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Broadway follows in their footsteps

Sunday, March 06, 1994

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

As spring waits in the wings, the early sounds of baseball drift northward. But spring training isn't confined to the Sun Belt, nor did every pitcher and catcher wait until February to report.

On a day in late January, the cheery thud of ball striking glove could already be heard farther north, deep in the canyons of Manhattan. Known in theater circles as "890," the Wien Center sits at that Broadway address, separated by the Garment District from the theater lights of Midtown.

Its busy rehearsal studios play host to ballet companies, comedy acts, theatrical designers ... and Broadway musicals in various stages of undress and preparation.

The sounds of ball and glove come from a dance studio on the fourth floor. Slip in and you discover two intense young Pittsburghers, baseballs in hand, caps on head, deep in the spring training of Broadway.

They are Rob and Kathleen Marshall, brother and sister-Squirrel Hill natives, but now leading citizens of the kingdom of musical comedy. At 33 and 31, Rob and Kathleen would be old hands on the baseball field, but in the Broadway theater they're practically rookies.

Musicals rely on young performers, of course, but the Marshalls have already graduated to the other side of the footlights as choreographers and directors. There, they work with the real veterans, including the granddaddy of them all, George Abbott, 106, who originally directed and wrote the book for "Damn Yankees," the 1955 Tony-winning baseball musical.

Rewritten, it opened Thursday right on Times Square with-as choreographer and assistant choreographer-Rob and Kathleen Marshall.

As choreographer, Rob shares the creative leadership of this multimillion dollar baby with director Jack O'Brien. Kathleen is his creative partner.

The Marshalls now have the extraordinary distinction of having choreographed three shows running simultaneously on Broadway - "Damn Yankees," "She Loves Me" and "The Kiss of the Spider Woman."

But you wouldn't think it to watch them at play with balls, mitts, caps and bats. Facing the dance studio mirror, they strut and pivot, shuffle and spin, refining the moves they will soon teach the cast. Down the hall, stars Bebe Neuwirth and Victor Garber and the bouncy young dancers rehearse under the eye of O'Brien.

"The universe wanted Rob Marshall to do this show," says O'Brien, artistic director of the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, where "Damn Yankees" had its fall shakedown cruise. Hiring one Marshall, he ended up with two.

The Marshalls' partnership started years ago in Pittsburgh, putting on family shows with Rob's twin sister, Maura, under the fond eyes of their professor parents. College and performing careers took them in different directions, but they reunited for the national tour of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

When Rob graduated from assistant choreographer to choreographer on that tour, he hired Kathleen to assist and serve as dance captain (the dancer who keeps all the other dancers up to the mark).

The big step in their collaboration came when Rob was called to Toronto and London to fix the choreography for the New York-bound "Kiss of the Spider Woman"-his first such Broadway credit. Next he took on the Broadway revival of "She Loves Me." Kathleen worked with him on both. "The only other brother-sister dance relationship I can think of is Fred and Adele Astaire," says "Damn Yankees" dance arranger David Krane, "and they were mainly performers."

Choreographers are authors," says Rob. "We write stories. I've directed and choreographed, but choreography is harder." Kathleen agrees: "For directors, there are words on the page, but the choreographer has to come up with the structure."

For a revival, "the first thing we do is go to the library," she says. "Maybe it comes from being children of educators." They read about the period and search for records of the original choreography. Out-of-town reviews may give hints about numbers cut before Broadway. The process stirs up "a million ideas."

"Then," says Rob, "you get into a studio and become a child. You play house, letting your imagination open up and create... . Then you go back and use all the artistic sophistication you've learned to give it form." "We call it 'throwing up,' " says Kathleen, "following any stupid thought."

After the story, says Rob, "The last thing you do is the steps." For the Marshalls, choreography is direction. Concept comes before movement. "We have no style," Kathleen says. "We try to serve the piece. We're lost if we don't have character and plot."

Finally, the performers arrive and rehearsals begin. Whatever he's already designed, Rob knows "you have to be ready to throw it away. In rehearsal, whoever has the best idea wins. You have to be open to the performers.

