Warren Carlyle on Choreographing Hugh Jackman in 'The Music Man' : 'He's Game for Anything'

Tony-winning choreographer and acclaimed director Warren Carlyle tells PEOPLE about crafting The Music Man, and why Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster are "the perfect pair"

Warren Carlyle, Hugh Jackman
Photo: Noam Galai/WireImage; Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

Hugh Jackman is indeed "the greatest showman" — just ask the man who has been teaching him his moves for 25 years.

"There is no one out there like Hugh," Tony-winning choreographer and acclaimed director Warren Carlyle tells PEOPLE of the actor, who is currently treading the boards on Broadway in the revival of Meredith Willson's The Music Man. "He is absolutely the greatest, and one of the hardest-working people in the business."

Carlyle certainly knows a thing or two about stars. He's worked with some of the best throughout his long career, including Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, Kristin Chenoweth, Cheyenne Jackson, Chita Rivera, Dulé Hill, Sutton Foster and Kelli O'Hara, to name a few. He got his big break working with Susan Stroman as an associate choreographer on the original production of The Producers with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and his success has since made Carlyle one of the industry's most sought-after talents.

"Lucky me, right?" he says. "I get the amazing, amazing joy to work with these incredible people and help tells these amazing stories. It's a pretty lucky, full life."

The British-born talent first met Jackman while working on the Royal National Theatre's acclaimed stage production of Oklahoma! in London's West End, which premiered in 1998, and struck up a friendship that would last for decades to come. "We have now been friends for exactly half of my life," Carlyle, 50, jokes. "How did that happen?"

Over the years, the two have collaborated many times. Carlyle directed and choreographed Jackman's 2011 one-man show Back on Broadway and his 2019 world tour, The Man. The Music. The Show. He also choreographed Jackman on the big screen, for 2008's Deception.

The Music Man is their first Broadway revival together, earning them both glowing reviews. It's been one of the hottest tickets since it opened in February.

Below, Carlyle tells PEOPLE about working with Jackman and Foster on The Music Man, and how the pandemic actually helped the production find its richness.

the music man with hugh jackman and sutton foster
joan marcus

PEOPLE: Congratulations on The Music Man! It's a hit!
Thank you! It means so much to us all that audiences have been enjoying it so much.

Your relationship with Hugh goes way back. What is it like working with him?
The thing I've learned about Hugh is he's a great collaborator. He's really good at hitting the ball back and forth, and always comes back with a better idea or a different idea. He challenges you in the best possible way.

One thing that's very clear when you see him on stage: he has that natural charisma. It's textbook definition "star quality." Did you see that from the minute you met him, all those years ago?
Absolutely. Hugh is a star and always has been. But what's interesting to me is that he's not an accidental star. There are some people who kind of accidentally become famous, but that man — if you saw him? If you saw his work ethic? He makes all of us feel lazy. He works so hard. He really cares about it. Do you know he still has a voice class every single week? He still takes acting lessons. He's still working on himself. He's still training every day, and he's doing eight shows a week at the Winter Garden. It's incredible.

He's also known for pulling pranks on set. Were you ever subject to one of his tricks?
A conspirator, actually! So in London, generally, the last matinee performance of a show's run, some tricks get played. And when we were doing Oklahoma!, he came to me and said, "I would love to learn your featured dance in the middle of 'The Farmer and The Cowman.' " Now, this was a tricky dance. It had a big jump in second and barrel turns and a double pirouette into a leg extended in front — I mean, dancers will know what that means but trust me, it's not for the faint of heart. But we worked on it for a couple of weeks, and on that final matinee, as I was standing center stage, ready for my solo, Hugh tapped me on the shoulder and moved forward as I stepped aside — to dance the entire sequence. The entire company was on the floor, they could not believe what he was doing.

Was that your first time choreographing him?
Yes, working on that gag for the matinee, that's where we really realized we had this bond. There was this feeling of, "Oh, I understand you, you understand me. I have an easy time creating with you. You're always going to say yes, I'm always going to say yes." We were very like-minded in our approach about it.

Is there anything he won't do?
I've found he's really game for anything, and he really can do it all. And I mean that, he actually really can. He has natural dexterity. That speaks to his success playing Wolverine, too; he's just a wonderful physical being. And if he does struggle with something, he'll work at it until he can do it. Our finale? Hugh worked on that for two years through the pandemic; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday mornings, every week, he worked on it. He did not stay home and eat bonbons. He was sweating away in a studio, figuring out that finale and making sure he was really ready for it.

That must be nice to have as a choreographer, someone who is willing to try!
Oh, very much so. I never have to convince him to try something. I never have to ask him twice ever. "Would you mind jumping off this?" "Yes." "Could you climb up this?" "Yes." "Can you flip over?" "Yes." I mean, just look at him in that show. He dances his way through the whole thing. It's magnificent.

Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

You're also working with a Broadway legend in Sutton Foster. What's she like?
She's unbelievably special. The kids call it like a unicorn or something right? Where there's just these magical people? That's Sutton. Shethinks that she's normal but she's not normal. She can do things no normal person can do. She's magnificent. I mean, you saw that audience?

They were eating out of the palm of her hand.
Sutton's like a modern day Mary Tyler Moore; that beautiful, easy humor. I find her funny at rest, simply from the way she carries herself. Her and Hugh together, they have impeccable chemistry. They walk on stage and everyone in the audience is like, "Oh, this is going to be great. This is going to be fun to watch these two navigate each other." When you're in the hands of Hugh and Sutton, you've got two masters who are just so in control of their art, and in control of those characters, that they can really do anything. They're the perfect pair.

And Sutton's also an accomplished dancer, which I imagine is a joy when choreographing?
Exactly. She's so talented, but also, she's good and honest in her creation process. If she's scared about something, she'll say, "I'm scared about this." We had a section for a while in "Shipoopi" that she called "the snake pit." She used to laugh and say, "All right, here it comes, 'the snake pit!' " But that never stopped her from tackling it. She's fearless.

Hugh Jackman
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

This is material that's been beloved by audiences for decades on Broadway. When you're approaching choreographing a piece like this, do you lean into what people know?
It's funny, I go away from it, actually. With Music Man, I looked at it like it was a brand new musical. I opened that first page of the script, and I was like, "What should we do for the overture? How are we going to get in the train? Are we going to do with a drum, are we not going to do it with a drum?" It was really fun just to start fresh.

But surely, with some numbers, there are things you have to put in that people expect? You can't do "Seventy-Six Trombones" without the movement of playing a trombone?
Well that movement, it's natural to the material, it really is. For "Seventy-Six Trombones," I made a choice to make it into a nine-minute ballet. And that whole sequence, for me, is about faith. It's built on faith that if Harold Hill does his job, every single person in that high school auditorium believes they're playing instruments. And every single person in the audience at the Winter Garden, by the time we get to the button, believes they're seeing instruments. You believe that you see those little girls with piccolos. You believe you see the little guys with the clarinets. Whether or not I do the trombone movement, that shape is there.

Well "Seventy-Six Trombones" is a standout, no doubt, as is "Shipoopi," the big Act II opener.
It's a classic curtain-raiser, right? But I didn't want it to be dismissed, as those numbers often are. I wanted to make it a real storytelling moment and play off the Act I closer — where Harold gives Winthrop that cornet, and Marian begins to see Harold in this different light — to say, "What if Marian and Harold became an item? What if this became a family?" So I tried to use "Shipoopi" to inch those three closer.

Was it difficult to do that and still maintain the energy needed in a kickoff like that?
No, because it's in the music, and I honored that by making the moves ragtime correct. That's really what Harold is bringing to River City. We start very correct with "Iowa Stubborn," and even "Trouble" is kind of straight time. But over the course of his time there, the music of the town changes to a more syncopated, looser ragtime. By the time you get to "Shipoopi," the whole town is kind of jumping and hopping around.

And then "Marian the Librarian" — a number I overlooked in previous productions but was captivated by due to the intricacies of your choreography.
That's all [set designer] Santo Loquasto. Three years before we started, he was sending me sketches of the layout of the library, and measurements for tables and benches. "Do you think this is a good layout? How big should the central desk be?" So much planning went into it. We needed it to be Marian's world, not Harold's world, and everything we did reflected that, even down to the colors. Red is Harold's color, Marian's is blue, which is why there's more blue in that sequence than in any other. That is an artist, above and beyond, and that's why that scene is so beautiful. It's a delicious marriage between Santo, myself, [arranger] David Chase's dance music — which is exquisite — and all those 850 books that get tossed!

How long does something like that take you to work out?
Due to the pandemic, I really did nothing other than think about Music Man for three years. And the beauty of that was that it added so much richness and texture into each scene. Think of it like painting a masterpiece: you start with the first coat, and then you go away and you let it dry and you think about it. Then you look at it again, and do the second coat. "Wouldn't it be great if we had a cart where a dancer could float across the back?" Then you look at it again. "What if those benches tucked in?" And you sit with it again. "Oh, I love Harry Potter — can we make those books magically fly?" That's what happened; I spent just years and years of layering and fine-tuning. Things like that, you can't do in a two-week process.

Finally, a reason to appreciate the pandemic!
[Laughs] Perhaps the only...

The Music Man is currently playing at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre.

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