For nearly four decades Twyla
Tharp has been at the top of the list of the nation's most
creative, innovative, and honored choreographers. She has
created more than 125 dances, has choreographed five Hollywood
movies (including Hair and Amadeus), has
directed and choreographed two Broadway shows, and written two
books. Twarp's work has ranged widely in musical and dance
genres, from rock to classical ballet. She has received a
Tony, two Emmys, 17 honorary doctorates, and a slew of
artistic grants, including the prestigious John D. and
Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. She is a member of the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an Honorary Member
of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 2000, Tharp approached Billy Joel with an unprecedented
ideaa production she
wanted to choreograph and direct bound for Broadway. It would
be a dance-heavy
musical using only Joel's music, and it would center around
three young guys from Long Island who go off to fight in the
Vietnam War and the aftermath of that experience.
That showMovin' Outturned
out to be a huge hit when it opened on Broadway in the fall of
2002. Filled with top young dancers and a crackerjack rock and
roll band, the show remains a Broadway mainstay and has
spawned a road version that is now touring the nation.
The exhilarating, moving, and vastly entertaining Movin'
Out contains two acts of 24 scenes, including an
in-country battle scene. Each is built around a Billy Joel
tune, beginning with "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," and
ending with a reprise of "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant."
In between are spirited renditions of 25 other Billy Joel
songs, including "Uptown Girl," "This Night," "We Didn't Start
the Fire," "Big
Shot," "Innocent Man," andof course"Goodnight Saigon."
Tharp will receive the VVA President's Award for Excellence in
the Arts at the Nashville Leadership Conference. Arts Editor
Marc Leepson spoke to Tharp late this spring to get the inside
story on how the Vietnam War came to Broadway in a hit
musical. What follows is an edited transcript of that
THARP: I'm deeply touched that Vietnam Veterans of
America has seen fit to give methis award. All I wanted to do
with the project was to give back a little something. I know
the sacrifices that were made. It's just a small attempt to
say thank you.
VVA: You were just starting your career when the war
started. How did you feel about
TT: Here, in New York, everyone was very concerned. I
will be absolutely honest. Like many people, I was pursuing a
career. The situation, bit by bit, became clearer. Pretty much
for me it followed the curve of everybody else: a certain kind
of naive denial, maybe hope, in the beginning that quickly
[ended]. And then shock, outrage, and all the rest of it, and
how do we stop it, et cetera.
I'm sure that had I actually been deeply involved at the time,
I wouldn't have made
Movin' Out. This piece was made because I felt badly
that I hadn't done more at the time. This piece was finished
the day before 9/11, and I thought this was a chapter closed
in our history. The irony is it was just re-opening.
I intended it as an acknowledgment. What happened is horrific
beyond description. But I meant it to honor those who went and
those who came back and those who didn't. It's a small
tribute. The art that we make is nothing like life and death.
But it seemed, at the time, about the most that I could do.
The circumstances of the Vietnam War and the men who fought in
it were unique. The guys who went over were drafted. When they
came back, they were treated as though they had been
mercenaries. That lack of definition is just mind-boggling.
VVA: During and after Vietnam people were blaming the
warrior for the war. Is that what you're getting at?
TT: Absolutely. There are two acts. The first act sets
up what is, plus it includes the death of one friend and the
feelings of a guy who is implicitly responsible because he
portrays one of the wilder guys, one of the rebels, in that
One of the more out-of-control guys, Eddie, is responsible
because he loses his detail. They come back for him and his
friend is killed. So at the end of the first act he is
beginning to have to deal with this reality. The second act is
about his attempt to address this and get out of denial about
itget out of the past with itand move forward. Because it's
musical theater and this is Broadway, I tried my best to make
a happy ending. The happiness of the ending was simply, "Okay,
we can get this guy homeat least we can do that for him. We
can bring him home."
At least he's taken back, he's re-absorbed into his community.
It's about a guy who went through hell and his attempt to
address it himself. As you know well, these guys were not
given a whole lot of assistance in re-entering the culture.
VVA: How did you hit upon using Billy Joel's music to
tell this story?
TT: I told Billy that I wanted to make a show and he
asked me what did I need and I said all of his music, so he
sent it to me. I listened to it as he'd written it.
VVA: At that point were you thinking about the Vietnam
TT: No. At that point all I knew was I was going to get
a story out of his music and I
didn't know what it was. I was very up front with him. I said,
"Look, I don't know what
the story is, but I want to tell one using your music."
There were two songs that anchored the thing in the story. One
was "Angry Young
Man," which was written about one of Billy's techies who was a
veteran, and "Good
Night Saigon," which is one of the classics and sort of tells
the whole story. I was
listening to these two songs, and I began to see what the
story was because I could see the chorus. In the great
tragedies, it's the chorus that is responsible for the action.
I feel that once you can tell who your chorus is, you have a
sense of what your story is.
