When you see Movin' Out, Broadway's dance musical built around Billy Joel tunes that enters its third year Tuesday, you might think John Selya is superhuman. He soars through the air faster than a speeding bullet and does dizzying, whirling-dervish spins, suspending audiences in a state of disbelief.
Set in the hip, turbulent 60s against a landscape that moves from New York's Long Island to the battlefields of Vietnam, Movin' Out follows five friends as they experience love, broken hearts and shattered dreams. In the case of Selya's Eddie, a Long Island teen with a healthy ego, he returns from Vietnam and spirals into a nightmare of self-loathing. He begins recklessly speeding toward a dead-end life.

Seyla gives one of the most spectacular and memorable performances in recent musical theater. It's something for the "Believe It or Not" files. And he never utters a word of dialogue -- it's his "body of work." And, man, does his body work!

He received a 2003 Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Musical and the 2003 Theater World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut. But it's not just Selya who makes the show a must-see. Or a must-see-again. On second and third visits, there is no let down. Just the opposite, in fact. The show has been well-maintained, and in subsequent viewings, you catch subtleties you missed before.

Two of the stars aren't onstage: Twyla Tharp, whose sensational choreography drives Movin' Out (she also conceived and directed it); and Joel's music which, like a V-12 engine, keeps it pumping at hurricane force. Rock concert-style lighting adds effectively to the atmosphere.

Joel's chart-topping hits have won him international fame and five Grammy Awards. The dazzling ballet and acrobatic footwork is performed to 25 Joel songs, including "Just the Way You Are," "For the Longest Time," "It's Still Rock 'n Roll To Me," "We Didn't Start the Fire," "She's Got A Way," "Innocent Man," "Uptown Girl," "Only the Good Die Young" and, for a rousing finale, "New York State of Mind" -- and five of his classical compositions.

Movin' Out was nominated for ten 2003 Tony Award nominations [including Best Musical, Director and Featured Actress (Ashley Tuttle)]. It won for Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations. It also received six prestigious Drama Desk Award nominations, with Tharp taking the choreography prize. In addition, Time Magazine singled Movin' Out out as the season's "# 1" show. Not bad for a musical which, before it hit The Great White Way, was in big trouble. Some out-of-town reviews weren't exactly "money," and Twarp made extensive changes -- the kind that had New York critics and audiences dancing in the aisles. However, it would be fair to say that no one would have expected it to still be drawing audiences and having a successful road tour.

In the 80s, after nearly two decades with her company, tiny dynamo Tharp merged with American Ballet Theater, where she's choreographed more than a dozen works. She was a prime force in changing the face of modern dance. She's also worked extensively in TV and film [Hair, Ragtime, Amadeus].

Dance has been Seyla's life, but at 5'9" and 185 lbs., he isn't your typical ballet dancer. Instead of beauty and elegance, he oozes raw magnetism -- the kind you got from Marlon Brando in his prime.

"After taking ballet from age 10 to 14," he explains, "I got sick of it. It was the 80s, and break-dancing was the craze. I got together with a bunch of other street kids and really got caught up in it. We'd go to Atlantic City and perform on the boardwalk, passing the hat so we'd have money for food and to get back home."
Two years later, with his priorities changed, he auditioned and, even with a rugged body more suited to a football field, was accepted into the ABT. "That limited me," he states. "I was there ten years but never in a leading role. The good news is that it got me this role."

In Movin' Out, Seyla does marathon work. He's only offstage for two songs. People see the show and how he rains perspiration [going through three towels per show six performances a week] and afterward express amazement that he's not skinny as a rail. "It's strenuous," he admits, "a monumental effort. I gear up for it every day, but I never lost as much weight as people think I should. Maybe one reason is that I have a voracious appetite."

His Tony nomination and the recognition he's receiving make Seyla work harder. "When you're singled out for honors," he explains, "people's expectations are that much higher and you don't want to disappoint. It hasn't made me complacent. In fact, it's made me keep pushing to reach new levels."

