Not long ago, I sat in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, in Manhattan, during sound check, waiting for Warren Carlyle, the Tony-nominated director and choreographer of After Midnight—the hit musical developed with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra. A dancer, Karine Plantadit, stretched on the proscenium, and a lone trombonist played long tones on the Cotton Club–inspired bandstand.
Carlyle apologized profusely (belying his English upbringing) for arriving five minutes late and drenched in sweat. He had been running through the choreography for a new performance that will feature the After Midnight cast on the Tony Awards telecast (June 8), which he is also staging. Like most of After Midnight, Carlyle’s number for the Tonys will be set to Duke Ellington’s music. Over the course of a half hour, we spoke about how he managed to channel the joyful exuberance of the 1930s Harlem cabaret scene.
Q: Are you here every night?
A: I’m not. As a director and choreographer, once opening night happens, that’s it. Generally you just leave, and you’ll come back for a brushup or something—or if there’s a cast change. This show is different because we have these rotating guest stars [Fantasia Barrino is currently featured], so I’ve been back more than I ever have on any show.
Q: Can you give me a sense of how this came together?
A: I had always been a fan of Duke Ellington’s music. And Jazz at Lincoln Center and City Center were looking to collaborate on a project. Wynton Marsalis and Jack Viertel, the guy who conceived the show, approached me and asked if I would be willing to help them put the evening together. I just jumped at the chance to do it. This music is so great. I think it should be heard by the new generation. The show I’ve created is not Grandma’s show—I think it’s lively and fun and energetic—but my reason for doing it was always the music.
Q: Are you a musician yourself?
A: I trained as a dancer, but I also studied piano. I read music.
Q: Tell us about some of the archival work that went into the production.
A: There was a lot of research. Many of the orchestrations in the show are original 1930s orchestrations.
Q: Wynton didn’t touch them?
A: No. [If they were touched], it was by the team at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and they listened to old recordings and re-created the original. As for the research I did, I read as much as I could. I looked at a million pictures of Harlem. I looked at pictures of the Depression, too, of what was outside the walls of the Cotton Club. And through looking at all of that stuff, I actually decided to keep the show a kind of utopian place. To let it be great entertainment and not bring any of the struggle into the show. Just to keep it outside the doors in the same way that I try to in this building: All the credit-card debt stays outside these doors. You sit here for 90 minutes and forget about your life and your troubles and just enjoy this.
Q: How faithfully did you re-create the looks of the 1930s?
A: I didn’t want to be bound by period. I wanted to be inspired by period. Sometimes you can do a period piece and it will feel old because the neckline is the 1930s neckline and the hemline is the 1930s hemline and suddenly you’re looking at a museum piece. I really wanted to say what was great about that time. What was the energy of that time. How did that feel to that audience and how do I re-create that feeling today? Then I was shameless: I did everything I could to elicit a response from an audience.
Q: How did you deal with the racial sensitivity of this project? For example, a show like this in the Cotton Club would have had an all-white audience.
A: We considered it a lot. I considered it a lot. I’m a white, ex-English man creating an all-black show. People often asked about the context for the show, especially when we were first putting it together and we were raising money. Their notes were: “It needs a context. We need to know that it’s the Harlem riots. We need to know that it’s the Depression.” And I feel so strongly that the context for this show is the color of the performers’ skin. When you see an African American actor on a stage, that history is there. In the same way that my context is in my dodgy English accent; you know that I have a history from somewhere else. I didn’t want to, as an artist, explain what I was doing. Many people thought that I should, but I really just wanted to entertain. I love that the show is not tethered to the Depression or to the Harlem riots or to a janitor or to a slave, God forbid, or someone picking cotton. I couldn’t think of anything worse. I couldn’t think of anything that would burst a bubble faster than that.
Q: Because that’s not what this type of entertainment was ever about.
A: It’s not what it’s about! It was designed as an escape. It’s a perfect world. I feel very strongly about it, and I’ve spoken to the cast about it, too. Every member of this cast is the president of the United States. There’s no shuffling. There’s no Uncle Tom. It’s very elegant and very smart. And in order for the show to succeed, every single number—every person in the show—has to succeed individually. So when you see them tap-dance, flip, jump into splits—they succeed. Hurray. That’s really my plan: To make sure that every single number has really landed and that you see every single person succeed. You don’t see them fail. You don’t see them struggle to pay the rent. You don’t see them fall down. You don’t see them cleaning a bar or with a hat on the floor, busking. No one begs. It was very important to me. No one bows their head in the show.
Q: How did you celebrate your Tony nominations?
A: My best friend, she was in the lobby of my building streaming the telecast, and when I was nominated as best director of a musical, she walked through my front door with a bottle of Prosecco, orange juice and breakfast. It was really perfect.
Q: What are you listening to these days? Are you Ellington-ed out?
A: You know what’s interesting? I’ve been so busy the last weeks that I haven’t really been listening to music other than for work. I’m actually staging and choreographing the entire Tony Awards this year, too—I’m doing the whole telecast—so my brain is full of work music. When I’m not working, I actually enjoy silence.
Q: And the After Midnight cast is involved in the show.
A: We have a number in the Tonys. It’s a brand-new one, which is why I’m soaking wet. Forgive me. I’ve been working on it today with the cast. There’s so much energy and joy, I didn’t want to do just one tap dance or one song. So I put together basically the whole show in three and a half minutes. It’s a free-for-all. It’s very fun and very high energy.
Q: Ellington still?
A: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Q: Can you tell us which one?
A: No, but it’s one that the audience at home will know!
Pictured above (from left): Daniel J. Watts and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edward