Dancing From La-La Land to “Wonderland”
A new musical brings a Hollywood choreographer back to Broadway
The intertwined tango-ing limbs of Brangelina in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The alternately jaw-dropping (in an awful way) and jaw-dropping (in a great way) pageant dances at the end of Little Miss Sunshine. The shagadelic gyrations in the Austin Powers movies. The retina-searing sight of Tom Cruise shaking his padded rump to Ludacris at the end of Tropic Thunder.
Marguerite Derricks has choreographed these and dozens of other dances for film as well as television, winning three Emmy Awards along the way. In nearly each case, she had a few months at the most—and often as little as 10 days—to create them.
But for Wonderland, the modern-day riff on Alice in Wonderland that opened Sunday night at the Marriott Marquis, that process was stretched out to three years. “I had created so much beforehand in the studio that I showed up with six complete dances on the first day of rehearsal,” she says.
Wonderland isn’t Derricks’ Broadway debut: Lonny Price brought her in as the replacement choreographer when A Class Act transferred to Broadway in 2001. However, this marks what Derricks—an effervescent blonde who could plausibly shave a full decade off her actual age of 49—hopes is just the first step in a vibrant new Rialto career.
Nearly 15 years ago, one of her Emmy-winning pieces of choreography led her, somewhat circuitously, to Wonderland. The opening ceremonies of the 1998 Goodwill Games featured a 15-minute orchestral suite by Frank Wildhorn, who had recently premiered his Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway. He and Derricks hit it off, and he recommended her to Gregory Boyd at Houston’s Alley Theatre, where she then choreographed a production of Little Shop of Horrors.
So when Derricks’ agent alerted her in 2008 that Wildhorn and Boyd were joining forces on a new spin on Alice’s mind-bending trip through the looking glass, she quickly asked for a copy of the script and score—and then even more quickly signed on. She recalls, “I got 10 pages into the script before I called Frank and said, ‘Why would I not jump to do this?’”
A big part of what drew her to the piece was its opportunity for a wide variety of movement styles. Wildhorn’s pastiche-heavy score gives each major character a specific musical vocabulary, from the caterpillar’s slinky R&B to the Cheshire cat’s Latin rock to the White Knight’s boy-band pop. “I felt like it would be a really good way to show different sides of myself and my work,” says Derricks, who also incorporates references to The Red Shoes and the iconic Kurt Jooss anti-war ballet The Green Table. “I love to choreograph to Frank’s music.”
A native of Buffalo, Derricks came to New York after school with the hope of being a Broadway triple threat. Or at least a double threat: “I really couldn’t sing,” she says, “and I’d make it so far in auditions until that last round, where I’d have to have my 16 bars of music ready.” After about nine months of unsuccessful auditions, she finally landed a huge—and vocal-free—part, joining the second season of the hit TV show Fame as a ballet dancer.
Fame, which Derricks worked on for the next three seasons, introduced her to Debbie Allen, whom she views as a mentor. It also brought her to Los Angeles for what she assumed would be a quick stint—and has lasted more than 25 years.
However, Wonderland has given her a taste of creating new work for Broadway, where she has recently enjoyed work by Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening, Fela!) and Sergio Trujillo (Next to Normal): “They’re not just kicking and doing triple turns for no reason at all,” she says.
While Derricks has a handful of big- and small-screen jobs in the works, she is hunting for a New York apartment and keeping her schedule as wide open as possible to accommodate another stage project. Hollywood’s A-listers may need to fend for themselves for a while.
Eric Grode, the author of the recently released Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation (Running Press), was theatre critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008.