“There couldn’t be a better holiday season,” says very busy director/choreographer Warren Carlyle. “I truly am blessed to be here and doing what I love. It’s the culmination of all my dreams.”

Carlyle is having a jolly, if hard-working,time. He’s director/choreographer of the Harlem song-and-dance spectacular After Midnight on Broadway; and, in a return engagement following its holiday season engagement on Broadway in November 2012, choreographer of John Rando’s production of Joseph Robinette, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul’s musical, A Christmas Story at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. “As much as possible,” Carlyle says, “with all that’s going on, I’ve been spending time developing ideas for new works that are only in the talking and planning stage. I video my sessions so I won’t forget. I have an archive of hours of terrible, sweaty tape footage.”

The last two years, there’s been the mega success of the seven-week run of A Christmas Story and, following months of auditions and weeks of rehearsal, After Midnight, the Broadway adaptation of Cotton Club Parade, a celebration of Duke Ellington's years at the famed Harlem nightclub, in collaboration with Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Wynton Marsalis. It had limited City Center engagements in November 2011 and June 2012.

For as long as he can remember, at least starting at age 10, when his working-class parents in a small community outside Norwich, England, northeast of Cambridge, took him to the city to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “Top Hat,” his dream was to dance.

“That’s how I got hooked,” he laughs. “Fred, so debonair in top hat, white tie, tails, flower in lapel, and cane. He was so smooth, he made it look so easy. That huge Irving Berlin ‘Piccolini’ sequence with hundreds – or so it seemed – singing and dancing! I was on the edge of my seat. From then on, I was enamored with Hollywood musicals.”

Carlyle was growing into a tall, gangly kid [now, at 41, standing 6’2”], and was quite hyperactive in school: excelling on the swim team, on the track team, a bit later becoming an expert horseman. “But I was also Billy Elliot! His story is my story. I was him. Absolutely!”

He became obsessed with tap and studied at Norwich’s Central School for Dance. In spite of what he was achieving in sports, that proved quite strange to his mates. “I was bullied. It was awful, hurtful and tough, but I discovered the best way to handle it was to ignore it. Somehow I had the mind to find my inner strength to do my own thing.”

He knew exactly what that was, “And in my mind, I was already out there doing it. I studied, danced, and performed.” It didn’t come as a shock to his parents when, on graduating high school, Carlyle announced he was London-bound to attend ballet school. “I couldn’t wait,” he notes, “I had to go! But Mom and Dad were supportive from the get-go.”

There were dance recitals and auditions. Then, came his first West End job, cast in 1989 by Gillian Lynne into the West End company of Cats as Alonzo. “I am very tall, which I considered an asset,” he explains. “Since I towered over everyone, choreographers put me in the back or middle.” He loved dancing but felt the urge “to take a leap forward.” Enter Trevor Nunn and Susan Stroman, who was to choreograph his revival of Oklahoma! [1998] at the Royal National Theatre to star Hugh Jackman.

“I knew who Susan was. It was an honor to be chosen as her assistant.” However, it went beyond that. “I was inspired by her, and still am. She’s generous beyond belief. She taught me everything I know. She’s the master. If there’s one person who changed my life, it’s Susan.”

He followed Stroman to New York to assist on The Producers and the subsequent Broadway revival of Nunn’s Oklahoma! “I loved what I was doing but wanted to be more creative.”

That led to Carlyle’s trial by fire, his Broadway debut as director/choreographer on the short-lived adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. Jack Viertel chose him to direct and choreograph the Encores! Finian’s Rainbow and the retooled staging for Broadway, earning Carlyle a Drama Desk nomination for choreography. That began an incredible collaboration with Viertel. “We work well together. Jack’s knowledgeable about music and musicals.”

Three years ago, Viertel met with Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director Wynton Marsalis, and discussed a co-production. That led to Cotton Club Parade, helmed and choreographed by Carlyle. “It sounded exciting since I’ve always, always, always been a fan of the Duke’s. There’s nothing like his music. It’s so rich that it’s language to me; and so evocative that I see choreography.”

Carlyle explains that Viertel was instrumental in putting everything in place. “We worked up a song list” he relates, “and sent it to Wynton, who added his thoughts and changed things around a bit. That’s how we built the show, banging the ball back and forth.”

Carlyle explains he develops ideas “by spending lots of time thinking about what I’m going to do before I do it. I work for hours alone because Mom taught me never to go to someone’s home empty-handed. So, I never walk into a meeting without having something to offer. I feel an obligation to bring ideas – a piece of music, a sketch, a video of an idea I’ve worked up.
“What we did with Cotton Club Parade was the seed,” he continues. “The transition to Broadway with it reconceived as After Midnight was smooth. We developed more ideas, and enhanced production values. Everything’s now full blown, top notch.”

That included casting, which took nine months, working with casting director Laura Stanczyk. “We weren’t looking for actors, singers, dancers who can do everything but for specialists who excelled at one or two specific things. There were lots of open calls and callbacks to find them. The result, however, is beyond satisfying. They’re simply amazing. And then you add Adriane Lenox [Tony- and Drama Desk winner for her dramatic turn in John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize, Tony- and Drama Desk-winning Doubt]. She never failed to awe us with what she’s capable of doing; and let’s not forget the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars [who actually get the last bow, so to speak].”

Carlyle has never doubted what brought him across the pond. “It’s all about Broadway’s dancers. The very best are here. I wanted to be surrounded by dancers who’re so much better than I am so I could absorb it all. I’ve achieved that in spades.”

Now, there’s the return of A Christmas Story. “When it opened in November 2012, [director] John Rando and I knew the film had quite a following and that we had a wonderful entertainment; however, we were totally surprised it became a blockbuster. You hope, but you never know.”

The return presented some challenges because of the lack of fly and wing space at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. He and Rando decided to make scenic changes and do some restaging. “The best part for me last year,” says Carlyle, “was seeing those kids’ faces when audiences applauded. For the majority, it was their first time on Broadway. That moment, that appreciation is something they’ll never forget for the rest of their lives.”

But, when asked if he enjoys working with kids, he hesitates a second, then answers, “I do. I love them, but I’ll admit it’s challenging to get them to concentrate for hours and hours. You have to take into consideration that they’ve very young, and have great patience. It’s difficult for them remember things and repeat them in a certain way. In the end, they were incredible troupers!
“It’s great to be able to bring it back for the holidays,” he adds. “John and I hope it’ll become a perennial.”

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Key Subjects: 
Warren Carlyle, A Christmas Story, After Midnight, Cotton Club
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Date: 
December 2013