Casting's really important. I look for who's creative, who can interpret."Rob was born Oct. 17, 1960, in Madison, Wis., where his father, Bob, was pursuing a doctorate in English while his mother, Anne, taught elementary school. As the family story has it, Rob was an afterthought. His sister Maura was born and the new mother thought that was it, until she heard a nurse excitedly exclaim, "Dere's anudder vun!" ... and Rob made his belated entrance.

The twins were conceived in Boston, where both parents grew up. Says Bob, "Anne was pregnant when we went to see 'West Side Story'-we joke it was the shock of that final gunshot that split the egg." The twins are fraternal, but the idea of prenatal theatrical influence is appealing.

Kathleen appeared soon after, Sept. 28, 1962, and the family arrived in Pittsburgh in 1964, when Bob began teaching English at the University of Pittsburgh. Except for a stint as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, he's done so since. Anne earned a doctorate in education, taught, and recently concluded 12 years as associate director for staff development in the Pittsburgh public schools. She now teaches in the Pitt School of Education.

They were active parents. "We always brought them to things," says Bob, "musicals, opera, ballet, circus, baseball, everything. If it was live, we went. It wasn't about lessons or getting your picture in the paper-it was about growing up."

Anne remembers a "La Boheme" when the kids cried, thinking Mimi had really died. One of Bob's favorite memories is taking the three to "The Tempest" at Pitt. Were they too young to stay interested? He watched, fascinated: Each time they reached the limit of their attention and were about to squirm, the comic subplot kicked in, grabbing their attention again.

Shakespeare knows something about structure; maybe Rob and Kathleen were already learning their eventual craft.

All three went to Falk School and then Allderdice High School. At home, they put on complete holiday musicals, then left for Boston with the car trunk packed with props and costumes, to put on the show for both families there as well.

Anne remembers her year in the Teacher Corps at Weil Elementary School, Hill District. The twins and Kathleen, then 8 and 6, came to show her class the "Wizard of Oz" they'd done at home. "The next thing we knew, we were down in the auditorium," recalls Maura. They ended up producing it for the whole school, using the kindergartners as Munchkins. Says Anne, "They ran the whole thing-at 8 and 6! Even then, they understood the whole business."

Maura now lives in the Washington, D.C. area, where she and her husband, Dennis Powell, have an interior design and architecture firm. She remembers that theater was always important.

"We'd leave Falk and stop at Carnegie Library and pick out a cast album to take home and memorize, or we'd see what show was on at the Playhouse that we could beg to see. They let us buy one record album a month, so while our friends bought rock, we'd decide between 'Carousel' or 'Dames at Sea.' We thought everybody did this - staged Christmas shows, listened to 'Oklahoma!' It wasn't until I was in college that I realized everybody doesn't." In retrospect, Rob and Kathleen were headed toward show biz from way back.

Maura, too: She worked in arts administration and after college she went to work for Bloomingdales, in the show-biz side of retailing. But why this overriding interest?

"They took us to opera and Shakespeare, to start," Maura says. "But lots of it was at our request, not theirs. Some of our closest friends were interested in theater. And we three were so close in age, we formed our own little group. It's easier to do 'Wizard of Oz' when you have three."

"Kathleen always had an incredible memory," Anne says. "She can imitate a Cyd Charisse number she saw 20 years ago. They'd come home and reconstruct a whole musical in the living room."

At Falk, they were really bitten, performing in the musicals staged by music teacher Donald Mushalko. When all three were cast in "The Mikado," the parents had to see every performance to catch all the permutations.

Then the family spent the 1971-72 academic year in London. The kids found their way to classes at the Unicorn Theatre, and, only 11, Rob journeyed alone to downtown London to surprise the family with tickets to "The Canterbury Tales."

Their pivotal immersion in big-time theater came the next year, 1973. The CLO needed children for "The Sound of Music." "You've got to be kidding" was the parents' response when the kids asked to audition. After all, the CLO had just moved into glamorous Heinz Hall. The kids had only done family and school shows; they hadn't even studied dance.

