Susan Stroman Tells Stories Through Music

Susan Stroman Tells Stories Through Music

Susan Stroman Tells Stories Through Music

The Tony-winning director and choreographer returns to Broadway with the new musical ‘New York, New York’

By Emily Bobrow, April 21 2023

The pandemic hit Susan Stroman hard. The five-time Tony award-winning director and choreographer got seriously ill with Covid-19 days after New York’s theaters shut down in 2020. She then spent 70 days alone in her Manhattan apartment, too sick and then too afraid to leave.

She kept sane by continuing to collaborate, over Zoom, with composer John Kander, playwright David Thompson, lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda and others on “New York, New York,” a new musical about the city’s grit and gloriousness. “Somehow the pandemic fueled us to work harder,” Ms. Stroman, 68, says. Because the show takes place in 1946, when New Yorkers were feeling newly hopeful after years of war, the timing felt profound. “With the city coming out of the pandemic, suddenly life was imitating art. We wanted to celebrate that resilience,” she says.

“New York, New York,” directed and choreographed by Ms. Stroman, opens April 26 at Broadway’s St. James Theater—“My favorite theater of all,” she says, where her smash-hit “The Producers” opened 22 years ago. It includes the four songs Mr. Kander wrote with the late Fred Ebb for Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film of the same name, including the titular barnstormer Frank Sinatra made famous. But the similarities end there. The show is “more inspired by the song itself, the lyrics ‘If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere’ and ‘I want to be a part of it,’” Ms. Stroman says. “It’s about the people who come to New York to change their lives or to be the best at what they can be.”

‘If you’re in the theater, it’s because someone told you big fish stories,’ Stroman says.
Photo: Thea Traff for The Wall Street Journal

With a raft of new songs from Mr. Kander and Mr. Miranda, “New York, New York” follows a fraught romance between a Black singer (Anna Uzele) and an Irish musician (Colton Ryan). It also tells a larger story about the immigrants, veterans, refugees and other upstarts who arrive in the city with big dreams and a taste for the hustle. “For those who love music, this is the place to be. You feel it on the street, you hear it out the windows,” she says.

Growing up in suburban Delaware “in a household filled with music,” Ms. Stroman says she used to dance while her father, an appliance salesman, played piano and told tall tales. “If you’re in the theater it’s because someone told you big fish stories,” she says. She adored old movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and found that the sound of music reliably unleashed a cascade of visual images: “I would imagine people dancing, I would see their costumes and the sets. I was always thinking about how one can tell stories through music.”

After graduating from the University of Delaware with an English degree, Ms. Stroman choreographed at community theaters in Wilmington and taught at a local dance studio, but she itched for more. In 1977 she moved to New York, where she auditioned for a revival of the 1927 musical “Hit the Deck” and landed one of the few dancing roles. “When I got the call, I sold my car, got an Equity card and went for it,” she recalls.

Ms. Stroman’s talent as “a song and dance gal” ensured a string of jobs, including a role in a touring production of Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago,” directed by Bob Fosse. Yet her ambition was always to be “on the other side of the table,” she says. She began directing and choreographing shows about Miller Beer and Met Life for corporate conventions, which helped pay her rent and burnished her skill at harmonizing movement with music: “You’ll see that whenever someone leaps in the air, the entire orchestra leaps, too.”

‘There’s a line in the show where we say New York can break you, but it can save you, too,’ Stroman says
Photo: Thea Traff for The Wall Street Journal

While tap dancing for a show about Cutty Sark whiskey, Ms. Stroman met Jeff Veazey, who became her dance partner for years. They performed the routines of famous silver-screen dance teams until Veazey died of AIDS in 1988. This marked the end of her career as a dancer: “I would never find another partner like Jeff,” she explains. During the AIDS crisis, she found herself directing too many memorial services for other young friends and colleagues. “There’s a line in the show where we say New York can break you, but it can save you, too,” she says. “It’s just about trying to surf the city so you don’t fall off.”

The first time Ms. Stroman worked closely with Kander and Ebb was on an off-Broadway revival of their musical “Flora the Red Menace” in 1987. “They really taught me how to collaborate,” she recalls. She learned to play “what-if games” to figure out the flow of a story, and also to see that there are no bad ideas: “Someone can take what might seem like a bad idea and turn it into gold.” To ensure her own ideas were taken seriously in a male-dominated field, she spent years hiding her blond tresses under a baseball cap and going by the genderless nickname “Stro.”

Stroman on the set of her 2005 film adaptation of ‘The Producers,’ a musical she also directed on Broadway.
Photo: Alamy

Her success led to jobs on Broadway, working with legends like Liza Minnelli and director Hal Prince. Ms. Stroman won her first Tony in 1992 for choreographing a new musical of Gershwin songs, “Crazy For You.” She and the show’s director, Mike Ockrent, got married in 1996; just three years later, he died of leukemia. In 2008, Ms. Stroman began a relationship with a film editor named Steven Weisberg, who soon developed early-onset Alzheimer’s. “I’m very lucky to cross paths with people who have given me love and who have inspired me, and I’m always amazed when they disappear,” she says as her eyes well with tears. “I feel like there’s no emotion I wouldn’t be able to help an actor with now that I’ve lived through the various sacraments of life.”

Ms. Stroman’s career is littered with many hits, including the dance play “Contact,” and some misses, such as the 2014 musical “Bullets over Broadway.” She admits she never knows what the critics will say—“If there was a formula for making a hit, everyone would do it”—but she also tries not to see things in terms of failure or success. “If you’ve learned from that experience, the art of it will always be successful for you,” she explains. “For the producers, that’s another story.” She recalls apologizing to Stephen Sondheim when their 2004 production of “The Frogs” earned tepid reviews. “He said, ‘I never get good reviews and then my shows are hailed 10, 20 years later,’” she says. “It was heartening to hear that even he sometimes had to wait years for people to recognize his art.”

Stroman is the choreographer and director of ‘New York, New York,’ a new musical that will premiere on Broadway on April 26.
Photo: Thea Traff for The Wall Street Journal