How ‘Rise’ Choreographer Danny Mefford Put His Own Stamp On ‘Spring Awakening’
Updated: May 3, 2020
NBC’s new show, Rise, is taking viewers to places that Glee never did. While both TV shows have their place for musical theatre fans, Rise feels more raw and realistic — like a true high school drama department. The show, which focuses on the lives of seven students in a working-class town, showcases how the arts are often pitted against sports. Rise not only includes the structure of high school cliques, but the idea that annual budgets are often created around sports teams — sometimes the drama department gets left out. More: Emilia McCarthy Is Fired Up About Her Role In Disney Channel’s Movie Musical, ‘Zombies’ What isn’t getting left out of Rise is the intricate eye of creator Jason Katims, who brought on Broadway choreographer Danny Mefford to the project. The Dear Evan Hansen and Fun Home choreographer had the time of his life creating movement for the show within a show, Spring Awakening. Dance Dish had the opportunity to interview Danny Mefford on his approach to choreographing a musical on a TV show and the surprise he learned about Rise star Rosie Perez’s dance background.
Dance Dish: Since you come from a Broadway background where you do have a say in casting, did you have a choice in casting actors for Rise? Danny Mefford: I didn't help cast the people, but I believe that anyone can dance. When you're telling a naturalistic story, what you're getting is a feeling of reality in all these moves. So I'm more interested in the untrained dancer than I am in the trained dancer, but it's great to have people who have body rhythm. I told Jason Katims when I was interviewing for the job that I thought that they should pick the people who were right for the roles. Luckily though, they're all amazing performers with body rhythm and are deeply gifted actors. More: Why Directing ’When The Beat Drops’ Was A Game-Changer For Jamal Sims DD: Bill T. Jones did incredible and Tony-award-winning choreography on the Broadway version of Spring Awakening. Did you take any of that with you to Rise? Danny: It was spectacular! And I loved when he did. I saw that show when I first moved to New York City 10 or 11 years ago and I became a huge fan of his — I also loved Fela!, which he also did on Broadway. When I got the job, I watched nothing about Spring Awakening. So I tried to be with the people in the room and say, What do we have here? What kind of power do we have here and what can we make? I think some of the things look radically different than that original production of Spring Awakening and some of them look pretty similar. DD: How much time did you have to rehearse these numbers? TV is always a faster pace than Broadway. Danny: In theater, you have to edit because it has to take place in front of you. On film, you have to get great footage that you can splice together afterward. The rehearsal process is very short. For the season finale, I think we had three rehearsals and that was pretty standard for the rest of the episodes. If the episode had a lot of theatre in it, we had three rehearsals to get that all ready. If it had just a little bit [of theatre], we might only have one [rehearsal]. DD: How challenging was it choreograph something that can’t be perfect in the beginning, since the drama students are in the rehearsal period for the show? Danny: It was a challenge and I had to create the movement in a way that could be taught quickly. It also depended on where they were supposed to be in the progression of rehearsal and how clean things needed to be. DD: What should viewers look forward to choreography-wise as the season progresses? Danny: I’m proud of our “Touch Me.” To be honest with you, I think it’s very beautiful and I think it’s very different than any “Touch Me” that's come before it. It ties into Tracey’s storyline, who is the choreographer [on Rise] — played by the brilliant Rosie Perez. Before I met her, I did not know that she used to choreograph The Fly Girls on In Living Color. So I didn't know if she was going to know how to be the choreographer in the room and call out the 5, 6, 7, 8! Then I met her and she had this incredible dance background. She knew exactly how to be the choreographer in the room. More: How Mari Takahashi Took The Leap From Ballet To Smosh Games DD: What did working on Season 1 of Rise mean to you as a choreographer? Danny: I loved working on it so much. It was such a gift to me to work with all those people and the amazing Jason Katims, who wrote the most beautiful script. Just getting to be a part of this group to put it all together — it meant a lot to me.
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