"We drove them down on a Saturday morning and dropped them off," Bob says -- none of that anxious "stage parent" hovering for the Marshalls. When all three were unexpectedly called back for auditions a second week, "we went for coffee at the Mayflower, and Anne said, 'Maybe I better postpone their appointments to get braces.' " Indeed! The three Marshall siblings, 12 and 10, became Von Trapps.

The next summer they were in the CLO's "The King and I" and "South Pacific." Rob later did one season in the CLO chorus and Kathleen, five. A Marshall was with the CLO almost every summer from 1973 through 1985, and recently Rob's been back, directing.

A measure of the kids' enthusiasm was their intense focus on a rising local CLO star, Lenora Nemetz. They attended all her shows, formed a fan club and kept a scrapbook, never dreaming some day Rob would become her director.

In Falk and at Allderdice, the kids made movies of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Brady Bunch." Bob says, "We'd come home and find strangers memorizing their lines on our third floor. These kids could get anybody to do anything." For one movie, Anne recalls two Allderdice teachers jumping fully clothed into a pool.

There were no early dance lessons, no training as CLO mini-stars. Maura and Kathleen had piano lessons, and Rob took guitar - "just the usual kids lessons," Bob says. At 13, Kathleen joined friends taking dance at Mario Melodia's studio in Squirrel Hill. Not until Rob was 16 did he decide to tag along, an extraordinarily late start for someone who would eventually dance on Broadway. Melodia noticed Rob quickly, insisted he do ballet and gave him his first tap shoes.

"But that was all just things for kids to do," Bob insists. "We thought of the CLO shows as blips. If Mario's had been any place other than just down the street, we probably wouldn't have let them have dance lessons." Then one day, the living room ceiling started to collapse. "Do you have water up there?" asked the contractor. "No," Bob said, "a tap-dancing son."

The blips began to link up. On his own, Rob had apprenticed at the Odd Chair Playhouse at 14. Bob recalls the odd sensation of his son's practicing obscene lines from "Lenny" and handing towels to the nude performers in "Hair." The youngster even stage-managed, showing how much theater sense he had.

A turning point came when Rob asked for a ride to an 11 p.m. audition for Don Brockett at the Fulton Building. For an inexperienced performer, that took guts. But he turned out to be a natural for Brockett, for whom he performed many summers.

"Rob's never worked a day in his life at anything except theater," Bob says, "except baby-sitting." Soon, Kathleen was dancing for the Kasamon Ballet at the Playhouse. At Allderdice, Rob's senior show was "Fiddler on the Roof" and Kathleen's, "Carousel"-each was a featured dancer.

Rob made his vocational choice clear by turning down Brown and Northwestern, choosing the professional program at Carnegie Mellon, Class of 1982. Maura went off to Brown. Kathleen went to Smith College as an English major, but she'd been attracted by the dance program and she did so much theater at the nearby University of Massachusetts that she didn't graduate with her class.

Freshman year, Rob danced in "West Side Story" with senior Holly Hunter. Sophomore year it was "Brigadoon." Then he turned pro, spending junior year with the national tour of "A Chorus Line," earning full CMU credit.

Senior year, he returned to do two original musicals, "Rachinoff" and "Merton of the Movies." Said former CMU drama head Mel Shapiro, "If you have a Hamlet, you do 'Hamlet.' If you have a Rob Marshall, you do 'Rachinoff' " - a comic musical about the 18th-century inventor of rock 'n' roll.

Kathleen's freshman dance concert at Smith revealed growing skill. Her summers were spent with the CLO and at King's Dominion amusement park in Richmond, Va., where she won "best dancer" in 1980, doing six shows each day.

At college, she choreographed "Pippin"-an odd experience for her parents, traveling 600 miles to see her choreograph, not perform. They've been traveling pretty steadily ever since. "Now, more and more, that's how we plan our vacations," Bob says. One weekend they saw Rob's "Bells Are Ringing" in Connecticut and "Into the Woods" north of Boston. And they've been to openings of "Spider Woman" in cities in three countries-New York, London and, last Thanksgiving, Vienna.

