Dancing Bristol boy grows up to a Tony Award

Dancers performing in "Newsies," the Broadway show for which Christopher Gattelli won his Tony Award. In his acceptance speech, he thanked everyone he had ever worked with. DEEN VAN MEER
Dancers performing in "Newsies," the Broadway show for which Christopher Gattelli won his Tony Award. In his acceptance speech, he thanked everyone he had ever worked with. DEEN VAN MEER
Posted: June 15, 2012

Christopher Gattelli's parents dropped him off when he was 8 at Knecht Dance Academy in Levittown, which operates now as it did then, a place for kids to learn dance. But it wasn't Gattelli who was taking dancing lessons. It was his younger sister, Kristen.

"My parents had to run errands or something, and they said just stay here with your sister for the hour," says Gattelli, now 39, who won this year's Tony Award for choreography Sunday night. "I was a kid who played baseball and soccer. I was watching my sister, watching her dance, and thought, ‘That looks like fun. Why can't I do that?' "

Gattelli asked his parents. They told him they didn't know he wanted to. He began lessons, and as they say, the rest ...

Well, the rest is never really simple history, but Gattelli's trajectory over three decades to a Tony Award for the dancing he created in the Broadway musical Newsies is like a snowball's on a hillside, an image he himself uses to describe it.

In his early teens, the Bristol boy knew he had a knack for dancing, and that included tap, jazz, ballet, modern — all the elements that can be molded into show dancing.

At Bristol High School, Gattelli's parents arranged a special program for their son. He would study there part of the day, then go to Trenton, hop the New Jersey Transit train to New York, study there at the school run by Alvin Ailey, then return in the evening.

By his senior year at Bristol High, he was dancing at Radio City Music Hall, one of the high-kickers in the Christmas show, and then in the Easter show. Additionally, "I had accrued all my credits to graduate except for only one course, English."

Though by then he was coming home only once every few weeks, he nevertheless did the reading and wrote the papers, and graduated with his class in 1991.

From then on, Gattelli was a New Yorker, and a dancer who never lacked for work. He may not have realized it at the time, but a network began forming at Radio City, of choreographers and assistant choreographers who would work with him, be wowed by his versatility, and bring up his name when casting directors were looking for dancers.

That's why he said in his Tony acceptance speech Sunday — a clip of which was on the national telecast, because choreography was awarded earlier in the evening — that he thanked everyone he had ever worked with.

"I looked out into that audience and there were all those faces I know — all these people, and I learned from every experience."

In 1997, after he'd danced in Cats, a revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and other shows, folks who had worked with Gattelli asked him to choreograph the opening number of a benefit for Broadway Cares, a major effort of the Broadway community and other theater artists who raise money to support AIDS service organizations, the Actors Fund, and other charities.

It was Gattelli's first choreography since he was a kid in Bristol, when he helped arrange dances for younger students. The number, in which a 94-year-old former Ziegfeld gal joined the ensemble in a tap dance, made its way to Rosie O'Donnell's daytime talk show — like Gattelli, she'd been a winner on Ed McMahon's Star Search when she was younger. Gattelli became the show's choreographer, also setting dances on O'Donnell's performances at Disney World and Universal Studios.

"I pretty much stopped dancing and focused on choreography," says Gattelli, who went on to make dances for Off-Broadway shows. One of them, Adrift in Macao, he'd already choreographed for Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2005; another, the Off-Broadway hit Altar Boyz, he reprised three years ago when he directed the show, with his original choreography, at Bristol Riverside Theatre.

"It was a really great moment for me," says Gattelli, "to be able to come home to do that show I was really proud of."

Among his Broadway choreographing successes are the revivals of South Pacific and Sunday in the Park With George, the current revival of Godspell, and, of course, Disney's Newsies.

The dancing in Newsies is thrilling — hands down the best dancing in all of Broadway's new shows, a mix of jumps and flips and intricate steps that Gattelli set on a cast of ace Broadway dancers who play New York newsboys of more than a century ago.

In one of its showstopping numbers, the boys decide to strike against the city's publishing giants, who want to increase what the boys have to pay for the papers they sell. (There was such a strike, an early American union action.) In the dance, the newsboys rip newspaper sheets in half, then dance defiantly and joyously on them.

For Gattelli and his choreographer assistant, Lou Castro, every step had to be part of the story. "I told the gentlemen, there's a lot of dance in this show, and you tell me if there's anything that doesn't feel honest" — a demand a choreographer made once of Gattelli as a dancer. Through that dance — to a song called "Seize the Day" — "comes a confidence in them becoming one," Gattelli says.

"We literally broke the dance up in stages of the boys' maturity [in their decision to strike]," he says. "First, we have them coming together, then the defiance, then the confidence they get, then becoming cocky about it, then celebrating the first time they see that something good comes from a unit."

Gattelli's dissection — the sort of thinking about dance that fits it into a plot and enlarges its characters — can lead to great musical theater. Also, a Tony Award.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

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