A Chat with Choreographer Larry Fuller
“I don’t know why at five, I was already telling people that when I grew up that I wanted to be a dancer.”
And this from a kid who hailed from Rolla, Missouri, where role models for dancers were not plentiful.
But Larry Fuller had been watching M-G-M movies on TV, so he knew what he wanted.
He got it, too – appearing in six Broadway musicals and choreographing six others.
To make it happen, however, Fuller had to formulate a plan during junior high school in the early ‘50s. He asked his parents to let him move to St. Louis, stay with relatives and attend Christian Brothers College High School.
“I told them it was a better school and would help me get into a better college – although I never planned to attend college. St. Louis was where the Muny was -- and where I could dance.”
So he did. But to mollify his father, Fuller did spend a year at Marquette University. “In business administration” he says in the same tone that Richie in A CHORUS LINE uses when describing his “goal” to become a kindergarten teacher.
“But,” Fuller says, his voice turning victorious, “I was back at the Muny the following summer.”
There he played Enoch Snow, Jr. in CAROUSEL -- which would be his first professional role in New York at City Center after he’d moved to town in 1956. But even before that, on his first day in Manhattan, he had an unforgettable experience.
“A friend took me to the final callbacks of BELLS ARE RINGING,” he says. “I still have no idea how he got me in, but he did. And when I auditioned, I could make out two figures sitting in the dark. From their body language I could tell that one liked me and one didn’t.”
Fuller infers that one was Jerome Robbins and the other was Bob Fosse. And while they didn’t choose him for that show, each of them subsequently selected him for another.
Robbins cast him as a Jet swing. Fuller went on quite a bit – “but in a way Equity doesn’t allow anymore,” he says. “If the actor playing, say, Baby John had hurt his ankle and couldn’t dance but could do the book scenes, he’d do his dialogue, but when the dancing started, he’d sneak off into the wings and I’d sneak on and dance until it was time for the book to resume.”
Anyone who knew Robbins always gets the question “Was he nice to you?” Fuller admits “Not when I worked for him. After I’d choreographed SWEENEY TODD, he said great things and recommended me for my first West End job as a director and choreographer: MARILYN – NOT the one that was done here,” he hastens to add, not wanting to be indelibly tarred by that brush.
Fosse cast him in a tour of REDHEAD. “Gwen Verdon was so nervous about her singing voice,” he says, “that she actually had chorus girls stand in the wings to give her some sort of moral support. Later, she even had a bunch of us come on stage for the same reason.”
Shortly after, choreographer Carol Haney cast him as a dancer in BRAVO, GIOVANNI (“We all knew it wasn’t very good”), which led to her hiring him for FUNNY GIRL.
“Sydney Chaplin as Nicky Arnstein had a big number to introduce him in a hotel room that he’d just checked into,” he says. “While he sang that this was just ‘A Temporary Arrangement,’ Buzz Miller played the bellhop who took everything out of Nick’s suitcases to put in closets and drawers. As soon as he’d finished, a phone call came in which made Nick tell him to put everything back in the suitcases because he was moving out.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it? “We were running over three hours in Boston, so that song was among the 40 minutes that got cut in a single day.”
Fuller has both fond and sad memories of Haney. “While the show was still sorting itself out, Carol had to go to London to choreograph SHE LOVES ME – and that’s the last we saw of her. Only a few weeks after that, she was found dead in her home in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. She was a very bad diabetic who didn’t take care of herself. But, really, she never got over her divorce from Larry Blyden,” he says, referring to the Caucasian star of FLOWER DRUM SONG. “She was destroyed when he left her and was never really happy again.”
Eventually Fuller turned to choreography, doing such stock jobs as a Phoenix production of ON A CLEAR DAY with Shirley Jones. But his first two Broadway jobs didn’t pan out. “BLOOD RED ROSES,” he says of a 1970 one-performance flop, “was an anti-war musical that was BEHIND the times because there’d been so much anti-war material before then.” Then came the Dietz-and-Schwartz revue THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT -- “Two years before the movie of that name, which was a different thing” – which managed to run four times longer than BLOOD RED ROSES.
So under those circumstances, Fuller couldn’t have foreseen that he’d next choreograph five shows under the direction of seventeen-time Tony-winner Hal Prince. But that’s precisely what happened.
