Ridiculous Is Right - Tap Dance, Opinion, NYTimes
Updated: Jan 21, 2020
Broadway is this beacon of exceptionalism where only the best and most passionate quintuple threats will "make it". If that is true, then why is the tap dancing so crummy? I like the opening number of the 1980's 42nd St. choreographed by Gower Champion. It's supposed to resemble a style of tap dancing done in the 1930s. The gaudy costumes, the sporty (spawty?) dance numbers, the bawdy characterizations... these are indicative of "cool" in the 1930s. There is care and attention paid to the dancing to match it to a historical trend.
But what does Monty Python's Spam-A-Lot, Nickelodeon's SpongeBob, and Jimmy Buffet have in common? They never gave a crap about tap dancing before, but now that they're on Broadway they... still don't.
I love when people call out bullshit. It's literally my third favorite thing after tap dancing and really crunchy bread. I've been meaning to get a poster of Mark Bauman/Steve Eismann for my wall is how much I love it. So you know what makes my day? When I see an article like this from Brian Seibert in the New York Times.
You may be familiar with Brian Seibert's book, What The Eye Hears, which reads more like a tome of admonishment for the atrocities of slavery and post-slavery racism told through the experiences of the tap dancers who lived through them than a dance history book aiming to give credit where credit is due. It's hard for it not to seem like another woke, non-black writer trying to help by "Green Booking" the dance literature scene, but as I myself am a non-black tap dancer writing about the art form, I empathize with Seibert's writing style. When the blinders come off and you realize how blatant the redactions in civil rights/tap dance history are it is very difficult to not beat people to death with your soapbox.
In Seibert's article, Ridiculous! Fabulous! On Broadway, Tapping in Quotation Marks published in the New York Times, he opens up a can of whoop-ass on several popular Broadway shows that all feature a lackluster tap performance. Mean Girls, SpongeBob, Escape From Margaritaville... to be honest, I don't recall tap dance ever being a big part of these franchises BEFORE this most recent attempt to squeeze money out of these decades-old nostalgia bombs, but this is Broadway, baby! In Seibert's article, we are brought properly to the present state of tap dance on Broadway. And it ain't good.
Tap, in this view, is a dance that people used to do on Broadway and that only nostalgists or drama nerds do any more. In the TV series “SpongeBob,” Squidward, the hero’s misanthropic neighbor, does stretchy “interpretive dance” (he’s an octopus), which in pop-culture shorthand means he’s pretentious, just as the clarinet he plays means he’s a dork. On Broadway, he taps.
-Seibert, NYTimes, May 15, 2018
Not to mention that the song he dances to is titled "I'm Not A Loser", which if you know the character then you know that Squidward totally is a loser whose only friend is simply too stupid to realize what a jerk Squidward is. That's what you think of tap dancers, Broadway? We're a bunch of sequence-wearing, 4 left-footed, insecure, buffalo-shuffling, pasted-on grin-wearing, tap-a tap-a tap-a Squidwards? Pardon my language, but up your nose with a rubber hose, Broadway!
I'll add one more to this list, Spam-A-Lot. I saw Spam-A-Lot when it came to Chicago in the mid-2000s at the Schubert Theatre in Chicago because (holy crap) it was starring Hank "The Best Character Actor In The World" Azaria, David "Niles" Hyde Pierce and Tim "Dr. Furter" Curry. I love the original Monty Python movie and I was loving this play. Until... the obligatory tap number. All the hits where there: Flaps, flap-step, the crossover, grapevines, and even "umbrella-ography." It was... fine, but this was supposed to be Broadway quality. I was so underwhelmed. It was the first time I experienced the "throw a half-baked tap number just for the hell of it" which has become indicative of Broadway musicals.
Spam-A-Lot features choreography by Casey Nicholaw, whose tap dance choreography process seems to consist of Broadway tap's Top 20 steps written on pieces of paper in a [top] hat and are then piñata-ed with a bedazzled cane so that they randomly fall and create a piece. "Oh, Spam-A-Lot tap choreography today? Time to beat the hat. Mean Girls tomorrow? You know we're beating the hat! Book of Mormon? We're gonna need a new hat. This one's worn out!" Of course, each of these musicals garnered Nicholaw a Best Choreography nomination at the Tony Awards. Hey, if that's what people want, then why not give it to them? I don't blame Nicholaw at all. That's easy money. Go be the Uwe Boll of tap dance and make a living.
Casey Nicholaw is also the director and choreographer for the smash hit, Book Of Mormon, which features another similar and spontaneous tap scene set to "Turn It Off", where a group of Mormons discuss how to repress their homosexual urges by simply pretending they don't exist. And tap dancing, I guess.
...You might argue it’s his prerogative to repeat his own choreographic ideas. But what is it about “Turn It Off” that particularly appeals to him and the other choreographers? It isn’t the expressive range of tap. All three of the new numbers [Mormon, SpongeBob, Mean Girls] share a severely limited tap vocabulary, the same few steps fixed in the same rhythms and accentuations, like guidebook phrases memorized by a tourist. As a tap aficionado, I find this irritating and consider the kicklines in “SpongeBob” and “Margaritaville” to be cop-outs.
-Seibert, NYTimes, May 15, 2018
If that is how you define "Broadway tap" in 2019, fine. If people like it, then who am I to tell them they are wrong? Art is subjective. Yada yada yada. But then let's break with all of this "If I can make it there..." bullshit. You want to make it on Broadway? Then work on your look, your singing, your smile, your waistline and your acting. Tap dance, though? Don't sweat it! Take a couple of privates before the audition, polish up those LaDucas and brush up on your old recital dances, because you're going to Broadway, baby!
Tristan Bruns is a Chicago Hoofer, founding member of Chicago Human Rhythm Project's BAM!/Stone Soup Rhythms, professional company member of M.A.D.D. Rhythms and director of Tapman Productions.