Michael Williams is a member of the My Fair Lady ensemble. He is also the production’s dance captain. What, exactly, does that position entail? “I help maintain the integrity of the show and its musical numbers,” Williams told me the other day between a matinee and evening performance. “I work to keep in place the vision of Bart, Chris, and Mark” – the director Bartlett Sher, the choreographer Christopher Gattelli, and the associate choreographer Mark Myars.
Although Williams was the assistant dance captain on his first Broadway show, the 2009 revival of West Side Story, and has had a subsequent Broadway career in On the Town and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, My Fair Lady marks his first time as dance captain. “It’s been thrilling,” he said. “People don’t think of this show as a big dance show the way they do ‘West Side Story’ but there’s a lot of dance and movement to keep track of.”
By way of example, Williams explained the Ascot Gavotte number. “I try to make sure the traffic flow in the scene is consistent. People have to hit their marks but there is room for individual expression.” Williams mentioned that to heighten the individual aspect Gattelli had the actors come up with characters they are portraying in the scene. “One of the women is a widow who has come to the races to hunt for a new husband. One of the men is a horse owner looking for acquisitions. And another man and his wife run an ‘underground’ social club in London. Use your imagination on that one.”
Williams grew up in Georgetown, South Carolina, where, he said, “playing sports and working on cars” were the primary activities for boys. To channel Williams’s energy his mother enrolled him in gymnastics at a young age. Eventually, he began studying ballet. He attended the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and, had West Side Story not come calling, would have joined a dance company in Montreal. One of the highlights of his career came during a national-tour performance of Come Fly Away, a dance-centered show conceived by Twyla Tharp to music sung by Frank Sinatra. “After a performance I gave,” Williams said, “Twyla touched my face and said, ‘That was unbelievable.’ I could have hung up my dance belt at that point and been completely happy.”
Happiness is exuberantly on display in the “Get Me to the Church On Time” number in My Fair Lady, which calls into play another of the requirements for a dance captain. “You have to be big on safety,” Williams said. “I keep my eye on things like whether the table in the number is locked tight and on the two guys who have to hold up a stool. Details are crucial.”
To maintain such safety and quality standards, Williams gives notes to the actors. “I generally wait until someone has done a role at least twice before giving notes.” Don’t actors perform the same roles night after night? Not always. “There can be changes based on illness or vacations or unexpected factors,” Williams said. The production has four “swings,” who are, essentially, utility players, filling in as needed. Williams himself is a swing.
“I’ve only gone on twice,” he said. “But I’ll be going on more frequently in the near future, as people are out for planned reasons.” Being a swing gives Williams the chance to watch the show every day with an attentive eye. But even if he weren’t the dance captain Williams would still keep busy during performance. “Just because swings aren’t on every night doesn’t mean we don’t’ stay engaged. There’s always something happening with My Fair Lady.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com