Sharon Verghis gets caught up in director Jerry Mitchell’s energy as he talks about Broadway, his production of and being tall
‘ THEY are the highest heels I’ve ever worn, 71/ inches. So when I stand in them, I’m like, seven foot tall!’’ At 193cm, Jerry Mitchell’s long frame fills the lift that is lurching downwards from the offices of the Gordon Frost Organisation in Sydney’s Haymarket. The vertiginous heels in question, a whopping 19cm, feature in a new musical theatre adaptation of the 2005 British film Kinky Boots that he’s debuting in Chicago before its Broadway opening next year. The famously hands-on director — ‘‘ let me be you’’ is his well-known catchcry; he’ll do anything from imitating a piece of scenery to unleashing a tap routine to get his point across at rehearsal — pulls a comically agonised face as he mimics hobbling along in them for the benefit of the cast back in New York.
Mitchell, 53, spills out into a sunny late winter’s day, arms windmilling, still talking. A Tony award-winning Broadway director, choreographer, former chorus boy and the most famous export of tiny Paw Paw, Michigan, he’s a lean, coiled streak of energy with a neat grey crew cut and a spiky physicality. The latter informs everything from his gait to his directorial style, described by The New York Times critic Ben Brantley as all ‘‘ hyperkinetic effusiveness’’.
He’s a fast talker, too. In a lively chat upstairs he flits from one juicy showbiz snippet to the next: from dancing near nude in a tiny loincloth on Broadway (‘‘I was in incredible shape’’), to hanging out with towel-clad septuagenarian theatre legend Ann Miller in her dressing-room, to organising a tequilasoaked male striptease that netted $US8000 in one night for charity. He has worked with everyone from the famously hot-tempered Jerry Robbins who, he assures me with a Cheshire cat grin, ‘‘ never made me cry’’, to A Chorus Line’s Michael Bennett. The ‘‘ extremely sweet’’ Broadway star Bernadette Peters, with whom he worked on Gypsy, is one of his favourite people.
At one point, there are even some quick-fire dance moves — the watusi, the hot potato, the bus stop — which he performs with easy grace to illustrate his choreography for a 2002 revival of Hairspray. He talks about how Australia could become the new try-out hub for musical theatre shows, in which our cheapness compared with Broadway is a huge plus, and exactly what went wrong with the British production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies. He was the choreographer for its West End premiere and blames a lack of involvement from the writers of the book.
All in all, Mitchell is a well of boundless energy. Since arriving in Sydney the day before, he has tracked down the harbourside restaurant where he had an ‘‘ incredible’’ meal 11 years ago with playwright Tom Stoppard,
Director Jerry Mitchell gives female lead Lucy Durack some tips at a rehearsal for the musical