Swing! the Musical – Then & Now

By Mandi Gould 

As a long time Lindy Hopper and “professional Lindy Hop volunteer”, when I travel it’s usually related to swing dancing in some way. For the past eighteen and a half years, most of my voyages have been made with the explicit purpose of dancing. On the rare occasion that I take a non-dance vacation, I still usually include a Lindy Hop side visit of some sort. However, I recently disappeared on a little mother-daughter vacation that really wasn’t supposed to include any dancing whatsoever… but the universe had a very nice dance surprise in store for me. 

IMG_0060In early April, my mother and I took a cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line’s ship, the Pearl. If you’re not familiar with cruising, there are shows on the ship each night. On the first night of the cruise, I was shocked and excited when Swing!, the Broadway musical, was announced as the featured show of the voyage and would be performed on the second night. What incredible luck!

The curtains opened with some very promising music; the show band’s players were top notch. However, for the first 60 seconds or so, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the dancing which was that very overly professional Broadway style, and not much akin to real Lindy Hop. In fact, one of the first moves was a Suzy Q done in the fashion that Frankie used to call “Crushing to Roach”, with the weight all on the heel and the toe up – the very uncool way of doing a Suzy Q rather than having the foot flat on the ground. But I wouldn’t be disappointed for long. 

IMG_0071To my absolute delight, less than 2 minutes in to the show, a real Lindy Hop couple broke on to the stage swinging low and hard. I pretty much leapt out of my seat, I was so thrilled to see that first stretchy horizontal swingout roar out on the stage with that flying Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers look to it. The leader was matched perfectly by the badass swivels of the follower. Then, my heart missed a beat when I realized, to my dismay, that I actually recognized the leader, Brian Lawton!

As the overall Event Organizer for Frankie 100 last year, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of New York dancers. I had to rub my eyes to see if I was dreaming but yes, that leader really was none other than than Brian Lawton, a dancer who I met while sitting in on the rehearsals for the House Dancers in the Frankie 100 Show, Swingin’ Frankie’s Way, at Harlem’s World Famous Apollo Theater! I was blown away!

If you saw the Frankie 100 Show, you might remember seeing Brian. He particularly stands out as not just a talented Lindy Hopper but also a truly professional dancer when he appears as the 2nd dancer leaping across the stage in Dawn’s Dance at the Apollo Theater. Here’s the video:

BrianSam
Samantha & Brian

The show was an absolute delight. While the original Broadway show was a full musical, the version on the ship was an abbreviated 60 minute version of the same show. There was a lot of variety and wonderful contrast between numbers. Much of it has become a blur in my mind, but what stands out is that the show had a terrific focus on the music including a few numbers that included interaction between the instruments and the musicians. There was a duet of “Cry Me A River” between a female vocalist and the trombone player that was very fun and clever. There was also a fun and silly country swing song starring our Lindy Hop star, Brian, in a Cowboy hat and boots. His partner, Samantha Siegel who I would later meet and learn is also his fiance, was an absolutely fabulous dancer too. Not only did she dance beautifully but she also performed a springy aerial number bouncing and flipping in the air with the assistance of a harness. 

I had the opportunity to spend some time with Brian Lawton and Samantha Siegel over the rest of the 10 day cruise and they are such nice people. I was very interested to learn as much as I could from them about the show, and curious to find out how much the show had changed since Ryan and Jenny, Michael and Evita, Eric and Silvia, and other Lindy Hoppers had performed in the show since the days of Broadway, Japan and elsewhere. 

teachers_ryan_jennyUpon my return home, I wanted to learn more about the history of the show so I reached out to Jenny Thomas to ask her about her experience with Swing! on Broadway. Jenny told me about how she and Ryan Francois were originally approached by a guy called Paul Kelly who had the idea for a Broadway show just after they won the U.S. open in California in 1997.  The fellow had been given their names from several people when asking about finding professional Lindy Hoppers/Dancers. It’s nice to hear about how this fellow Paul really went out of his way to research who the best actual Lindy Hoppers would be so that there would be authenticity to the dancing in the show. 