So once I could see the chorus, I realized that the spine of
this whole thing was "sing to me, muse, of the rage of
Achilles," the opening line of The Illiad. It goes like
this: "Sing to me," that would be me; "muse," that would be
Billy Joel; "of the rage of
Achilles," who would be a generation of Long Island men. Then
I was able to locate it,
both in myth because "Goodnight Saigon" exists not simply with
the warriors of
Vietnam, but with the one warrior who goes back into the past
and back into the hell to find his buddy. This is an ancient
tale. One of the earliest pieces of literature,
Gilgamesh, has this episode in it. And it's common to
all wars. All men have this.
It's Eddie's finally being able to do that and finally
reconciling himself face to face with
Jimmy that allows him to go forward and stop looking back.
VVA: All of this coalesced from those two songs? All of
the rest of it fits in so well.
TT: Doesn't it? A little twisting here, a little
tormenting there, you'd be amazed at what you can do.
VVA: How did you conceive of the idea of no dialogue,
just dance and music?
TT: Because I feltand Billy understood this as
wellthat he had already told the story with a great deal of
emotion, because it's in poetry. What art attempts to do is
distill experience and make it more potent than it actually
was. One of the reasons Billy Joel agreed to do this project
is because I said, "Look, there's no language but yours.
You're telling the story."
VVA: What about verisimilitude? What kind of research
did you do?
TT: We did a great deal of research. We had Stephan
Wolfert, a Special Forces man, come in and work with people.
We tried to get an M-16 you try to get an M-16
sometime. We had dummies. The dancers learned something about
the real weight of them. We tried to deal with what was in the
knapsacks, what was the weight, what it really feels like to
carry 80, 90, 120 pounds, what's the difference between one of
the huge guns and one of the not-so-huge guns. I guess we
don't the word "gun."
We looked at all the films, from Apocalypse Now to
Born on the Fourth of
July and The Deer Hunter. Stephan Wolfert was a
Green Beret. He showed us all sorts of things, the details of
how you carry a weapon when you're crawling. One thing that
was very useful: He did a night patrol exercise, trying to
show how crude it was just to keep the guys from getting lost.
What was most important was his sense of commitment and his
sense of propriety and dignity in the training sequences. We
attempt to keep a very tight ship. We attempt to give the men
on stage who are wearing that uniform the dignity and the
precision of the men who actually wear the uniform. We give
much attention to all the details of posturing, of stance, of
walking, of how their hands are held, of bearing, of the
proprieties of a salute.
When the men turn to the front at the very end and walk down
stage, every one of them is thinking about what they owe the
guys who fought. And there's always a man in the audience who
VVA: How did the dancers feel about portraying Vietnam
TT: They are a younger generation. They were given a
lot of information. They also did a lot of research, as any
good actor would. Sessions have been spent with them in
relation to who they did know. In the original cast, when we
went through the workshop, one of the men had an uncle who had
been in Vietnam, and he could relate directly and specifically
to that older generation. One man's father is a professional
soldier. So bit-by-bit they grew into those skins.
VVA: What have you heard from veterans about the show?
TT: I have had letters from guys. Several have made
contributions to the [Twyla Tharp
At practically every show a vet will be at the stage door. And
that's extremely movingalwaysto the performers. It's one of
the things that keeps them going.
This is a very, very difficult show. John Selya and Keith
Roberts, who dance the leads, have been in the show for over
two years. While they're in phenomenal physical condition,
it's a real trek. They have an impact genuinely and
emotionally on men who have made the sacrifices they made for
these guysfor these kids, if you willto have the
opportunities and the lives that they have, to feel that they
can even give back for a moment. During "Goodnight Saigon" in
the second act, you can palpably sense the men in the audience
who were there.
VVA: There's something about the power of that song
that is amazing.
TT: It's the truth of it: "We'll all go down together."
That's soldiers; that's brothers.
There was a picture of a trench that had been dug up somewhere
in France during the
First World War and that contained a line of 17 men. The
skeletons had their arms linked. It was clear that they all
had formed a line and they went down together.
Billy is a reporter. He is very good with getting details.
He's a terrific short story writer. All of his songs have
specifics in them where they bring the theme to mind and you
can kind of smell it. Billy didn't fight in the war, but you
don't feel anything bogus about this song.
VVA: Did people say you couldn't do a musical about the
TT: Oh, yes. This is the first time in Broadway history
that dancers are mainlining who do not speak or sing. It's
never happened. It's a historic show.
The reason I felt that it was worth going forbecause I stuck
my neck out here, toowas because the honor of physical
movement is the honor of physical movement. It doesn't matter
what people are saying; it matters what they do. So when Eddie
actually picks up James during "Saigon" and hauls him over his
shoulder the way it actually is done, and you feel the weight
of that body being carried by that man, you know that
something real has happened.
And even though it's theater and it's not real life, at least
the reality of dance communicates something about commitment.
You don't become a dancer just by wishing for it. The
commitment that these people make to their art form has
something of the reality of I'm not saying that being a dancer
is the equivalent of being a soldier but in a way dancers are
fighters. They fight differently, but they fight with their
And so I thought that there was a truth to this that could
perhaps help express this respect and this honor. But language
wouldn't do. It's language that gets us into these holes.
I just want to say that, for me, the President's Award from
VVA is the biggest award. It's much more important to me than
the Tony. I didn't do it to get Tonys. The show is being well
received because the people of this country want to support