Putting It Together

Putting It Together
By Andy Buck

Luckily, JoAnn M. Hunter is a woman with a lot of stamina. A Broadway dancer since 1989, Hunter has embarked on a side career as an associate choreographer for musicals that have gone on to pick up American Theatre Wing Tony Award® nominations for Best Musical. That makes the Rhode Island native exceptionally busy during Tony season because the associate choreographer plays a crucial role in putting together the production number that gets shown during the award ceremony broadcast.

In 2007, Hunter helped do the honors for Curtains and Spring Awakening. During rehearsals for that year's Tony ceremony, we spoke with her to get an insider's perspective on the art of staging musical numbers for the Tony telecast.

Q: Your job at the Tony Awards calls not only for dance and choreography experience but knowledge of working on camera as well. Where did you get that experience?

Hunter: I just use common sense. The most important thing is to make the performers look as good as they can be. It’s not about showing the choreography. When the camera’s on, it doesn’t matter how great the choreography is if it doesn’t relay what you want to come across. But as a dancer, you know what looks good. You know how to finagle it. You think, “Okay, that doesn’t look good on their bodies, we should probably take the angle up.” You just innately know. After all, it’s what you do all your life. You look in mirrors 24 hours a day. You get used to thinking, “Okay, that’s not a good thing to look at.” Or, “That is a good thing.” I’ve also learned a lot from watching films. Like Chicago, the movie that Robby Marshall directed. He was able to transfer it to the big screen but keep it theatrical. They were not necessarily great dancers, but he’s a dancer and he made them look good because he knew how to shoot them. A layman wouldn’t know. They’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, shoot the whole body, it looks great.’ Which is not necessarily true. It depends on the background, on the angle.

How much is re-choreographed when you prepare a number for the Tony Awards broadcast?

I’m very concerned about not changing the choreographer’s stuff. It’s their material and I don’t want to lose any of the integrity of that work. If it doesn’t work for the venue we’re working in, then I change some of the blocking because of space or because of camera angles. But I try not to change the actual steps. They all have meaning. They all come from somewhere.

You first did this for The Wedding Singer, which used that show’s dynamic opening number. How did that go?

When we were putting that number together for the broadcast, figuring out what would show best, the producers wanted to add a little bit of this, a little bit of that. The opening number was so fun: It had all those clichés of the 1980s; the curtain went up and it was literally a blast of energy. And Rob and I both thought, "Why change it? That’s a great opening." But they wanted to feature a couple of the principals who were not in that scene. Rob was in London doing Evita, so I was there every day with the producers working on it. And the Tony people came twice to do camera blocking at the theatre. But what we were coming up with just didn’t have the impact of the original opening number. So you know what? We ended up doing it as it originally was. But it was a great learning experience. You don’t just put something together for the sake of bringing somebody on stage. Even if you think they’re going to sell the show, it’s not worth it because the number loses its energy.

How many rehearsals do you get to prepare a Tonys number?

Not a lot, because of the kind of contract the show is working under. I have to come very prepared.

Will you be doing this kind of work for future Tony Awards broadcasts?

It’s definitely been a learning experience for me. This kind of landed in my lap. And I went with it because I had gotten a little burnt out on performing. I needed to have my nights free for a while. But now I miss that. So I think… whichever way the wind blows. I’m very fortunate, however. I just want the wind to keep blowing.

Revised February 17, 2015