INTERVIEW: Drew McOnie on making musicals dance

This information was updated on 25th February, 2016

Drew McOnie
Drew McOnie. Photo: Pamela Raith

Speaking to choreographer Drew McOnie, you can’t help but get caught up in the infectious enthusiasm of youth and be in awe of the talent that this young theatre creative exudes. It’s enticing stuff! Douglas Mayo caught up with him briefly to discuss his past, his current shows and where he is headed next.

What got you into choreography rather than just working as a dancer?

It was sort of backwards for me in that I learnt dancing so that I could learn the vocabulary I needed for my dances. As a result I got the dancing bug and went from there. I loved watching the shows and I was always dancing around and making up shows myself, and I was affected by seeing performances. As a young boy, I would come out of the theatre saying I wish that was my idea or that I’d made up that choreography rather than saying I wish I’d sung that song or did that dance.

From there, I was always putting on awful school productions in the playground, my worst being Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat , which no one turned up to. From then on really it was just a case of learning as I went.

In The Heights Kings Cross Theatre
The cast of In The Heights. Photo: Johan Persson

Where do you start when you are asked to choreograph a show?

Choreographers are usually employed to deliver a very specific type of choreography. I realised very early on in my career that I didn’t want to be defined by one specific style of dance. Diversity I think is key when it comes to theatre choreography.

As a dancer I enjoyed so many styles of dance, so I wanted to be a choreographer that was known for versatility and diversity. So when a new project comes my way I usually get quite excited at the type of title that terrifies me like In The Heights did.

There’s a huge amount of learning that needs to be done for me to pull of a show like that. I hope that it makes me a better artist.

What type of shows do you like to work on?

I love shows where the dance has a narrative responsibility, I think that shows where you are able to use dance to create a visual language is very exciting.

How do you approach a new show? More established choreographers talk of using dance arrangers and have specific ways of working. What about you?

Katy Lowenhoff as Gin and Simon Hardwick as Tonic in Drunk. Photo: Marc Hankins
Katy Lowenhoff as Gin and Simon Hardwick as Tonic in Drunk. Photo: Marc Hankins

I love working with musicians, composers and arrangers, some of the best work I’ve done and I’ve been proudest of has come from working closely with the musical director or the musical supervisor, to form the music and the movement so that they work in unison.

You’ve recently started your own dance company. Can you tell us a little bit about The Drew McOnie Company?

It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a company that has been set up to celebrate the diversity of musical theatre performers, and the fact that they have that key ability to be able to act and tell stories with their bodies. I realised that there wasn’t a company out there that celebrated musical theatre style dancing. So I wanted a place where a lot of these incredible dancers could meet and share a belief and a passion.

It’s that Chorus Line way of thinking, a show built around these incredibly highly skilled and trained artists. These are people that are often consigned to the ensemble in musical theatre and maybe if they are lucky comes to the fore in dance breaks every now and again.

We’ve been given an opportunity at the Old Vic, which is massive. They’re very well respected and very creative and they’ve expressed desire and a passion for the company, which is quite extraordinary.

You’re in the process of working on a new production of Jekyll and Hyde. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Jekyll and Hyde at the Old VicIt’s really exciting and never far from my brain at the moment. We’ve had a first workshop and are preparing for a second workshop after Christmas. It’s an exciting title that is on people’s minds at the moment thanks to the new ITV production. The music is being composed by Grant Olding, who was my collaborator on Drunk, we have a close relationship and get on really well. Working with him has been such a meeting of the minds, which I find exciting. It will be rooted in musical theatre, it’s dark, with a sexy core, and the music is a brilliant clash of electronic music and brassy swing style music. We have a company of 12 dancers who are absolutely exceptional.

With all the shows you have in preparation and production do you manage any sleep at the moment?

In The Heights is now on at the Kings Cross Theatre, I’m in rehearsal for The Lorax, the Old Vic’s Christmas show at the moment and the brand new production of Hairspray is currently touring the UK, and now with Jekyll and Hyde too. It’s definitely helping me sleep at night I can assure you.

Are there any particular shows that are on your wish list to choreograph?
There are key shows that I’m sure most choreographers want to do like Singin’ In The Rain, but the thing that really gets my blood flowing are new shows. I have enormous respect for choreographers that have come before me like Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, and Michael Bennett. Every time you approach a show that was originated by one of those iconic choreographers you approach the show through a certain filter. What would be joyous for me is to work on shows where I originate the choreography entirely from my imagination rather than translating. I’m looking forward to doing that.

BOOK TICKETS NOW FOR  IN THE HEIGHTS, THE LORAX, HAIRSPRAY ON TOUR OR JEKYLL AND HYDE

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