Ryan elaborates about this: “Richard Frankel, Marc Routh and Paul Kelly all came to see us at the U.S. Open. Richard and Marc were both head producers of the show and Paul was the man with the original concept. They offered me the role of Director and Choreographer, something I felt I didn’t have the experience at that time to do. So I put together a show at what was then known as the Supper Club involving Christer and Ann from Sweden, Eddie and Eva from the Rhythm Hot Shots, the Flying Lindy Hoppers and Johnny Swing which attracted the first investors to the show. I was then contacted in the UK by the producers because they wanted to use Lynne Taylor-Corbett to Direct and Choreograph the show. It was helpful to work with Lynne; she known name on Broadway and I didn’t. I was made associate choreographer. You can see my choreography in the numbers “Woodside”, “Bounce me Brother”, “Kitchen Mechanics”, “Shout & Feel It”, “Throw That Girl Around”, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and  of course “Sing Sing Sing”.”

It took almost 2 years and 4 workshops later before the show opened on Broadway. Ryan and Jenny were the only original members from the conception of the show and Ryan was the Associate Choreographer with Jenny as the Assistant Choreographer. For Jenny, it was like being home after leaving the London West theatre world to pursue a life of Lindy; it was really like coming full circle to return to theatre. “Ironic really!!”, says Jenny. 

The musical was widely recognized as a success with many award nominations:

  • 2000 Tony Award Nominations
    JennyandRyan
    Ryan Francois & Jenny Thomas

    • Best Musical
    • Best Featured Actress in a Musical – Laura Benanti
    • Best Featured Actress in a Musical – Ann Hampton Callaway
    • Best Choreography
    • Best Direction of a Musical
    • Best Orchestrations
  • 2000 Drama Desk Award Nominations
    • Outstanding New Musical
    • Outstanding Choreography
    • Outstanding Orchestrations
  • 2000 Theatre World Award Nominations
    • Everett Bradley
    • Ann Hampton Callaway

Jenny tells about how they lived the high life during that time; the show was full of incredibly talented dancers who all created their own specialties in the show. They got to perform parts of the show at The Tony Awards, Macy’s Day Parade and numerous TV shows. 

This is a very fuzzy video, but here’s a video of Swing! at the 2000 Tony Awards. Jenny and Ryan become clear (as far as fuzzy video goes) at 2:10:

Ryan explains that the Finale number that he created for the show was so popular that it became the number that was often used to show off the production. The West Coast intro in the above video was choreographed by Robert Royston followed by Ryan’s routine performed at the Tony Awards. That same choreography was also the performed in the Macy’s Day Parade.

Jenny says, “I had the best time and seeing the likes of our babies Michael and Evita and now Samantha and Brian perform our position and choreography, I couldn’t  be more proud of them and that our creation still lives on.”

Having seen Brian and Samantha perform, I agree that Jenny can be very proud of the quality of that legacy. They were outstanding.

Michael Jagger and Evita Arce were the featured Lindy Hop couple in the 2008 Japan Broadway tour of SWING! Here they are performing Shout & Feel It:

Evita told me about how she and Michael performed SWING at the Sacramento Music Circus Theater, in the Round, meaning that audience on all sides. “That was crazy and fun! Then we did the 2008 Japan Tour in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. Both of those were the full Broadway version except the bungee number with the flying riggs. It wasn’t safe and too expensive to “fly” dancers on tour. Then Michael and I did the full length show again at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera Theater in 2009.”

Evita continues, “It was a wonderful experience to perform 8, sometimes 9 shows a week. Man we were in such good shape. It was incredible to work along side such high caliber dancers, some from the original Broadway show. And of course the band! My favorite part was that the drummer got to know us and he learned to hit all our aerials. And because we did the show so much, we would push the tempos faster and faster just to challenge ourselves.

“Another memorable part was when Michael and I first found out that we got the roles; we were so excited! We immediately went to the New York Performing Arts library to watch and study Ryan and Jenny’s performance from the original Broadway show which was preserved on video for historical records. It was very emotional. We both truly felt honored and felt part a Family and a Lineage. I think that is rare now a days in the Lindy Hop community because everyone learns from so many sources. Michael and I studied under Ryan and Jenny intensely for 2 years, 3 days a week, 5 hours a day when we were part of his dance company in Los Angeles. 2002 and 2003. Then we stayed closely connected and continued to study under and perform with him for another 6 years New York to London.”

It’s neat to hear about how Evita and Michael met Brian and Samantha. “When Michael and I met Brian and Samantha, they were both still at NYU as students, doing Lindy Hop. Brian and Samantha joined Syncopated City Dance Company and have worked along side us since 2011. And of course Michael and I connected Brian and Samantha to Ryan and Jenny, explaining to them the lineage that they are now a part of. Especially being cast in SWING.”

