Mark Cuddy…” so we met but hadn’t worked together because our schedules didn’t fit. So we had wanted to work together for years – and we started with Geva’s production of Greg Kotis’ Urinetown. Then I choreographed Five Course Love, and The Music Man. Though we’ve known each other probably 20 years, we’ve only just started working together. We’re having a great time.
It’s such a pleasure, when you get a bunch of shows under your belt with someone, because you just know each other better and you’re more likely to be patient with each other. He allows me to run with an idea and then he pulls me back and he’s very, very generous to me, which is only something you get over time. The costume designer, set designer and lighting designer, they certainly are collaborating with Mark, but I am literally climbing over his knees all the time – and he lets me. And I wouldn’t be able to do that if he didn’t invite me, which is nice.
JW: How would you characterize working at Geva?
Oh! One of the top regional theatres in the country. It is one of my two most favorite theatres in the country. The other one I love equally as much is the Goodspeed, in Connecticut. I first came to the East Coast when the director from the Goodspeed came out to Music Circus where I was doing summer stock as a choreographer, and said, “What are you doing here? Come with me!” and that was the beginning of a whole new chapter which is what’s leading me, ultimately, to Broadway.
JW: Yes! So, tell me about the Broadway show…
Oh! That’s called A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. At the Goodspeed I was introduced – gosh, like 11 years ago – to Darko Tresnjak. They put us together. He was a new director for them, they wanted to give him a choreographer – he was kind of new to musicals. They liked me – I was doing Brigadoon there at the time, so they literally blind dated us. They just put us in a room together – me and his designers. Darko’s a very loyal guy – he and his costume designer, they’ve been together for years. And that was 11 years ago. So Darko and I set off on a journey of not just musicals – we do opera and Shakespeare together and I’ve learned so much about doing text shows, where there’s some incidental music composed but it’s not a musical and it’s not an opera. This project came along to Darko about four years ago. And because of the very highly political nature of Broadway shows – he couldn’t even get me on the project at first – they wouldn’t give him his choreographer. They wanted to set him up with someone who had Broadway credits. So thanks to legal problems that delayed the project, the next time the project came along, Darko had enough juice to say “I want my team,” so that’s how I got onto it. So we’ve been working on it for the last year at the Hartford Stage and then the Old Globe in San Diego, and now we’re going to New York.
JW: When does that start?
September 16 we start, which is why I don’t get to stay for the opening night of Pump Boys. I live in LA, so I’ve got to fly home and see my kids and pack for two months in New York. I hate missing opening, but if I stayed through Saturday, I would just literally have to go right to New York. And that’s three months and I have children… Even though they’re big kids. I appreciate that Mark is one of the few directors that I work with that is a parent as well, and gets how hard it is to travel and be away from your kids.
JW: Talk about that a little bit – how do you manage that? You’re here for three and a half weeks, then you go home for 2 days, then gone for 2 months.
The key to my whole life is my brilliant husband. He has believed in my career more than I did. He knew 20-some years ago that I’d have a Broadway show. I remember vividly, standing there barbecuing with one baby on my hip, pregnant with another, and him saying, “Well, when you get to Broadway…” and I just remember saying, “How can you stand and look at me, a suburban housewife in Burbank, California, pregnant, with a baby on my hip and tell me you know this?” And he said, “because I know.” And I’ve never forgotten that, and he was right. He was right. And every time I’d get a job, I’d go “Oh, I can’t do this. How am I going to do this with a baby?” And he’d go, “Oh, it’ll be great. You take the baby, I’ll hold onto Molly in like three weeks, I’ll fly out and we’ll switch kids. And then I’ll take the baby home and you’ll take the nanny…” We invested – because I live in Los Angeles – in housekeeping/nannying. That was more important to me than eating, to have a consistent caretaker that I trusted, that was always the same person, so we’ve had the same nanny for 11 years. We just paid for her. We didn’t go out, we didn’t take vacations. We paid for consistent childcare so I could feel not freaked out, traveling. So we invested in that – when I say the word “nanny,” that’s really for upperclass people. It’s funny that an artist has a nanny, but that’s what I had, because that was my condition. To feel okay to travel 3,000 miles away from my kids. When they were little, I took them with me.
My husband is the king of creative change. I hate change and he loves change. So he was always trouble-shooting. He’s very relaxed, and very certain it’ll work out. He’s an amazing guy. So he’s always believed, more than me, in what I do. Which is amazing because he’s not in the business. He’s an engineer. So he’s just a great guy, and he’s my secret weapon.
JW: You know, I think that’s something a lot of people don’t think about – artists have to have support – we have lives as well…
It’s only a problem if you make it a problem. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. Our lives have been amazing because he never felt that we were limited. It’s all about how you think about it.
JW: The support of family and friends, and being able to make it possible for you to do your work is really important, and it feels like there is a little bit of a connection between what you’re saying and Pump Boys (Okay, maybe I’m reaching a bit, but humor me). Pump Boys was created by family and friends – Cass Morgan and Jim Wann were married, they were all friends and some of them had gone to college together. They were creating this piece together organically out of life – their personal lives really informed what the songs were. I wonder if you’d talk about what your process has been for Pump Boys and how that’s different than other processes.
Like Music Man? Music Man had these huge dance arrangements where Mark and I would agree on, “OK, they’re in the library and he wants the librarian to know he’s in love with her.” OK, now I’ll go do the dance. And then I would have pages and pages of music. So I would actually prepare that. I would prep ahead. I’d get a studio, sometimes I use dancers, and I’d do a whole workshop to prepare choreography that is extensive. Pump Boys, Mark wanted to find organically. He set the tone for how he wants to work. So he made clear to me that he wanted to find it organically. Which meant that I live with the music, I listen to the music, I read the research you sent me, but I come in loose. And together it would take a shape. What’s been brilliant, because we have been working together for so long, we are tolerant of each other, which you have to be. So I don’t feel nervous to go “Hey, what about…?” And he doesn’t feel too bad to go, “Peggy…they need more time to change clothes.” Which is what that was today – I had gotten so into what I was doing, in that little microcosm, that I had forgotten the big picture, that by the end of this song, these guys have to have guitars around their necks, and a complete costume change.
JW: So talk a little bit about what happened today – we were going through the song “Vacation” and it’s a song that they don’t sing with instruments so that was like “hurray, no instruments are in the way!” because that’s been something to work around –
Except now I’m gonna complicate your lives much more than you’ve ever imagined by giving you choreography because you’re free! And these are musicians who are doing choreography. And because Mark didn’t want me to prepare, I’m just extemporaneously doing it. And that is a skill that I’ve had to cultivate over many years. In opera, especially, sometimes directors do not want you to come in and start staging. They want to use you like their crayon, sometimes. They will throw an idea out off the top of their head and right there in front of 50 people or 100 people you just need to use that time and create something with zero warning that they’re going to want that from you. And that used to just give me ulcers. But when you do it long enough, you just have to start trusting that the skills are there – I know I’m musical, I know how to tell a story, so I’m just going to keep it loose until they tell me, “go.” And then I go. And sometimes they don’t let you do anything, and sometimes they turn and give it to you with zero warning and then they leave the room. And I don’t always know when that’s going to be. That doesn’t happen with Mark. Mark is very clear about what is going to happen, what we’re doing, what I’m doing. And we found out how to work with each other through Urinetown and Five Course Love, Music Man – Music Man was the most traditional show we’ve done, where it was like church and state are separate. Mark talks, so he does all the talking things. And then the dance begins and Mark steps back and I do the dance. Pump Boys is completely integrated, as was Five Course Love. Urinetown had some dances, but the majority was just very funny storytelling. So we’ve learned over the years how to just sort of ebb and flow together. And I’m always checking in to make sure we’re still okay.
JW: So here we are in “Vacation” and partway through the song, you realized that they have to, by the next song have a complete costume change and pick up their instruments.
Mark and I kind of realized it at the same time but he was of the opinion, and he was correct, that we needed to get going sooner, and I was all in love with what I was doing – I was trapped in the vortex of this thing I was doing, and it was actually working – I could feel it working. It was great, but I needed to get out of it.
JW: When you have to let go of an idea, how do you do that?
You learn, over years and years – it’s hard. I mean, it’s like leaving the playground when someone else doesn’t want to leave and you want to leave. And when you’re the choreographer, you’re not the power in the room. So you have to be willing to drop whatever the idea was. The longer I do this the more – especially with directors that are strong and opinionated and know what they want, which is why they’re in charge – you have to be willing to lead strongly and ebb away, and lean in, and then lean back. You rule by the consent of the director – Mark’s really generous about stuff like that and that’s why he’s such a good collaborator. I clearly know who’s in charge, I know where the buck stops, I know whose opinion matters the most, but he’s very good about letting me play and then reeling me in a little bit.
JW: If you were going to tell audiences what to look for in Pump Boys, what would it be?
The incredible musicianship that’s happening with the costume changes and with the choreography. I do realize that I push the envelope with people who don’t want to be pushed, musically speaking. I have been given two very musical shows here, which were Five Course Love and now Pump Boys, that were originally done much simpler. But between Mark and the costume designer and the set designer putting in all these other extra elements, and me now adding these extra elements of movement, it’s an incredible challenge for the cast, and they’re rising to it brilliantly. The payoff is so great. I’m kind of really in love with what we’re doing today – “Vacation,” but I really like “Drinking Shoes,” of course, because that has real tap dancing in it.
JW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I found, when I was here with Music Man, a lump in my breast. I was diagnosed with breast cancer after I left here in June of 2011, and since then, I’ve come through treatment great, and I’m in remission and I’m back to work with a so much greater appreciation of being here, and of the wonderful work everyone’s doing, and how grateful I am to feel okay while I’m here. You can push through that stuff – we all know examples of people who do that, but there was a time I didn’t think I’d be back, so I’m just grateful to be here.
JW: And to have such a celebratory show to come back with –
I know! It’s so fun! It’s so light – I’m enjoying the lightness.
JW: Well, we’re blessed to have you here.
I feel the same.