Chase Brock is one of the busiest choreographers in the business, and for good reason. He trained with Anne Reinking, made his Broadway debut at 16 with Susan Stroman, and retired from performing by the time he was 18. He has worked with Julie Taymor, Bono, and The Edge on Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, and frequently collaborates with the Public Theatre in New York. He also serves as artistic director for his own dance company, The Chase Brock Experience, and recently helped create the highly anticipated stage version of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
This summer he teams up with the American Repertory Theater, Diane Paulus, Sara Bareilles, and Jessie Nelson for the world premiere of Waitress. I recently sat down with Chase to talk about his career, having Sara Bareilles as a dance arranger, and how diners dance.
You have worked with an incredible array of directors since your Broadway debut with Susan Stroman in The Music Man … you worked with Julie Taymor (on Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark) and now Waitress with Diane Paulus. With The Music Man, you were not on the creative team; you were in the cast. What an amazing example of how to tell a story and put on an amazing show. What do you remember about that experience?
Interestingly, that is the piece on which I realized I wanted to choreograph and eventually direct someday, watching Stroman do that. And, in particular, that moment in her life was so thrilling because she had just made Contact at Lincoln Center and it had been the biggest hit of the season at the (Off-Broadway’s) Mitzi Newhouse, and then we went into rehearsal for The Music Man, and then Contact went into rehearsals for the (Broadway) transfer to the Beaumont upstairs, so she was with us during the day and then she would change hats and go do Contact at night—so it was a really thrilling time to be around her; she was in such a creative mode. And she just led that process so confidently and so beautifully, and it really was during the rehearsal for that that I found myself looking at her and saying, “That’s what I want to be doing; I don’t actually want to be doing this.” I was really grateful for it and I loved it and I did the whole two-year run, but when I was out of rehearsal I felt that something was missing. I loved performing on Broadway, but I really knew that I wanted to be creating dance and creating theatre. And so she was instrumental in terms of me deciding that. In fact, I asked for a meeting with her and she granted it to me and I was 16 years old and I said, “I really want to do what you do, what do you think?” and she was absolutely lovely, and she said that she saw that in me and felt that I could do it.
It was so lovely of her, and so I really stopped; I retired at 18 and I’ve had amazing adventures. I studied with Anne Reinking as a teenager, so for the summers she was really my mentor and then it was Stroman. I had been a fan of Julie Taymor’s for 15 years, like everybody, so to be able to be a part of her universe was so fantastic, obviously, thrilling on Spider-Man. And I’ve been such a fan of Diane’s productions, so it’s been an amazing thing to be able to now collaborate with her.
You were talking about Susan Stroman’s whirlwind, the thrilling excitement of Contact and The Music Man and—at that point, The Producers was on the horizon. That sounds similar to what Diane is experiencing right now, just one amazing thing after another.
She feels like the busiest director I’ve ever worked with. I feel like she is everywhere. I don’t know how she runs this theatre and does all of these operas and new musicals and Broadway transfers. It’s an amazing operation she has going.
With Spider-Man, did you work closely with Bono and The Edge?
Bono and The Edge were around a lot; those guys were very involved every step of the way, for sure.
You’re obviously no stranger to working with superstar songwriters. What has it been like for you to collaborate with Sara Bareilles on this?
Amazing—so inspiring. Having had the opportunity to work with Bono and Edge and Duncan Sheik (on Alice By Heart), it did feel sort of natural to work with Sara. What’s so lovely is that she’s my age, so it feels like we share a lot of the same references. We were working on a dance arrangement for a sort of big production number and we were in her apartment and I was playing her things from my iPod, and she was playing things from YouTube, and we were up dancing together and just really creating and vibing in the moment. That’s a really neat, fun, creative element of this that I’m loving.
What is the dance going to be like?
It’s interesting; it’s been challenging to figure out how this story dances and how the locations dance. Diners don’t dance. Diners are very resistant to dancing because these are places that have booths and tables and very limited floor space and people go there to sit and have a meal, so it’s an interesting problem to sort of figure out how that environment is going to move. There are a few surprises dance-wise that I don’t want to give away, but I will say that it’s shaping up to be a pretty eclectic mix. There’s a soulful aspect of this that I think Jessie Nelson really wrote into the book: how Jenna makes pies and the creation of each recipe, how that’s an almost spiritual experience for her and a respite from her relationship with (husband) Earl. There’s a bit of the physicality between Jenna and Earl that we show as well that has been really satisfying to discover: how we can get glimpses of what their relationship once was, what it is now. It’s not an enormous dance show but there are a lot of things that movement needs to do in this show that are fairly complicated.
What about working on dance breaks? Would Sara kind of deliver a song and say, “Okay, here’s a song, and then we’ll put dance music in here,” and that’s when you and she would sit down together and figure out the sound?
Exactly. It’s just been fun even figuring out the structure of those moments with her. Normally I work with my husband, Rob Berman, who you know, on dance arrangements; he did Hunchback with me and Disney, and we’re doing a couple things coming up, but with this I didn’t even entertain that question because, I thought, “I want to know what Sara Bareilles’ dance arrangements would be like!” And it’s been so fun to really work with her. So yes, Sara Bareilles is my dance arranger this time.
Not many can say that.
Sara grew up on musicals and has said that this is a dream come true for her. I also read that she made Diane promise to let her know if things weren’t going well, which I thought was really kind of sweet and humble.
She respects this so deeply.
When she talks about this project, you can see that.
She has the enthusiasm of the girl that played Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors in high school, which is so great. She really does come from a musical theatre background, but she also has a strong barometer of when something is working or isn’t working; I actually feel like she’s a natural. Lyrically, she has an excellent sense of how to write for specific characters without losing her unique voice. I feel like maybe Sara Bareilles will be a bright new voice in the theatre.
I think a lot of people want to know if there’s a future for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I think people want–
–the people want Hunchback!
It seems that way.
That project was so emotionally resonant for so many of us that worked on it, but I’ve never done something where audience members have been so vocal; it’s the only show I’ve ever done, including Spider-Man, where prior to the end of the show the audience was on its feet. I think, for all of us, we hope there’s a future. It seems like there could be, but obviously Disney Theatrical Group has many, many projects in their pipeline. I’m sure they have a master plan about how and where each of these properties fit it, and certainly, I trust their good stewardship of all that material. I hope that there is a life for it, and it would be really fun to return to that.
Speaking of master plans, what does the track look like for Waitress?
I think right now we’re honestly focused on making the best possible version of this show for the ART audience and for audiences in Cambridge … anything that happens after that would be the icing on the cake.
On the pie.
On the pie, thank you, exactly. It would be the cherry on the pie. But I think our first goal is to make this excellent for here.
WAITRESS. OPENS 8.2 AT LOEB DRAMA CENTER, 64 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG/WAITRESS
THIS IS THE SECOND IN A MULTI-PART SERIES ABOUT BRINGING A NEW PRODUCTION TO LIFE IN BOSTON.