If you want to stage a revival of the seldom performed but well-remembered 1983 Broadway musical “The Tap Dance Kid” – as encores! in downtown New York, Wednesday through Sunday — one of the biggest challenges is finding someone to play the title role.
That character is Willie Sheridan, a 10-year-old boy whose dream is to become a Broadway tap dancer and who has the talent to do it. The performer playing him must be like Willie: a young black boy who can act, sing and tap dance in the middle of an old-fashioned musical. And in recent decades, that particular combination hasn’t been very common.
Some reasons are there in the story of the show. It’s about a family—an upper-middle-class black man who pioneered a 1983 Broadway musical—and the main conflicts are generative. The main obstacle to Willie’s dream is his father.
For the father, a lawyer, tap is not only old-fashioned, but also shameful, tied to slavery and the racial humiliations he has worked to isolate those he loves. To the boy and his dancing uncle and the ghost of his dancing grandfather, tap is beautiful, something to be proud of.
This is an argument about the past and its progress, and it reflects some of the real-life attitudes that continue to influence the popularity of tap, especially among black people, and the potential pool of tap dance kids.
“I knew it was going to be hard to find a Willie,” Jared Grimes, the Encores choreographer! revival, said in an interview.
At auditions, Alexander Bello stood out – for his acting and singing. His tapping skills were not quite at the level Grimes had expected. “I wasn’t going to settle,” Grimes said. “This show is not called Acting Kid or Singing Kid.”
But Bello — who once put “Broadway audition” on his Christmas list and is already a Broadway veteran at age 13 — was determined to get the part. “I was amazed that almost all creatives were black,” he said. “I had never seen a room so melancholy and I wanted to be in that room.” And so, while he went to school and did eight shows a week of “Caroline or Change” on Broadway, he squeezed a month-long tap boot camp with DeWitt Fleming Jr. (who plays Willie’s grandfather).
“Alex deserved that part,” says Kenny Leon, the director of the Encores! production.
In a way, this was an echo of the 1980s. Danny Daniels — who won a Tony Award for choreographing the original production and who, like most of the original creative team, was white — once told me about the struggle that team had in finding a Willie.
“I asked the producers, ‘Where are you going to find the black kids? Black kids don’t tap anymore,'” said Daniels, who passed away in 2017. “So we made a call for black kid tap dancers. No one showed up.’”
In fact, no one showed up who didn’t need tap training. Daniels has started a tap boot camp. The first Willie to produce it was Alfonso Ribeiro, who soon set off for a successful TV career (and later showed off his tapping skills as Carlton in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”). One of many to follow on the show’s two-year national tour was Dulé Hill, whose own successful TV career, most recently in the reboot of “The Wonder Years”, keeps him too busy to appear on the Encores. ! revival.
Another Willie was Savion Glover, the tap dance kid who most changed what it meant to be one. Led by Gregory Hines and older black tap dancers, Glover became the heir to their tradition in the Broadway shows “Black and Blue” and “Jelly’s Last Jam”.
The 1996 show “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk”, which Glover choreographed and starred in, recaptured tap as black history both polemically and rhythmically, making it a hip-hop gift for people his age to see. as their own. In a monologue, when Glover dismissed Broadway styles as “not even tap dancing” but “arms and legs and a big smile,” he could have described Daniels’ choreography for “Tap Dance Kid”: the sequins and high kicks, more razzle- dazzle then rhythm.
After “Bring in ‘da Noise” closed, the Broadway tap largely returned to its old ways. But Glover, with his unsurpassed virtuosity and more streetwise image, had inspired a generation of young hoofers. Though deeply connected to tap’s roots in jazz, they contemporaryized the form and pushed it to new technical heights—and largely away from the singing and acting of “Tap Dance Kid.” Among this cohort was Grimes, now 36.
As demonstrated in the 2013 Broadway production “After Midnight,” Grimes is a tap dancer with amazing head-to-toe skill. But, unlike many other Glover-inspired hoofers, he also sees himself in Hines’ all-round entertainer line. In addition to his thriving performance career — he’s in the upcoming Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” — he’s been hailed as a choreographer on regional productions, including an updated “42nd Street.”
Grimes said he jumped at the chance to revisit “Tap Dance Kid,” which he called “the musical every tap dancer dreams of getting his hands on.”
The context has changed from the early ’80s and also from the late ’90s: “When I got there,” Grimes said, “when I looked to my side, there were other black kids who were already tap kings and were queens, but now almost none of my students are black.”
Bello said to kids today that tap is the dance style they’re “most likely to overlook.”
“Because you either think of it as Shirley Temple or as something guys did in the ’70s,” he said. “To other kids, it may seem like faucet was never really modernized, but that’s not true.”
Ayodele Casel, a post-Glover-generation tap dancer whose career has boomed recently, said there are many young black tap dancers out there, but they don’t necessarily see themselves on Broadway because opportunities were scarce. But speaking more broadly, she noted the significance of someone like her, steeped in tap culture, hired specifically to do the tap choreography for “Funny Girl.”
“There is still a gap,” she said, “between the actors and singers, who have long been able to get by on the basics of tap, and the serious tap dancers, who haven’t had much incentive to train. in acting and singing, but I think people, artists and producers are now starting to think differently about tap.”
Along these lines, the background of the creative team, more than the cast, is perhaps the most significant change in the encores! revival. The music remains the same, from Henry Krieger in a mode similar to his “Dreamgirls”. But Lydia Diamond, who adapted the book for the encores! production, the story shifted from the 1980s to the 1950s — when the lines of the racial struggle became more readable and tap lost its place at the center of American popular culture.
“We’re trying to show how something as precious as the history of tap has impacted this family fighting to find a place in the ’50s,” Grimes said. He said he helped get more accurate (and black) tap history into the script and a sense of transition in the choreography.
“I want to show tap as storytelling and crazy rhythms,” he said, “but also tip our hat to vaudeville and comedy and what could be seen as what we had to do to get in the door. We can do that with integrity .”
Grimes said this after a long day of rehearsing, eager to rehearse some more. “The guards have to kick me out,” he said. ‘That’s love, man. I hope ‘Tap Dance Kid’ will get a whole new wave of people thinking about tap that way.”