For Bill Deamer, Olivier Award-Winning Choreographer of FOLLIES, Everything’s Looking Up

In-flight entertainment. Bill Deamer, photo courtesy

Bill Deamer is simply in a class of his own. He has choreographed the greatest stage shows – the National’s current and definitive FOLLIES, TOP HAT (for which he won the 2013 Olivier Award), EVITA, CATS, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and many more. On TV, you’ll know his choreography for STRICTLY, ALL STAR MUSICALS and SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE. In showbusiness, the name Bill Deamer is synonymous with creativity, elegance and the hard work that makes sheer perfection. I caught up with him for lunch before he dashed off to the National Theatre for a two-show FOLLIES day.

Thank you very much for talking with me, Bill. How did it feel to win the Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer in 2013 for TOP HAT?

It was an amazing moment in my life. People forget that TOP HAT was a year of my life choreographing it, creating it before it ever went near a stage so yes, the Olivier was just a wonderful icing on the cake for a show that I absolutely adored to do – and actually to do my version of Fred Astaire’s choreography, and my tribute to him and Hollywood.

Because you had done a Tribute to Fred Astaire show previously, so you could say that that is one of your areas in which you specialised.

Yes, it is and because of that everyone then decided that I was a Fred Astaire expert. Of course, I love Fred and Gene Kelly and all of those wonderful stars -and styles- but I wanted to do my own version of that. And then TOP HAT came out of the blue, Kenny Wax phoned me and said we’re doing it, I laughed – I couldn’t believe it! The number of times that I have been asked about doing shows that Fred Astaire made famous, and of course Ginger Rogers too, so it was a wonderful journey. Now the Olivier sits on my mantelpiece and I look at it every day. I’m grateful.

Bill winning the 2013 Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer for TOP HAT. How we cheered!

You trained as an actor at Guildford. Did that training inform your work as a choreographer?

Oh hugely! I was already a trained dancer before I went to Guildford. From the age of 8  I was training at a local dance school, and then, going to Guildford, in those days Guildford had an acting course, a musical theatre course and they did a dance course so you got the best of all worlds; so I was allowed to actually train as an actor and work on my acting and singing skills and also then every morning do my ballet class and all my other dance classes so it was the best of all worlds. It really allowed you to be informed as a choreographer, as a dancer, to bring the acting into your dance, and indeed that’s where it all started. I remember in my first year I decided to direct and choreograph a version of CABARET with all the first year students and we did it, and I knew then that eventually I would be on the creative side, although, of course I performed a lot before getting to that point.

FOLLIES at the National Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson

“…the dance music arrangements tell me what to do, they just conjure up pictures to me….”

Coming on to your current big National Theatre success, FOLLIES; had you choreographed the show before?

I did a concert version at the London Palladium in 2007, and Imelda Staunton did Broadway Baby, she played Hattie, Maria Friedman was Sally, and Liz Robertson was Phyllis and Philip Quast was Ben. I directed and choreographed, but this was a concert version so the scenes were much shorter, but the numbers were all there. I realised then what an incredible score it was, because the songs are such one-offs, they’re done in cabaret constantly, but in the show they’re so totally different, they’re masterfully written acting pieces before you even get to the music, just genius.

On FOLLIES, how was it choreographing actors of a more mature age than those you might normally work with in a musical?

It was an absolute joy. When I agreed to do the show I said I would only do it if every one in the show could move and all those ladies, everyone in the show went through a rigorous dance audition and indeed those ladies who were lucky enough to get the job went through  a week long tap ‘boot camp’ before we started rehearsal, and they worked and worked – and worked!

To great acclaim, as we saw. So FOLLIES won everyone over at the first night, won the Olivier for Best Musical revival, you got nominated yet again for Best Theatre Choreographer; how did it feel then to find out that you would have another season of the show in 2019?

Just wonderful. We knew that some of the casting was going to change, and that’s another challenge because you can’t just do a replica of what you did before, you have to build on what you’ve done and go down other avenues with the actors and actresses who were taking over, so we looked at it in a different way; we kept all the concepts, but we went down other avenues with it and developed it.

