"I've been listening to Billy's music since he's been releasing it," the choreographer said by telephone last month from New York, where she was dodging the tail end of Hurricane Charlie. (The weather was "terrible," she said, and "very dark.")
"I bring his CDs into the studio and, as we say, dance around. But I'd never used it onstage. I suddenly realized, why not?"
That simple question ultimately led to Movin' Out, the Tony Award-winning all-dance, all-rock-and-roll show that's been winning raves on Broadway for two years. A traveling production, starring former Ballet Arizona dancer Holly Cruikshank, alights in Tucson Tuesday for a weeklong run at the TCC Music Hall, the first show brought in by Broadway in Tucson/Nederlander, a new presenting venture.
With more than 24 of Joel's songs performed live on stage by a rock band, non-stop Tharp dancing and a storyline that dissects the fallout of the Vietnam War, the show is not quite like anything else that has hit the Great White Way, or Tucson, for that matter.
"People may come in not knowing what it's about," Tharp said, "but often I'm grateful to leave with an audience who has gone, 'Wow! Did you see that? WHAT was that?'"
A leading modern-dance choreographer who's set dozens of acclaimed dances on the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, Tharp has been making serious work for four decades. But there's always been a populist strain to her work.
"In my naïve mind's eye, I've always done Broadway," she said. "Broadway's about a kind of energy. I've always felt that about many of my dances."
Born in 1941, she grew up in California at the edge of her parents' drive-in movie theater, where she regularly drank in popular culture while doing a dizzying round of dance classes after school. In New York, she trained with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, and danced briefly with Paul Taylor in the early '60s. She started her own company in 1965, and made a name for herself as a cutting-edge choreographer. But she's never confined herself to a single arena.
Tharp has worked in Hollywood, choreographing Milos Forman's Hair. She's had two previous Broadway outings, including The Catherine Wheel with music by David Byrne, and she's set dances to the work of popular musicians from Fats Waller to Frank Sinatra. Her dance inspirations are eclectic, with roots in "secular" dance as well as ballet.
"It's a business of mix and match," she said.
Once she got the idea for Movin' Out, Tharp put together a few sample dances, called Joel and won him over to the idea. He'd never done anything remotely resembling a play or a dance before, but his songs are "very theatrical, full of good narrative detail," she said. "The first thing that I did was to say to Billy I wanted to do a narrative."
She told him she didn't have a story yet, but she wanted to answer a question about Brenda and Eddie, who break up in the Joel song "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant." Were they still speaking to each other 20 years later?
Joel replied, "'Gee, I don't know, but I guess I'd be interested to find out,'" Tharp said.
That mystery became the jumping-off point for Tharp, who gets credit not only for choreographing, but for directing and conceiving the show. The Joel songs she uses, from the title song to "We Didn't Start the Fire" to "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," were never intended to tell a single story. But Tharp managed to arrange them in such a way that they recount the tale of five young friends whose lives are disrupted by the Vietnam War. There are no spoken words at all.
"As I listened to his material more closely and in detail and heard 'Good Night Saigon,' I began to feel the spine of the thing as the men of that war," Tharp said.
In August, the Vietnam Veterans of America gave Tharp its President's Council Award, which Tharp calls a "huge honor."
"I'm very privileged by this. The work I did here has spoken to them, and it did say thank you to these guys. It would be even better if it could have said Amen to this kind of warfare."
The irony of Movin' Out, Tharp said, is that she put the show together thinking that drawn-out, divisive wars were a thing of the past. She had always thought the timing of the late-'70s movie Hair was off--it ends with the death of a young soldier--and that the nation was not yet ready to examine the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
"But I did feel that 20-plus years later, that the nation had healed, and we could look it in the face and we could thank these men," she said. "And that was one of the big reasons that I had the energy to write Movin' Out. It was ironically about the fact that it seemed like that kind of warfare had been put to rest."
She put the finishing touches on the work the day before Sept. 11. Suddenly, the context for the piece changed.
"When it became clear that this was now going to be the vanguard of another situation, namely Iraq, following the terrorist attack I was basically in a state of shock. Because I had written it in one condition, and now the spectrum had completely flipped around. I didn't have a clue what it would mean. The whole cycle is beginning again."
Her dancers, all of them born well after the Vietnam debacle, have no trouble portraying the young people of an earlier era.
"They're very good actors," she said.
Several of them, including Cruikshank, have already danced their parts on Broadway. Famous for her rigorous requirements for dancers, it took Tharp a full year to find all the dancers she needed for the traveling show.
"They have to be gorgeous," she said, tallying up her criteria. "They have to have really solid technique. They all are very intelligent. A really good dancer has a very good sense of humor, and is a very musical dancer. And they have to love to dance."