The recent release of Wonka, the prequel film to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Timothée Chalamet, has offered audiences an exciting end-of-the-year cinematic surprise: it's not just a prequel but a full-blown movie-with-music. The film features new songs by Irish songwriter Neil Hannon, and—excitingly for any theatre fan—choreography by Christopher Gattelli, who was tasked with conceiving all the big Broadway-style numbers for the project, many of which were danced by Chalamet. Wait, you may wonder, can Timothée Chalamet sing and dance?
The answer, from Gattelli, is a resounding yes!
With Chalamet's background being in performing arts, he was a student at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Gattelli was excited to help Chalamet showcase that side of himself onscreen. "When you get that bug in performing arts school, or when you grow up doing it, and then you don't really get to to it...once he was in rehearsals and doing the numbers, he just never stopped wanting to do the tapes," says Gattelli, referring to Chalamet's desire to do multiple takes of a single dance sequence, even when the prior ones were sufficient. "He just wanted to do it over and over, and I think you can feel that in the movie...his enthusiasm and joy."
Gattelli is the Tony Award-winning choreographer behind so many beloved dance numbers in shows like Newsies, My Fair Lady (2018), SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical, plus, the hit television musical parody Schmigadoon!.
Playbill talked with Gattelli about paying tribute to the original Gene Wilder film through dance, helping Timothée Chalamet unlock his inner theatre kid, and what audiences can expect from the upcoming Death Becomes Her musical (which he's directing and choreographing).
You've always been a huge Wonka fan. Before this project came to you, did you ever find yourself imagining up dance sequences for future Wonka musical revivals or movies?
Chris Gattelli: I didn't even think that this was something that could be on a bucket list. When I got the call and they said it was for a prequel that links to the Gene Wilder version, I was just beside myself. I didn't even ever think it would be a thing. Then once I read the script, I was like, "Oh this is a beautiful idea, to find where he came from."
With the movie being so theatrical at heart and you having such a prolific stage career, did the rest of the team have you weighing in on the musical theatre aspects of the project?
Yeah, it was really lovely...the respect was mutual, for sure. This was [director Paul King's] first time really putting a musical together, so it was just a really beautiful process with him because he was genuinely so interested about everything and every aspect of it. He really wanted to get it right and make the numbers fit into the story well and let dance do certain parts of the storytelling.
Also, they let me in on the editing process. Paul wanted to make sure with me, "Does this line up?" or "musically, are the counts right?" Just to be asked...I thought that alone shows the kind of respect they had. It was really lovely to be a part of that.
One of the best things about the movie was getting to see Timothée Chalamet bring out his theatre side. How was it working with a young talent who had all that in their back pocket but had yet to unleash it?
I was super excited, I knew he came in with a lot because he did go to LaGuardia High School, and I know friends who have taught him. I was bursting at the seams for people to see him. He's so talented, just as an actor, but you wouldn't think that he also has this gorgeous voice and can move like that.
He comes from a lineage of dance—his mother and grandmother were both dancers—and I could tell that he not only wanted to make the movie good, but he also really wanted to do it for his family. He would FaceTime them in rehearsal and show what he just learned. It was a really beautiful process with him...You could tell he was dying to get this out, in a way.
The landscape and the space available to choreograph on a movie set or even on Schmigadoon! is a lot more expansive than a Broadway stage. What is it like conceiving choreography knowing you can take it even farther?
I love being able to play with the camera. They're both boxes, in a sense. But in the theatre, everyone's staring at the same box, so you have to choreographically show the audience where to look and make sure people are following the story.
But with a movie or TV, you're in control of the box. If I want a close-up on someone's foot, or if I want to show someone passing a purse, you can zoom in and go right to it. There was a beautiful long shot [in Wonka] that ran through the Galleria, over his selling station, over the fountain, to the front of the church where a bride and groom are coming out of their wedding.
And there's that beautiful scene on the rooftop with Wonka and his assistant Noodle (Calah Lane) dancing with the balloons. How did your idea for that come about?
This is my favorite story collaboration with Paul. In the original script, [Wonka] got the milk from the giraffe and then they run out of the zoo and fly over the galleria into the town square. But with the dance break on the roof, I was like, "If you don't mind, let me present something to you, because I think I can make a bit of a moment with that."
At the top of the number, [Noodle] is very weary of everyone because of how she grew up, and she's not very trusting. So my goal was to deepen that relationship through that number. So the moments where he would let go of her, and let her fly by herself, and then catch her hand—that shows connection and trust, but in a fun and child-like way.
Wonka is so whimsical and fun-loving, not unlike one of your other projects: SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical. How do you tap into that inner child to create these worlds through dance?
I have to look at it from all the different perspectives of what would an adult glean from this? What would a child glean from this? Like that balloon moment, I had to put myself in Noodle's shoes—what would make me want to trust him, how could he earn my trust? But on a childlike level: something playful, something colorful. And it's the same thing with SpongeBob...making a cape out of a bunch of sponges, I have to go back into that headspace of how I loved to make funny things out of household objects.
In Schmigadoon!, you put in all those fabulous references to iconic musical theatre choreography, with homages to Sweet Charity, Promises Promises, etc. Did you find yourself sprinkling in any small tributes or easter eggs here?
They're all over. Many for Gene [Wilder], of course. There's a moment where Wonka does a couple of little back-ups on the stairs, and a little bend-kick-kick, certain things with his cane. Just things here and there that if people caught, great!
Your next project as both choreographer and director, Death Becomes Her, is premiering so soon in Chicago (April 2024). What's been the best part of working on that so far for you? And can you give us any fun hints on what to expect?
I'm thrilled...the score is so fantastic, and so is the script. I feel like I have to do their work justice for sure. It definitely feels familiar and pays homage to the original, but it's kind of our own things...There's some beautiful magic and beautiful special effects. I'm so excited.