How Sonya Tayeh brought two epically different movie musicals to the stage this year
The former uses the synth sounds of the 1980s to tell the story of a Dublin teenager who forms a band to impress a girl he likes, while the latter employs modern pop music to capture a tragic love story in bohemian 19th-century Paris. But both films are now getting second lives as stage musicals, and the presence connecting them is Sonya Tayeh, a choreographer who rose to fame for her Emmy-nominated routines of Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance?
In 2019, Tayeh made her Broadway debut with the premiere of Moulin Rouge! The Musical, and she’s on the verge of making the leap again, as Sing Street premieres Off Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop on Dec. 16. Her style is distinctive, physical, and intense, drawing upon a wide range of influences that reflect her own beginnings in hip-hop and house dance parties in her hometown of Detroit.
While Moulin Rouge reflects the high energy, technical precision, and excess of the 2001 film, Sing Street has a different task as a more stripped-down story that often calls upon the performers to play their own instruments. Tayeh worked with collaborators including Moulin Rouge director Alex Timbers and Sing Street director Rebecca Taichman to find a physicality distinct to each piece — a way of moving that extends beyond musical numbers alone.
In advance of Sing Street’s world premiere, and while Moulin Rouge plays to packed houses nightly at the Al Hirschfield Theatre, EW called up Tayeh to talk about her banner year, what it’s like adapting films into stage musicals, and where she finds the heart of her work.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’d done a few shows that made the rounds regionally, and then made your Broadway debut with Moulin Rouge this year. How is choreographing for a piece of musical theater different from choreographing for a concert or television?
SONYA TAYEH: They all carry different responsibilities. On television, things need to move swifter. There’s a timeline to hold on to. Not saying that musicals don’t carry a timeline, but there’s definitely more time to have preproduction and workshops and massive amounts of rewrites and all of these elements that allow for making the piece as strong as it can be. That’s why I attached to this world — because of the time. You can spend a lot of time and breath in watching things that don’t feel right and having the time to change it. I’m in a room filled with people that have great minds and ambitious minds and want to collaborate. Before I jumped in the theater, I felt lonely. I wanted to collaborate. I wanted to be in a room with directors, writers, scenic designers, music designers, all of these amazing people that want to make art together.
Sing Street and Moulin Rouge feel elementally different. Would you agree? What separates and/or connects them for you?
I always try to find the emotional scale of a show. What am I trying to say emotionally? I have to feel it. Always. It’s always a feeling for me. Moulin Rouge thrives in excess. It gets sad when it doesn’t have it. You have these beautiful reference points of the movies. [Moulin Rouge is] so excessive — the swift cuts, the angular action, the momentum. The heartbeat was the momentum of the film, and I wanted to portray that on a live stage. That was a beautiful challenge because you don’t have the cameras, you just have the human body. With Sing Street, the heartbeat of the show are these kids that come from dysfunction and oppression and sadness and defeat trying to find their imagination and trying to find their dreams and trying to escape from all of that heftiness as a kid. What this piece wants is simplicity — seeing the kids build a world, a better one for themselves. Seeing kids come from dysfunction and realize that they don’t have to be like that. They may feel by like byproducts of that, but they can make a different life for themselves, through music and through love. Moulin Rouge is about truth, beauty, freedom, and love, and so is Sing Street.
Moulin Rouge has such a frenetic energy that comes from the editing in the film. It seems impossible to translate that to a stage, and yet you did. How?
I work in a highly physical way. Pushing the body and challenging momentum. Highly physical activity is what I thrive in. I celebrated that in Moulin Rouge in terms of swift, dynamic shifts and building tension through physicality and partnering. Those dynamic shifts are because I found a really incredible company. They’re excellent at their craft. It takes a certain type of performer to be in Moulin Rouge, in terms of the fire and the desire and the passion. It’s a difficult, octane-filled show — musically, vocally, and physically. It takes a specific type of performer, and they really stand and deliver. We trained a lot in terms of what I was trying to achieve in terms of speed, clarity, precision, and technical prowess. Technical facility is key because I have a reference point of a movie that has so much adrenaline inside it. I wanted that to be in the space, and it took a lot of difficult partnering. A lot of swiftness in its momentum and the use of the floor and the use of body control and weight shifting.
Similarly, for Sing Street, was there something inherent to the filmmaking that you wanted to translate to the stage?
