The first musical I ever watched was “Hello Dolly!” with Barbra Streisand. The first staged musical I ever saw was “CATS” in Houston. It was because of these two shows that I fell in love with the theater. This next interview we have is a part of that magic as a man who gives us dance moves that help make a show spectacular and add a wow factor. A choreographer, who is on his way to The Great White Way to make his own dream come true…to bring classic Broadway dancing back to the stage. Introducing Jason Wise!
Jason, I’m glad you stopped by to share some of your stories. You have some incredible moments in your life so far! Not only have you had one famous mentor, but three! Give us a quick bio and how you met those men who are inspiring themselves in the theater world.
Growing up, my mom owned a dance studio. Basically, I was dancing since the day I came out of the womb. I wasn’t pushed, I liked it. It was very “Dance Moms” but it was enjoyable. As any “studio kid” could tell you, by the time you graduate high school, you basically end up running the place. I was choreographing all of the big production numbers for competitions and they were winning. At these dance competitions, I met Thommie Walsh (the original Bobby in A Chorus Line) who was a two time Tony Award Winning Choreographer (known for his collaborations with Tommy Tune). He took to me right away, and we stayed in touch as I started getting older. When it came time for me to pick a school, he helped me choose AMDA to move to Manhattan. I graduated high school a year early and moved to New York City, thinking if I didn’t get there fast, I would miss out on everything.
I graduated and went to work for The Walt Disney Company, and then toured the world with CATS for two years on a tumbling track. Towards the end of the run, the show was taking it’s toll on my body (I remember throwing up blood backstage at the Orpheum in San Francisco in full Cat costume at intermission). I had a disc that had ruptured, and the fluid was leaking into my blood system. Upon returning to New York, I knew it would be healthy to take a break from the back handsprings. However, I can’t be here spending money and doing nothing. I was really missing choreographing. I was going to the shows, and seeing great dance music wasted on boys taking off their shirts and doing push ups. I thought, what happened to real old fashioned Musical Theater dancing? Has it disappeared? We didn’t have Wicked or Spring Awakening when we made the decision as young performers to make this our career. We had “Hello Dolly” and “Mame”. We trained ourselves to be brilliant dancers, to execute the works of the greats, Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. Then we move here, and BAM. It’s nowhere to be found.
Well, my mentor Thommie Walsh passed away and I was desperately seeking a new mentor. I called the man who directed CATS and asked him if we could meet for a coffee. I explained that I wanted to start choreographing and I said “What can I do?”. You can’t really go to school for Musical Theater Choreography. It’s such a specific brand of art, and it really brings back the old fashioned show business saying of “It’s who you know”.
He advised me to pick my idols, and just write them a letter. Well, I wrote to Jerry Mitchell and Tommy Tune. They have the careers I want. Chorus Boys turned Director/Choreographers. Almost immediately I heard back from Jerry Mitchell. We met at his apartment, and I sat down on his couch and he said “Okay, talk. You wanted to meet with me, so talk”. CAN YOU IMAGINE?
At the end of the afternoon, he advised me to pool together my friends. Pay them in cigarettes or booze. Choreograph a number, and put it on film. I was bold, and decided to re-stage a number that he did. Jet Set from Catch Me If You Can. It wasn’t necessarily that I thought I could do it better, I just figured… He would be able to get into my brain easier if he saw how someone else heard and interpreted the same music he did. I saved $100, rented a studio, called some friends and choreographed the number. Filmed it, and sent it to Jerry. He LOVED it, couldn’t believe that I had done it, and wanted to see more. So then, I did an all boys number. Sent it to Jerry. So on and so forth. Kept getting advice and critiques, and I would go back and do ANOTHER number using the advice. At the time, I was contracted to go to China for a year with the International Tour of Zorro, but Jerry advised me to stay in New York and continue on my path of choreographing. I called Zorro, and told them they would need to find a replacement.
And good thing I did, because finally, after two and a half years, I get a phone call from Tommy Tune’s assistant. He said Tommy got my letter, and would love to meet with me. I went over, and Tommy Tune sat me on his couch (much like Jerry) and said “WHO are you?”. CAN YOU IMAGINE?
I stayed for two and a half hours, and we talked about EVERYTHING. At the end of our conversation, he took me out on his patio and showed me this raised 5×5 piece of marley he has put down. He said it was where he choreographed and he started doing triple time steps, and I jumped right in with him. I danced with Tommy Tune. No one will ever know but his housekeeper and his assistant, but it is a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life. He has become my godfather of musical theater. Our relationship has been developing and he has been passing on his techniques and train of thoughts.Yesterday, he invited me to a run through of his one man show that he is doing in Florida. After the run, he asked me what i thought. I remembered reading a particular story in his book, and told him he should tell it. He said “interesting, come back tomorrow”. Well I came back today, and he implemented the story and it got a HUGE laugh. A nine time Tony Award Winner taking notes from me. Can you believe it?Needless to say, I have continued with the choreography videos and they have just absolutely taken off. Most of them have skyrocketed past 1,000 views with 48 hours of going up on YouTube. I didn’t want to wait for someone to hire me to choreograph a show, I just wanted to start doing it. Now, I have this great following of dancers begging to work with me, and it has kept me busy and kept me artistically fulfilled. I just wanted to bring back the Broadway that we all know and love. Also, I wanted to give a chance for these dancers to have an outlet to SHOW people that they can dance. In New York, it is very tough to get an opportunity to perform, most of our gigs are out of town, so these videos have allowed dancers to show off and “work” and be “seen” right here in Manhattan.
And that’s where I am today.
Jason, that is incredible! Thank you for sharing your experience with us and break a leg on all future projects! You can check out some of his work here with these videos from his YouTube channel. Enjoy!