Hooking up with Prince came as a result of Fuller’s getting sensational reviews and word-of-mouth for his German and Austrian productions of WEST SIDE STORY, a show Prince knew well, having originally co-produced it in 1957. “So Hal came to see it,” Fuller says. “He was fascinated that someone who didn’t speak the language was making a career for himself in a foreign country.”
As a result, the director made Fuller his choreographer for ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY in 1978.
“Plenty of people auditioned for Lily Garland, including Meryl Streep,” he says. “Hal gave it to Madeline Kahn because she could hit those high notes that were all over Cy Coleman’s score. So the first day of rehearsal Hal had Cy take her into the vocal room. I happened to be standing there when he came out. Hal asked ‘How did it go?’ and Cy had to say ‘Well, she won’t go over G,’ and Hal said ‘We hired her because she could sing high C’s!’ He was right -- that’s the whole point of a comic opera, which is what TWENTIETH CENTURY is.”
During the Boston tryout Fuller learned more about Kahn. “Madeline was having trouble with new songs and dialogue going in the same night she got them. That surprised me, because she’d done Broadway before. But she was even more thrown at a certain rehearsal of ‘Veronique,’” he says, referring to the number in which the gawky, heavy and not pretty Mildred Plotka morphs into the shapely and alluring Lily Garland as soon as her dowdy clothes are ripped off mid-number to reveal a sensual outfit.
“I told Madeline ‘When the change is made, stand on one leg and flex your other knee against the standing leg.’ She asked ‘Why?’ and I said ‘It makes your legs look better.’ Well, she got hysterical and left the stage. I suspect that when she was young, she saw herself as gawky and heavy and not pretty. Even though she turned out to be nothing like that, those early feelings never do go away.”
On the day the cast album was recorded, Fuller recalls that “Madeline was still recording long after everyone had left. When we played it back and told her ‘It’s wonderful!’ all she could say was ‘Oh, my throat.’ She was out for a week and a half after that, so she was told ‘Don’t come back.’ I wanted her to leave, too – but because I was worried for her.”
Fuller won’t talk about his next Prince collaboration – EVITA -- because he doesn’t want to re-incite a controversy that went on then (although it didn’t involve him at all). As for SWEENEY TODD, “Hal gave me the script and I wound up saying, ‘Hal, how are we going to do this? Will it be tongue-in-cheek funny? If it’s real, won’t it be too gruesome?’”
What the first preview audience did find gruesome was the Judge’s “Johanna” in which he flagellated himself while thinking of the lass. Some who know SWEENEY’s cast album assume that it’s always been part of the show, but it was dropped after that one performance. Now, however, it’s pro forma included in every production. “Back then, though,” says Fuller, “the audience resisted it. When we did it at City Opera only five years later, people had heard it on the record and just accepted it as a part of the show.”
Given that he was Prince’s choreographer of choice on these three shows, why wasn’t he originally signed for the next one: MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG?
“I was working on my own project when Hal called,” he explains. “DANCE OF THE DEFECTORS, inspired by but not really based Alexander Godunov -- the Russian ballet dancer who came over here with the Bolshoi in 1979 and defected from the Soviet Union while his wife didn’t. It would be all dancing and dialogue, but no singing.”
So Ron Field, who had taken home one Tony for CABARET and two for APPLAUSE, got the job. “I attended the gypsy run-through and felt bad for him, because Hal hadn’t given him any dancers. He was expected to make non-dancers look good, but they only wound up looking bad, which made Ron very unhappy. And when Ron wasn’t happy, he could be as mean as Jerry Robbins.”
Fuller reports that Prince hates to fire anyone. “But one day Daisy Prince – his daughter who was in the show – came home in tears over what Ron had said to all of them. The next day Howard Haines (Prince’s general manager) called me just to feel me out – ‘What are you doing? What’s going on?’ – and by then, Elliott Kastner, who’d agreed to do DANCE OF THE DEFECTOR, decided that he’d lost too much on MARILYN and backed out.”
So Fuller re-choreographed MERRILY. “I restaged everything except the Kennedy number,” he says, meaning “Bobby and Jackie and Jack.” Still, the show closed in a much unexpected two weeks.
Never mind. Fuller says “I feel so blessed and lucky that I got to go all over the world and make a living. But I feel even luckier that I knew all my life where my passion was.”
— Peter Filichia