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Guest choreographer Melissa Duffer brings the moves to Hairspray
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Over a hundred actors showed up to audition for the Fort Wayne Civic Theater’s production of Hairspray, and the first thing they found themselves doing — all of them — was getting a 45-minute dance lesson from choreographer Melissa Duffer.
“I taught everyone a combination from ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat,’ which is the big final number,” says Duffer, who for her day job is the resident choreographer at Huntington University. “Then, we brought them in front of me, Harvey (Cocks, the director) and Eunice (Wadewitz, the musical director) in groups of six and they had to perform it, so immediately we got an idea of everyone’s ‘danceability’ even before we heard them sing.”
Of course, musical theater wouldn’t be musical theater if it didn’t include some fancy foot work along with all the singing, but that might be especially true of Hairspray. The entire story revolves around a TV dance show in the early 60s, with the music, dance styles, and look of the era playing an essential part in the story.
Which is not to say it’s a dance revue. Hairspray is… well, if there can be such a thing as a camp take on race and class relations — all played out against the backdrop of Balitmore with a soundtrack from the pre-Beatles 60s — then Hairspray is it. Those that have seen the musical, or the John Waters film it’s based on, know what I’m talking about. The musical ran for over a zillion performances on Broadway and nabbed eight Tony awards (including Best Musical). A London production also won an Laurence Olivier award for Best New Musical.
To help the Civic get the moves right for their production of Hairspray, they brought in Duffer as sort of a guest choreographer. Duffer was a professional dancer, performer, and choreographer in musical theater in New York for “many, many years” before joining the staff at Huntington University in 2008. She says she loves all musical theater, but has a special affection for the classics; one of her favorite roles was as Dream Laurey in a production of Oklahoma! “Carousel, Guys & Dolls, Oklahoma!… those always have a very special place for me. They’re the roles I really enjoyed.”
Her experience wasn’t limited to the stage — one of the more curious items on Duffer’s extensive resume is a stint as Barbie for Mattel. “In New York every year, there’s this thing called Toy Fair where all the toy companies show all their new products. They often hire actors to demonstrate their toy, so I was hired by Mattel to be one of their Barbies.”
“I did that a few times,” she laughs. “Lots of different opportunities present themselves in New York.”
Hairspray marks the first time Duffer has worked with the Civic Theater. “That’s been really great for me, getting to know this whole other group of people who are involved in performance in the area,” she says.
For Hairspray, Duffer did her homework. She had seen the original 1988 film and the Broadway production, and knew how essential it was to capture the flavor of the early 60s. “For me, it was more about getting into the script and making sure I understood — not only from a dance perspective but also from an acting perspective — what kind of feeling or emotion the dances needed to convey to move the story along,” she says.
“Whenever I choreograph a show, I want to stay true to the characters and the time period,” she adds. “Obviously, I’m not trying to recreate some sort of ‘ballroom dance,’ where it’s all step-by-step, but you need to have a little of that here and there so it has the flavor of that time period.”
Duffer says that for the most part, the script doesn’t really dictate any dances — the exception is one called The Madison, which Duffer says she figured out how to do (“They say ‘let’s do the Madison!’, so it would look kind of strange if then they didn’t do the Madison.”). “I feel like because I performed for so long, I really try to look at everything from an acting standpoint,” Duffer says. “Even though I’ve made my career as a dancer in musical theater, that also means you have to act and sing as well, and I try to take those things into account with each number I choreograph. It all has to work together to tell the story.”
The importance of integrating all those elements — acting, singing, and dancing — is something Duffer emphasizes to her students interested in musical theater. “I always say ‘get yourself to dance class.’ Singing and acting are obviously important, but if you want to do musical theater, you really have to learn to move on stage.”
Fort Wayne Civic Theater presents Hairspray
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Saturday, July 23 at 8:00 pm
Sunday, July 24 at 2:00 pm
Friday, July 29 at 8:00 pm
Saturday, July 30 at 8:00 pm
Sunday, July 31 at 2:00
Friday, August 5 at 8:00 pm
Saturday, August 6 at 8:00 pm
Sunday, August 7 at 2:00 pm
Tickets: $26/adult; $18/youth and student. Sunday matinees: $26/adult; $22/senior; $18 youth and student
Call: 260 424-5220
Or online at www.fwcivic.org