Bob says, "We're the only musical theater fans who haven't seen 'Phantom of the Opera' " ... because the kids haven't done it yet. After CMU, Rob worked continuously, eventually dancing on Broadway in "Zorba," "The Rink," "Edwin Drood" and "Cats." When "Cats" choreographer Gillian Lyne found she had such a skilled dancer doing Munkustrap, she added to his role, but he danced it only briefly before developing back problems that required months flat in bed to cure.

That slow recuperation influenced Rob's decision to move from performance to choreography. But he'd shown a taste for the latter all along.

Hired as a dancer in an off-Broadway showcase directed by Vinnette Carroll, "I spent most of my time helping her block the scenes." When performing, he was usually also dance captain or assistant choreographer. Choreographer Graciela Daniele, for whom he'd worked in "Zorba," made him dance captain on "The Rink" and then her assistant on "Drood."

"I can't believe I was dance captain of 'The Rink' at 23, giving notes to Chita (Rivera) and Liza (Minnelli)!" says Rob. "I learned diplomacy early. That was a growing-up experience for me." Minnelli might arrive late, or Nemetz, her understudy, might go on. Rob eventually taught the role to Stockard Channing, Minnelli's replacement. "But from Chita I learned the discipline of the theater."

The transition took. Shapiro knew it would. He'd featured Rob as a performer at CMU, but when directing a new musical, "Eleanor," at the Public Theater, he immediately signed him as choreographer.

Will Rob perform again? "No!" His last performance was the George Bush inaugural gala, for TV. "I went into rehearsal with dancers I'd choreographed in the 'Drood' tour and realized I didn't want to be an Indian again, after being a chief. I was only 27 and I know people dance until they're 35, but that wasn't for me. Performing is much harder. You're treated as property. As a director-choreographer, there's momentum.

And there aren't as many."

The past five years have seen plenty of momentum. Rob has choreographed and/or directed "70 Girls 70," "Berlin to Broadway," "Side by Side by Sondheim," "A Christmas Carol" and "1940s Radio Hour" in cities from St.

Louis to Florida. Kathleen assisted him on "Annie" and "Bye Bye Birdie" in

Kansas City. Neuwirth starred in his "Chicago" in Long Beach and Nemetz

and Lainie Kazan did his "The Rink" at Coconut Grove. He even had time for

"Drood" at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and a stringent Boston critic claimed

Rob's version of "Chess" is the only one that's ever worked. "I just read the script and listen to the lyrics," Rob explains. "When I don't understand, I do something about it. To develop story and character through choreography-that's why you do musicals. That's why Kathleen and I are working... . I know choreographers who don't read the script!"

The pace quickened in summer 1992. Having finished "Chicago" in California, he came to do "Brigadoon" at CLO, then left for "Chess" in New Jersey, returned to the CLO for "Oliver!" ... and then "Spider Woman" called.

Specifically, it was Chita Rivera's brother, and then lyricist Fred Ebb who called.

"Spider Woman" was in Toronto, and Rivera was unhappy. Rob immediately saw the problems were conceptual - "as usual." Hired, he called Kathleen to leave the "Cats" tour, for which she had been (naturally) dance captain. By the time "Spider Woman" arrived in London, they'd completely remade Rivera's part; she was now a Dietrich-like star, not the Latin bimbo she had previously been.

Much of the praise given director Hal Prince when "Spider Woman" arrived in New York was for the Marshalls' work. And Prince realized that. Rob will work with him on "Petrified Prince," a new musical, in the fall. Before "Spider Woman" opened, Rob had already signed for "She Loves Me."

For three frantic weeks, he spent nights with "Spider Woman" and days with "She Loves Me." The former won him a Tony nomination; the latter won him the "Damn Yankees" job. O'Brien was looking for a collaborator just as everyone was talking about this hot new choreographer.

By fall, Rob had to supervise the San Diego "Damn Yankees" opening alone, sending Kathleen to New York to supervise the transfer of "She Loves Me" to a larger theater, before both headed off to Vienna to cast and rehearse the Austrian "Spider Woman." It's little wonder neither has much life beyond the theater.

Though Kathleen hasn't danced on Broadway, she's been just about everywhere else, mostly with the tour of "Cats." Her parents saw her play four cats in as many cities-"and our relatives managed to see her all over the place."

