The music man

Raised in Israel before moving to London to pursue his craft, renowned director Steven Dexter is back again to present a little 'Song and Dance.'

dexters dance troupe 88  (photo credit: )
dexters dance troupe 88
(photo credit: )
When he was five years old, Steven Dexter's parents took him to see Mary Poppins. At the movie, the theater bug bit him, and never let go. "My Dad used to take me to see the local Gilbert & Sullivan productions too," says the director, as if explaining how he came to do their Pirates of Penzance at the Savoy Theater in 2004 together with a production of Peter Pan. Here in Israel he'll be presenting Song and Dance by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black at the Haifa Theater on August 9. "This is the first musical I've directed where the dancers don't have to sing," he muses, while sitting the big rehearsal room at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, watching the choreogrpaher put the dancers through their movies. In Dexter's version, though, the dancers appear in the first act as well. The production is made up of two musicals. Tell Me on a Sunday is the story of "the Girl" (Avital Livni) who goes to America to follow her dream of great love. In Dori Parnes' translation, she's from Ramat Gan. The second musical, Paganini Variations, was originally an orchestral piece composed for Lloyd Webber's cellist brother, Julian. Enter producer Cameron (Cats) Mackintosh and the two musicals became one called Song & Dance, with the music of the second half becoming the road by which a dancer (Anton Lapidot), chases his dream of becoming a famous dancer. The musical opened in the West End in 1982, where it ran for two years, followed by a successful run on Broadway. Dexter, who needs "to be able to bring something to a show, and put my mark on it," says that his changes to the show "don't change the original by a word or a note, only visually." In his version, the Girl and the Boy keep missing each other until their paths finally cross for the happy end. That wrinkle was born of a chance encounter on a London street with a friend he'd not seen in years, which led him to wonder about "'the friend I may just have missed?' My challenge was to take the two unrelated halves of the musical and make them a whole," which is why he added the dancers to Act I. This is Dexter's third musical here. At Habimah he did The Ugly Duckling, the local title for Honk, whose world premiere he directed at the Watermill Theater in Newbury, near Reading. He'll do a revival there this Christmas. Then he did Mary Lou, also at Habimah, and though local critics turned up their noses, audiences flocked, and the musical ran for four years. DEXTER, 45, lives and works in London but he grew up here. Born in Capetown, he was 12 when the family immigrated "to be with my sister Maureen, who's 17 years older, and the grandkids of course." Learning Hebrew was hard, but he did his matriculation in Hebrew, passing with distinction, mainly because of the model he made of London's Globe Theater in Shakespeare's time, and writing a thesis on it - "and that was before they rebuilt the Globe," he says gleefully. His Hebrew is still fluent. At London's prestigious LAMDA he studied stage management, but directed and assistant-directed informally. After graduation he worked as a stage manager in the West End, but what jump-started Dexter's career as a director was his mother's death. "Mum's motto was 'if you want to do something, do it. Don't talk about it.' So I did." He decided to write his own musical and direct, because "new work gets more attention." Then the composer Dexter was working with got accepted to a year-long workshop on musical theater that Stephen Sondheim was doing at Oxford, "and the course ended with a half hour presentation [of my musical] which I directed. The who's who of the theater world was there, and that's how I got Honk. "I can't direct something unless I can connect with it. It has to be theatrical, with a story and good characters and heightened emotions. If you can't express yourself in words, you burst into song. That's the musical. When I work, I want the performers to feel the show is theirs as much as it's mine. If you have that attitude, you end up with thinking actors and not puppets." His approach seems to have worked. Among the rest, Dexter has done six shows on London's West End. For Mackintosh he directed the musical version of Moby Dick. He's also worked quite a bit in Singapore where his production of A Twist of Fate won the Straits Times Prize for Best Musical. And his work here? "When I come, I want to be able to contribute something." 'Song and Dance' will begin at the Haifa Theater on August 9.