He remains very dedicated and tries to get to a dance class every day. "That way, I don't have to do a strenuous warm-up before the show. I found if I do that, I go onstage tired, and that won't do."
The secret is training and maintaining technique, but he hasn't found that it makes his job any easier. "I can't tell you what the hardest part of the show is. It varies. Sometimes the most difficult moments are the dramatic ones and sometimes they're the more physical ones. Sometimes, it's the quick costume changes. A lot of the time, it's the intermission." The intermission? "Yes, because up to that point, you've established this momentum and then, for fifteen to twenty minutes, you stop. When you go back out, you have to try to get back into it, to pick up where you left off. But, after that break, your defenses are down and it takes a lot of effort."
He adds that the most formidable challenge is making his performance appear spontaneous each time. "Technically, there are the required elements that I try to hit every performance. Each show presents it's own challenges. You can take some liberties to a point because the piece is conducive to being spontaneous. If we get ahead or behind the music, it's not a problem. As long as we keep a structured form, Twyla encourages it."

Selya says the goal is to make it fresh every performance. "If it's fresh to me, then the audience will pick up on it. Going through the motions, planning everything out, isn't very exciting. It looks premeditated. It would be like those quarterbacks who telegraph where they're going to throw. If you want to keep the audience on its feet, you have to keep yourself on yours -- literally."

Movin' Out didn't come about the way most shows do. Selya and several of the cast worked in Tharp's modern-dance group. "Twyla mentioned she wanted to do something on Broadway," recalls Seyla. "We never thought it would happen. One day we were working to classical piano music and she asked if we knew the composer. We didn't. It was Billy Joel!"
She told the dancers she was developing "that" musical she'd often talked about and it would be set not only to Joel's classical work but also to his chart-topping pop songs.

"We'd put together a few numbers," Seyla reports, "and Billy would come in. Then Twyla would do a little more and Billy'd come again. We did more, and he'd visit again -- always quite approving. Then came the day when producers came. [No doubt helped by the fact that Contact, Lincoln Center Theatre's dance musical had become a mega hit.] We thought, 'Hey, this looks like it might actually happen.' And that's how the ball started rolling."

While Selya's jaw-dropping, high energy moves will leave you speechless, he's not the only dancer extraordinare in the amazingly gifted cast of 30-plus. Co-stars Nancy Lemenager, Ashley Tuttle and Desmond Richardson, have their share of show-stopping moments. If you saw Lemenager as a Ginger Rogers-like Broadway hoofer in last season's Never Gonna Dance and the 2000 Kiss Me, Kate revival, you're in for a revelation. As breathtaking as she was in those sophisticated Jerry Mitchell-choreographed, "Fred and Ginger" dances, as Eddie's ex-girlfriend Brenda, you'll be amazed at her hot, hot, hot moves as she transforms into a provocative temptress.
Tuttle, who joined ABT at age 16 and quickly became of the troupe's star ballerinas, is famed for her elegant bodyline. She uses that asset to express the emotion of a love-smitten young woman who becomes a war widow. She has several mesmerizing moments, especially one in Act Two when she slides across stage on pointe.

Richardson, a Tony Award nominee for Fosse who was last seen on Broadway in the musical revue, The Look of Love, has been a principal dancer with ABTheater, Alvin Ailey and the Frankfurt Ballet. He is also co-director of Complexions, a popular dance company.

Michael Cavanaugh, who was nominated for a Featured Actor Tony, is the piano man and delivers the vocals in Joel style. He's accompanied by nine blazing hot musicians, including Greg Smith on drums, who you'll swear is channeling the spirit of Buddy Rich.

Seyla spoke of the tremendous respect and support the company has for each other. "Being together for so long, we've become very attuned to each other, but it never gets tired seeing what the others can do. I'm constantly amazed. The show isn't easy. It's a huge effort. The choreography is very exact, so you can never be on auto-pilot. You must stay very focused."

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Key Subjects: 
John Selya, Billy Joel, Twyla Tharp, Dance
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline."
Date: 
October 2004
Subtitle: 
Dance John Selya Celebrates Three Years in Movin' Out