“It’s very exciting and touching if you know the back story,” says Evita. “We are witnessing generations grow, go and come. We are actually part of the “Then and Now”.”

Pearl4
Finale pose from Swing! Photo credit: Mitch Adams

Throughout the rest of the cruise, it was neat to see Samantha and Brian dancing in the other shows as well. It’s not every day that you get to see LindyHoppers in all of the glitz and glamorous costumes, even backing up Elton John, Madonna, and Tina Turner impersonators. I thought Brian looked particularly good in one Italian number with sunglasses and Samantha really rocked some silver Go Go boots. Not only are they top notch Lindy Hoppers but they are phenomenal professional dancers; these two were appointed the Dance Captains for the entire dance crew on the ship. They also taught 2 beginner swing and 1 beginner salsa lessons on the cruise. 

SamandBrian
Samantha Siegel & Brian Lawton after teaching a dance lesson under the stars on the Norwegian Pearl

I asked Brian and Samantha to tell me about how their roles in the show and on the cruise all came together. Brian starts by telling me, “Regarding our path to the show, it was a fairly standard audition process, yet also extremely lengthy and presented some unique challenges. We found out about the audition through two of our students as well as through some buzz on Facebook and posts on Playbill.com. For the first audition, we were asked to perform one of our routines, so we performed our latest one, “The Lady’s In Love With You” (a video of which can be found on our website!). This in itself was very exciting! It is not very often that you get to perform your own work at the very start of an audition. Alongside of us at the audition were several other dancers from the Lindy Hop scene in New York City. Immediately after we had all presented our routines or social danced for the casting directors, they cut a few couples and had the rest learn a short contemporary jazz routine. After making a few more cuts, the remaining swing dancers were invited to a series of callbacks with dancers who did not specialize in swing. The group was extremely eclectic as they were looking for many different specialty tracks within the show Swing! (West Coast, Latin, Ballet, Western Swing) and also needed to find dancers who could also perform two other non-swing shows (which include styles of funk, disco, 60’s go-go dancing, street jazz, and more…). So it was not enough to be just an incredible Lindy Hopper or just an amazing performing artist in any other style; casting was looking for very well rounded dancers with partnering skills. It quickly became clear that this type of dancer is not easy to find. After five full days of auditions and callbacks we still did not have a full cast! We then had a week of pre-rehearsal work in New York City with a few other dancers and then headed to Tampa, Florida where we worked in the Norwegian Creative Studio. We had almost two weeks of rehearsals for each of the three shows before getting on the ship and beginning the process of installing them onto the stage. 

Brian adds, “It was a huge, exhausting, wonderful, scary, and rewarding undertaking. Looking back on it now it feels like four years ago instead of four months ago! Performing these shows is such an amazing opportunity. We are exactly where we should be right now!”

Samantha continues where Brian left off, “It has truly been honor to work with the original Broadway director and choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett, rehearsal directors Kim Craven and Matt Rivera (dance captains of the show on Broadway), and our bungee coach Salina Bartunek-Andrews. Performing SWING! each week means the world to us and we are beyond thrilled to step on stage in honor of the lineage of those who have performed the roles before us. We absolutely love the opportunity to bring Lindy Hop to packed audiences each week. Everyone is in absolute love with the show as we have received a standing ovation every single performance! This all still feels like a dream to us.

“Along with working with such notable artists for SWING!, we had the amazing opportunity of working with the incredible Travis Payne and Stacy Walker who created new choreography for sections of Legends in Concert. They are both such phenomenal individuals, and we greatly admire how well they work together as team. We very much look up to them for how generous they are in their partnership. What an honor it was to work with Travis and Stacy, who have worked with the likes of Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga. For them to set choreography on us was simply a remarkable experience. In SWING!, Legends in Concert, and Pure Variety, Brian and I feel so blessed to have worked with such talented and humble people on the Norwegian Pearl.”

Read more about Brian and Samantha’s Swing! experience on on their website and particularly in this blog post

Samantha and Brian are continuing on with the show on the Norwegian Pearl until late August. They’ve recently danced and cruised their way through the Panama Canal on their way up the West Coast, and then they’ll be performing for several weeks to and from Alaska. They’ll leave the ship at the end of August with just 2 weeks to prepare for their wedding. I look forward to seeing Samantha and Brian on the dance floor in New York the next time I visit the Big Apple!

Mandi Gould is part of the Toronto Lindy Hop community and a member of the Board of Directors of the Frankie Manning Foundation. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *