Dance flows from the story, says "Sound of Music" choreographer

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — One way to upset Danny Mefford, the young choreographer of "The Sound of Music" national tour, arriving Tuesday at Proctors Theatre, is to pay special notice to his work. "My ideology is that everything that happens on stage should flow from the story," he said in a recent telephone interview. "If you are thinking about the why they are dancing rather than just enjoying the moment, I haven't done my job correctly. It should seem the actors have no choice but to dance."

He explains, for example, that in the number "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," there was a lot of thought about why a dance breaks out during the number. "Once we know why they needed to dance, we were able to figure out where in the number it takes place. This timing makes the dance sensual, but also playful."

"The Sound of Music" is based on a true story about the von Trapp family. A young woman, Maria, takes leave from an Austrian convent to become a governess for the seven children of the widowed naval officer, Captain von Trapp. She bonds with the children by working with them to form a choral group. Naturally, she and the widower fall in love.

Mefford points out that what bonds the family is the music. However, he is emphatic that it is important the children not seem to be musical prodigies.

When the children sing their first number "Do-Re-Mi," they haven't sung together before and are kind of resistant to the idea. Their performance should be somewhat awkward. In contrast, because they have been rehearsing their final number "So Long, Farewell," for an appearance at a music festival it should be extremely polished."

The idea, he says, is for other group numbers like "The Lonely Goatherd" and a reprise of "The Sound of Music," to be bridges that show their developing skills. More important, they capture the joy singing bring to them.

If Mefford's approach to choreography sounds like an actor building a character it's understandable. He admits he came to choreography as an actor, not as a dancer. Born and raised in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, he participated in high school musicals. Armed with a single dance class and dancing talent, Mefford nevertheless dedicated himself to acting. In fact, after high school he moved east to earn an MFA in acting from Brown University.

While working as an acting intern at Williamstown Theatre Festival he met Alex Timbers who shared with him his musical project "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson." The piece about an early American president eventually got produced Off-Broadway and Timbers asked Mefford to be the choreographer. "It wasn't the kind of material that needed a choreographer so he chose an actor who knew how to dance," he said.

The success of the musical, which eventually moved to Broadway, established Mefford as a choreographer to watch. It led to work with prestigious hits like "Fun Home" and "Dear Evan Hansen." Going full circle, he's returned to Williamstown Theatre Festival to do the movement for "The Bridges of Madison County" (which moved to Broadway) and the musical "Poster Boy" which was produced on the Nikos Stage in 2016.

The shows that earned Mefford his reputation are dark, edgy and unknown. Why "The Sound of Music?" "Yes, musical does seem totally opposite from some of the other stuff I've worked on. Night and day actually. But it is truly material that I love. Maria is a wonderful force of nature who brightens every room she enters. She's a powerful presence who makes positive changes in people's lives. I am drawn to that type of person."

He says their vision for the tour of "The Sound of Music" is one of "respect and discovery. We are not reinventing the work nor are we treating it simply as an old-fashioned musical. We think of it as contemporary material that was written almost 60 years ago."

Mefford points out that Rodgers and Hammerstein's shows always speak to contemporary audience. He points out in the original 1959 production the von Trapps were forced to flee Austria in 1938 because of the Nazi occupation. "The play clearly shows that people do not leave their homes and country unless they fear for their lives. That's something all refugees have in common. At the end of the play the von Trapps become refugees. Today the world is filled with refugees fearing for their lives."

Mefford finishes by saying, " 'The Sound of Music' is not only a beloved musical; it's also relevant theater."


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