Joe Stollenwerk: Working on a Musical
Sweet Charity is a unique show. Premiering in 1966, it had one foot in old school musical comedy tradition and the other in the concept musical that would transform musical theatre in the 1970s.
It’s a perfect choice for Themester 2015, as the characters, from dance hall hostesses and accountants to film stars and panhandlers, are frequently hard at work. Particularly, the show places women at work at the foreground, showing the drudgery and hinting at the danger the women of the Fandango Ballroom endure every day of their lives. And yet, Sweet Charity also focuses on the bonds these women share. One might even say that Charity’s friendship with her female coworkers is given greater importance than her romantic relationships.
Sweet Charity also highlights the hardest working woman in musical theatre: Dorothy Fields, whose career began writing lyrics for The Cotton Club in Harlem in the 1920s, and who weathered the rise and fall of musical revues, musical comedies, movie musicals, the integrated musical, and finally, the concept musical. Fields was sixty when she wrote the astonishingly fresh and contemporary lyrics for Sweet Charity, her first musical since the death of her brother and frequent collaborator Herbert seven years prior.
And speaking of work, this is the second show I have done this year with director Kenneth Roberson and musical director Terry LaBolt, following this spring’s Into the Woods. As a Ph.D. Candidate about to (I hope!) get a teaching job at a college where I will be teaching and directing undergraduates, I am truly thankful to have worked for and with them this year. Kenneth and Terry are artists, but they are foremost dedicated teachers: I have learned so much—and I’m sure I will borrow some of their tips and techniques—by watching them blend teaching and directing in the rehearsal room.
Work is what musical theatre is all about. I’ve been impressed with the creativity and dedication of the design team, who bring more ideas to the table than can be counted and have handled changes and curveballs with grace. The cast’s hard work is on display each night, although their polished performances mask the endless hours they put into learning these dances and developing these characters. And if you ever want to find the hardest working people in theatre, look no farther than the Stage Management table.
Being part of Sweet Charity has embodied my motto: “Work hard. Have fun.”
Joe received his B.A. in Drama from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and his M.A. in English and M.Ed. from Xavier University in Cincinnati. His research interests include gender, race, and sexuality in 20th and 21st century musical and non-musical theatre and drama, and he is currently writing his dissertation, entitled “Women Writing Musicals 1965-1985: Second-Wave Feminism and the Post-Golden Age.” Joe is the author of Today in History: Musicals.