The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

July 2004
FEATURE
   
 

Choreographer Twyla Tharp On The Vietnam War
And Her Hit Broadway Show, Movin' Out

AN EXCLUSIVE VVA VETERAN INTERVIEW
BY MARC LEEPSON


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 ideaa 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 showMovin' Outturned 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," andof 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 conversation.

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
the war?

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 war.

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 itget out of the past with itand 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 homeat 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 War?

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 feltand Billy understood this as wellthat 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 did.

VVA: How did the dancers feel about portraying Vietnam veterans?

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
Dance] Foundation.

At practically every show a vet will be at the stage door. And that's extremely movingalwaysto 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 guysfor these kids, if you willto 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 Vietnam War?

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 forbecause I stuck my neck out here, toowas 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 bodies.

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 their men.
 

   

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