PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Kathleen Marshall, Going Hollywood at the 92nd Street Y

By Carey Purcell
January 11, 2014

Tony-winning director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall chats with Playbill.com about helming the 92nd Street Y's Going Hollywood: MGM Musicals at the 92nd Street Y. 

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The 92nd Street Y presents Going Hollywood: MGM Musicals, as part of its Lyrics and Lyricists program, Jan. 11-13.

The event, featuring Cameron Adams, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Joshua Henry, Jeremy Jordan, Rob McClure and Rachel York, will feature songs from classic films from MGM in the 1940-50s, generated by the studio's legendary "Freed Unit," ruled by producer/lyricist Arthur Freed. Tony-winning director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall (The Pajama Game, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Anything Goes) will make her debut as guest artistic director, stage director, choreographer, writer and host. 

Marshall, who directed and choreographed the musicals The Pajama Game, Nice Work If You Can Get It and Anything Goes, spoke with Playbill.com about her favorite old films and the state of the movie musical today.

Did you grow up watching movie musicals?

Kathleen Marshall: I first became aware of many of these great movie musicals with the That's Entertainment movies - to see one great production number after another was amazing. And that was before I even started taking dance lessons. And to sort of get to see them very early on like that was very, very thrilling. And that's what's so wonderful about that — each new generation has discovered them for themselves. They really are timeless in that way.

What were some of your favorite movie musicals?

KM: I have to say that, for me, "Singin' in the Rain" is pretty much perfection. Not only does it have incredible choreography, but it also has incredible characters and incredible humor. You could take the musical numbers out of that movie and it would still be a great movie — it's funny and smart and romantic — so I love that. I also love "Bandwagon" because it's about theatre and sends up a valentine to the process of putting on a show. So I love that.

How did you decide what songs to feature in this program?

KM: There are so many songs. It was a combination of picking songs that we liked and also having an incredible cast... incredible actors and singers and performers. So we thought, let's do a combination of what we wanted and what suits the actors. We sort of wanted to touch on sort of the — Judy Garland, the Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Vincente Minnelli — sort of touch on all those people that were such a huge part of the success of these movies. And we also deliberately chose not to do songs from shows that were pretty much intact — "Showboat" or "Annie Get Your Gun" — and focus more on the musicals that, even if they retained some original songs, [were] produced mostly by the Freed group.

Have you learned any surprising facts about the Freed Unit while putting together this program?

KM: What's wonderful the Lyrics/Lyricist event is that I think it's a discovery for the audience, but also a discovery for those of us working on it — the opportunity to sort of delve into a certain subject, and I really learned a lot doing the research and working it all out.

Just the way that things all came together. Vincente Minnelli started off as a costume and set designer and Freed recognized him as an artist — a technical and visual artist — and invited him to Hollywood. He didn't have to sign a contract; they just told him to come to Hollywood, feel it out, and sort of just learn about filmmaking and feel it out, and by the time he made his first movie, which was "Cabin in the Sky," he had this wonderful apprenticeship along the way. And you learn that these people... they may sort of have a lot of wonderful ideas, but they don't come fully formed. They need the nurturing and the time and they need the space to sort out their ideas.

You've choreographed some amazing dance numbers on Broadway. Will this event feature choreography?

KM: There's not a whole lot of choreography because we only have five days to rehearse — it's even shorter than some Encores! events — so we have a little bit of sort of stage movement. But even with the arrangements, we're not trying to replicate what those movies were, but sort of pay homage to them. We're not doing pop arrangements of these songs. We're doing them as a homage — not replicating the exact arrangements, but keeping them in the spirit of the era in which they were done.

If you could choreograph Gene Kelly in any number, what would it be?

KM: The amazing thing about the Freed Unit is that they gave them the time they needed to sort of develop things. The "American in Paris" ballet — they took six weeks to rehearse it before they even shot it, which is extraordinary. Now we get maybe five weeks to rehearse an entire Broadway show. So the fact that they had six to rehearse and to just work on the ballet is really wonderful. Who knows what you would create? That's what the Freed Unit would let you do — sort of use your imagination and just open up everyone's creativity.

How do you think movie musicals have changed over the years?

KM: Well, seeing as how my brother directed "Chicago" — it was a few years ago, believe it or not — and that was the first musical to win an Oscar since "Oliver!" in the 60s. So for people to say the musical is dead... I'm not sure when they think it died. And since then, "Dreamgirls" has been hugely successful and "Les Mis" and "Mamma Mia" and "Hairspray" — there has been a lot of successful musicals.

(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)