She has also choreographed on her own, and last spring she made the move to director, doing her own "Chess" in Baltimore. She doesn't miss performing. "Once you've been on the other side of the table and watched performers audition, you realize how hard it is just getting the job. I always knew I'd go in this direction; through Rob, opportunities have fallen sooner in my lap."

Now she's preparing musicals in New Jersey and Baltimore. The time isn't far when she may have to choose between work with Rob or going solo.

Based on Douglass Wallop's comic Faust novel, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," "Damn Yankees" is about just that. Joe Hardy, a die-hard Senators' fan, sells his soul to Mr. Applegate, an assistant devil, for a chance to bring a pennant to Washington. To keep him in line, Applegate calls on Lola, a femme fatale. The musical's best-known songs are "Heart," "Whatever Lola Wants," "Shoeless Joe" and "Two Lost Souls." The 1955 score was written by the team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, who had first hit it big the year before with "The Pajama Game." Abbott, Prince and choreographer Bob Fosse worked on both shows. Only 29, Ross died during the run. But Adler and Abbott have kept close tabs on the revival.

"Why do a revival?" Rob asks. "The 'Guys and Dolls' now on Broadway is a homage to the original production. But I think you ought to take a fresh look. When Jack asked me to do 'Damn Yankees,' the first thing I thought was, 'Bob Fosse! -- why do I want to do that to myself?' But you have to rewrite and re- conceptualize, not skate in someone else's tracks."

That was what O'Brien had in mind, a thorough reworking of the book. Instead of being a '50s musical, says Rob, "Damn Yankees" is now "a fond look back at the '50s." It uses the saturated colors of '50s movies - "more '50s than the '50s," says Kathleen, "more Donna Reed dresses, more bright colors, more sitcom feel."

No, the young Marshalls do not remember the Washington Senators, let alone a time when the Yankees won the World Series nearly every year. But they do have the advantage of being hereditary Red Sox fans who grew up hating those damn Yankees.

And they remember their baseball mitts. "I had a red one," says Kathleen, "probably from Honus Wagner's." "So did I," says Rob, "but it was probably from Sears. I oiled it. I was really into my mitt for about a year, then I was on to tennis and then guitar."

Neuwirth, best known as Lilith on "Cheers," plays Lola, originally played by Gwen Verdon. Garber plays Applegate (originally Ray Walston). O'Brien has "tailored the Devil's humor to Garber, very urbane," says Rob. "He's reinvestigated the women ... . It's a much more sophisticated script."

After the fall run in San Diego, there was further rewriting. New York rehearsals began Jan. 17. Previews were set to begin Valentine's Day, with the official opening March 3. By now, the reviews should be out. And come Tony time, Rob could be competing with himself: "She Loves Me" vs. "Damn Yankees."

When their studio work is interrupted by a stage manager with a querulous message, Rob darkens. "Tell him I can't be reached now." However much he and Kathleen share the creative work, some of the job belongs to him alone: "The projects come to me. The initial meetings are mine. I have to fend off interference. But Kathleen is much more than an assistant. We create together."

Arranger Krane finds the fact that they are brother and sister "incredible; some siblings can't even talk to each other. It's an amazing symbiotic relationship." Their working relationship is both product and evidence of the youthful experience that prepared them for what they do today.

Broadway has lost a whole generation of choreographers, Fosse and Michael Bennett chief among them. But the vacuum has opened up opportunities for Susan Stroman, Wayne Cilento, Jeff Calhoun ... and Rob Marshall. Garber calls him, "a rising star. I'll do anything he wants... . And Kathleen is a presence. When they left San Diego, they left a hole."

Having worked with Rob both in his Long Beach "Chicago" and as Rivera's London replacement in "Spider Woman," Neuwirth calls him "a gentleman of the theater, lovely to work with. He's aware of you and your way of moving * his dances all make sense."

O'Brien clinches it, saying of Rob, "His career is going through the roof. That's usually a time when people change, but he's not changing-he's closing in on it. With him, it's all about confirmation" - confirmation of who he already is.

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