John Carrafa studied pre-med at Bates College before becoming a mainstay in Twyla Tharp’s modern troupe beginning in 1978. Leaving in 1987, he began looking for “any dance opportunity where I could tell a story.” This season, he’s helped tell two of them, and won Tony nominations for both. Working with actors instead of dancers, he choreographed Into the Woods and Urinetown, and his work is up against the mighty Susan Stroman’s (in Oklahoma!) and Rob Ashford’s (in Thoroughly Modern Millie). The Tonys air Sunday at 7 on PBS and jump at 9 to CBS.
How does he get actors to dance? “I don’t choreograph steps. I do a tremendous amount of collaboration with them to figure out what it is they can do—maybe they’ve studied martial arts, or basketball. If I know it’s going to be amazing, they’re going to feel it, too. Like the Act I finale of Urinetown. Fourteen people lift the hero and heroine at the same time. We call it the pinwheel. We practiced it without lifting them up. We got out everybody’s fears about it, letting them talk. We all did it together. My job is just to have the idea, the vision. I’m learning that I’m sort of really by nature an idea maker. Ideas pour out of me. I’m so in the right place now.”
Carrafa’s choreographing the Broadway-bound Dance of the Vampires, aiming for “technique that hasn’t been seen on Broadway since West Side Story.” His influences are “really Robbins and Michael Kidd and Fosse and Busby Berkeley . . . the storytelling.”
Carrafa doesn’t care which show he wins a Tony for. “I’d just prefer to win,” he laughs. “The thing is, I really do feel I’ve won. That I’ve been nominated for two shows in which there isn’t a single dancer is just amazing to me. My first time out, it’s fine.”