“…for FOLLIES we had nine weeks rehearsal and I literally did not sit down for nine weeks…..”

Having seen it in both seasons it definitely feels like a different show but equally rewarding, almost more so now; it’s a show that people will want to return to.

The main thing about the choreography is that I took it all back to the original Broadway dance arrangements – they ain’t broke so don’t fix them! They are absolutely brilliant. John Berkman who did the dance music arrangements and Jonathan Tunick, they are just incredible arrangements and they tell me what to do, they just conjure up pictures to me; I was talking to Stephen Sondheim about it and I said the pictures are there, what I do with it after that is up to me, and I’m really grateful that he liked it so much, but they are the original arrangements.

FOLLIES at the National Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson

“…a Follies girl must never look down!”

Can we talk about this massive stage at the Olivier, and the beautiful set design, and especially the fact that there is such a lot of use of the revolve during the show. That obviously has a huge impact in terms of what you do, in terms of every single piece of movement and choreography. Literally everything is moving most of the time. So in terms of what you are doing, how are you working with that movement?

All the choreography was created without using the revolve and then I put it on the revolve, that’s the only way you can do it, because at the National Theatre you have a revolve exactly the same size in the rehearsal room. When we did the show originally, we had nine weeks rehearsal and I literally did not sit down for nine weeks, because you’re up and you’re working on, say, two characters a day, and working them through, and working and working, and through previews. Everywhere you sit in the Olivier auditorium there’s a different view, and everyone is telling a story throughout, and it’s a divine way of spending your time working out all these stories- I just love every second of it! And every time I see the show, I think, oh yes, I remember that; oh yes, then that comes around there, and all the time, it’s building and building. The cast, they simply love being there, and everyone’s telling their story.

And what’s so impressive is that its so beautifully woven together like fabric, the music, lyrics, movement and the visuals, everything is fully and completely integrated. To me, its the definitive FOLLIES production.

It’s a great honour, but the team were just so, so wonderful, there was never a cross word; the creative team lead by director Dominic Cooke, a dream to work with, who allowed everyone opportunities to discuss and develop. I loved going there, I can’t wait to get over there now- because everyone wants to be there. The show has had a standing ovation at every performance, both versions.

Bill Deamer at lunch, a very happy occasion – such an inspiring and lovely man.

Set design defines the space that you have to work in as a choreographer, Bill, so I wonder whether you have had direct input with the set designer?

Absolutely. Vicky Mortimer, the brilliant FOLLIES designer, would come in with a design and say “how do you feel about this?”; she’s always in rehearsals watching what were doing and it all just comes together. When the ladies, the young ghosts, come through all the rubble, all of that is actually marked out and built for their feet; that was a day in the studio with the rubble, and Vicky and I walked it and Vicky taped my feet and then we marked out all the different ways you could walk through it. Because you don’t want it to look easy, but they are literally walking through all the rubble; there’s an old theatre seat but it’s actually solid so they can stand on it, it doesn’t move at all, and just every little detail is attended to like that, because “a Follies girl must never look down!” If I had a pound for every time I’d said that!…”Look up, look up”,…. and nobody ever looks down.

And then it’s the same for the ladies on the fire escape, that’s high, that’s really high, and when you go out and up, then come in through the darkness into the light, it’s very frightening; that was another day of getting the ladies used to that, “Don’t look down!”

As FOLLIES’ second successful season draws to a close, what’s next on your schedule? Can you tell us yet?

No, I am waiting for the final ‘go’ on a couple of projects which are very exciting , but after FOLLIES it’s hard to find ones that really excite you equally…..but of course any musical is exciting to me, I love them all! There are a few that I am really keen on doing – we are in negotiations – so watch this space. We can talk again after they’re agreed!

We’ll look forward to that! Thank You so much for talking with me, Bill.

You can learn more about Bill Deamer’s choreography and movement direction work by visiting his website

FOLLIES plays its final performances from May 6-11. If you haven’t seen it, GO! – any lover of intelligent musicals should make sure they don’t miss this last chance to see this definitive production. More information and tickets here

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