The ’80s, baby! [Laughs] What a hyper-experimental time. And a highly emotional time. Those bands — Duran Duran, the Cure, Depeche Mode — the references of that time are so fun and kickass for the kids. We had music video parties and a big study of the ’80s with these kids. This company — they’re young, but they have such a such a vocabulary. They’re incredible musicians as well. They have an amazing catalog of music that they love, but we did the work understanding what that time was and how experimental that time was and where they stood politically at that time where they were from. You utilize all of that as inspiration — the color, the drama in the music videos, the synthesizer sounds. How they hold themselves with their instruments and what their instrument means to them emotionally and the bond of creating a band.
Both Alex Timbers and Rebecca Taichman are directors who make a lot of use of movement, even in non-musical moments/straight plays. Was that useful as a collaborator, or how did that manifest itself in your partnership?
They both have such a point of view. They’re such imaginative directors. It’s just amazing and jaw-dropping to watch them. I’m so honored to be a part of their palette. The beautiful thing about working with both of them is they honor my work. We have beautiful conversations, and they challenge me and I challenge them. They both have a similar way in terms of needing to see. They can articulate a feeling, and then I show them, and then from there we discuss what feels right, what feels wrong, what’s in question. That sparks more inspiration.
Because movement is such a core part of their work, did you also collaborate outside of musical numbers?
Absolutely. I feel like I’ve had a hand in every part of the staging in Moulin Rouge, and in every part of the staging in Sing Street. Absolutely. The angles, the energy, how people enter, how they exit, what that question looks like, what that answer looks like, feels like? That’s why their work is so colorful, because every collaborator is inside of the work.
In both cases, you’re working with movies and music that audiences are somewhat familiar with. Is that helpful, or a hindrance in that you maybe don’t have an entirely blank slate?
I love having these reference points. I feel there’s a safety there. When I feel lost, or far from an idea, I can go to the movie. I can listen to the songs, and it brings me back. If you let it restrict you, that’s what can be challenging. I use it as a freeing reference point. Here is a crystal that you can break open and see all the particles inside. It’s not just, “This is the reference, I must do it this way.” It’s a way to “What is the evolution of it? How can I break it open and see deeper inside of it?” Making sure you feel like you’re paying homage to what stuck with you, not what I think people will stick to. That’s what can get you in trouble. If you start to spread it out to the ether, that’s where you lose the truth.
“Bad Romance” in Moulin Rouge is just astonishing. How many different incarnations did that go through before you got to the final product?
Oh my God, I would need my associate choreography team to count. I mean, 30? I think there’s that many of “Roxanne.” Both “Roxanne” and “Bad Romance” have a double-digit archive for sure. Both of those pieces are monsters. I just kept pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing. I remember when I found “Bad Romance” and I remember when I found “Roxanne” in rehearsal. I remember the feeling of finding it and saying, “This is it!” I was screaming and running around the studio.
Do you think those were so unwieldy because “Bad Romance” holds so much cultural cachet and “Roxanne” is the biggest dance piece of the film?
Yeah, the bigness, the scale of the story line. The story lines in “Bad Romance” are so crucial. And the break of Christian in “Roxanne” is so crucial. You have this secret affair and the simmering of “Uh oh, there’s trouble” in “Bad Romance.” And then you have the break and him wanting her and going to get her in “Roxanne,” so big story beats are important. They need to be clear and precise and extravagant and emotionally sound. That’s why there was so many versions.
You get your dancers to contort their bodies into unthinkable positions that are just so striking. What are those conversations like? Is there a sense of “I don’t know if I can do that” and you helping them find it?
It wasn’t a coaxing for Moulin Rouge They were like, “Bring it. What else you got?” That’s the dance I want to see on a Broadway stage if I was going to do it. I have my heroes, and the people that I look up are Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins, etc. My heroes are people who have pushed boundaries and focused on having their own voice. That’s the voice that I wanted. Every step of Moulin Rouge came from my insides. I really put my everything inside of it. It was birthed because of this company.
Was that the same cast for Sing Street and that company?
It’s just a different show. I don’t come in expecting that type of dance in every show. I come from training later, having a sense of myself as an artist, and being able to utilize the world and life as my vocabulary, as opposed to technical terms. It was about a feeling, and that type of drop or jump or risk came from an emotional place. Everything else I can fix. Sing Street is a much different way of moving than Moulin Rouge, in that they build it themselves. They come from nothing. And so we talked about “What is the weight feel when you put this guitar on? Utilize it as weight or utilize it as a trophy or someone you love or an obstacle.” That’s how we build a show.
In both cases, what are you most excited for audiences to discover nightly?
I’m excited for the excess and the heartbeat of Moulin Rouge, and I’m excited for the youth and storybook simplicity of Sing Street. I’m excited to have these two pieces that are so different from each other, and that I was able to create something so different from each other. The versatility is is important to me.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical