Former Detroiter choreographs TV’s Spielberg-produced Smash.
Series choreographer Joshua Bergasse, also playing an onscreen role as an assistant choreographer named Josh, will lead a master class at his mom’s dance studio, Annette and Company, where his talents were first expressed and where he has taught.
Bergasse, who has been working on Smash for a year to get it ready for airtime, has brought performance and choreographic experience to the music-filled episodes, which he discussed during a recent phone interview from New York.
“I like that there’s finally a TV show that talks about what we do here so people can relate to that,” says Bergasse, 39, whose touring roles placed him in the Fisher Theatre spotlight with West Side Story and Movin’ Out.
“Doing the choreography is my real passion because I love creating dance moves. Being on camera is a really fun and exciting extra perk.”
Smash follows a fictitious cast and crew developing a musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. At the center of the dramatic story lines are the career and personal experiences of a songwriting duo, Julia Houston (Emmy Award winner Debra Messing) and Tom Levitt (Tony Award nominee Christian Borle).
Competing for the role of Marilyn have been Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) and Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty).
Rounding out the show are producer Eileen Rand (Oscar winner Anjelica Huston) and director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport).
Producer Steven Spielberg came up with the idea for the show and approved the selection of Bergasse.
“I haven’t met Steven Spielberg,” says Bergasse, a graduate of Berkley High School who decided on his career direction while in a summer arts program at Oakland Community College. “He hasn’t come on the set, but he is very involved with the production.
“The way technology is today, everything that we shoot gets uploaded daily, sometimes twice daily, to a website. He is able to see it, take notes and comment. I haven’t spoken with him, but I’ve heard his voice over the phone.”
Bergasse explains different perspectives of doing choreography for camera in comparison to doing choreography for stage while looking back on various assignments.
His TV credits include So You Think You Can Dance and expansive commercials. Stage credits, in and out of New York, have involved productions of Bomb-Itty of Errors, Captain Louie, Fame the Musical, Guys and Dolls, Carousel and Beehive among many others.
“When you’re choreographing for the camera, you usually just have to worry about what’s in the shot,” Bergasse says. “For the stage, you have to worry about everything because you don’t know where someone from the audience may be looking.
“For this show, a lot of the numbers are done as if they’re on the stage. Because it’s about being on the stage, people see a lot more than they normally would. That’s the way they wanted the look of the show. ”
Bergasse has lots of interaction with the main characters who are not taking on dancing roles. Debra Messing, for instance, is seen at the edge of some musical sequences, and he works with her on those just about daily.
Actual workdays can stretch into the evening and continue into weekends, a schedule understood by Bergasse’s wife, dancer Kristine Bendul, who travels the musical stage circuit.
“Every day is different as it comes from the writers,” says Bergasse, planning dances to new music created by Tony and Grammy Award winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
“Yesterday, I started on set, making sure a musical number was staged correctly. Then, I went into a production meeting. Afterward, I spent a couple of hours answering emails that had to do with the show, like scheduling, and stayed in the studio with the dancers from 3-10 p.m. to create a new number.”
Bergasse hires the ensemble dancers, generally allowing for a core group of 10. He’s had as many as 100 for one routine.
“Casting has not been easy because there are so many great dancers auditioning,” he says. “We get the best of the best. The dancing comes quickly for Katharine and Megan, and it’s wonderful working with them.”
On Presidents Day, with time off from the series, Bergasse did some teaching at the Broadway Dance Center, where he has been on the faculty since 1998.
As shooting winds up for a season of 15 Smash episodes, the cast and crew are keeping their fingers crossed for word that there will be a second set of shows.
“We don’t want to make any plans or take any other jobs because everybody wants to be there if we get picked up for next season,” says Bergasse, whose spirituality was nurtured at Congregation B’nai Moshe. “We’re holding our breath.”
By Suzanne Chessler, Contributing Writer