VCU opera professor, Melanie Kohn Day, recently interviewed prominent Broadway performer and director Dorothy Danner for Classical Singer Magazine. Day has brought Danner to work with her students three times in the past 10 years. Danner talks about her career as a dancer, actress, choreographer, and director.
Will you tell us about your start as a dancer, actress, and choreographer?
I started dance lessons (ballet and a bit of tap) at 8. I started dancing as an equity union summer stock professional at 15 in St. Louis. I was not even able to attend my own high school graduation ceremony because at 18 I was hired for Broadway’s touring show of Li’l Abner and had to move to New York during the week of my graduation. I had already done 30 shows in St. Louis working 63 hours a week. Of course, in those days, there were no dance departments in colleges, so this was my only option.
I had my very first vocal solo in this Broadway show. I’d never sung onstage before! Anyhow, I had a solo at the top of the show (she laughs) and it was scary. A few months after it closed, that show led to being hired for Once Upon a Mattress. I learned discipline and courage from the leading master of Broadway George Abbott, clowning from Carol Burnett, and physicalizing and comic dance ideas from Joe Layton.
Did you have voice and acting lessons at some point?
When I was 18, I realized what you had to do to stay in this business, so I started taking voice lessons from a teacher I had toured with in Li’l Abner. Someone eventually sent me to a voice teacher named Madame Tweety [laughter]—it was a Broadway style of singing. But she did make me sing Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht.” I just had minimal talent as a singer. But I didn’t understand that until I started working in opera.
Then, when I got hired for Once Upon a Mattress, Jane White (who was playing Queen Aggravain and who was a brilliant actress) watched me in rehearsal for two days and said, “You’re coming to my acting classes.” There was no choice with her! She saw some instincts in me, so she felt I should start training right away. She was a very technical teacher.
I studied with her for years and then had another teacher after that for years as well. If you don’t get to go to university for training, then you have to figure it out yourself and keep your eyes open. Thank goodness I was always lucky enough to be employed, so I saturated myself by learning on the job.
How did you get your start as a choreographer?
Well, I fell into it because somebody opened a door and said, “We need your help!” And then I did Broadway show after Broadway show. At 22, I stopped doing it because I wanted to use the acting skills and comedy skills I had learned. So I did tons of industrial shows (they paid well) and then returned to Broadway about three years later.