Twyla Tharp: Choreographer who fixes a flop

How do you fix a show with bad reviews before it launches on Broadway? That was the question choreographer and dancer Twyla Tharp was faced with.

Tharp is a legendary choreographer fusing classical dance with modern innovative steps. She had persuaded Billy Joel to let her use his songs and create a Broadway musical. $8 million funding had been raised successfully. And she had created a 2 act dance show that depicted the lives of 5 people during the Vietnam war.

But before launching the show on Broadway, a few tryout shows were held in Chicago. And critics panned the show! “Fuzzy and confusing” and “wildly uneven” were the words used to describe the dance show!

After a few tryout shows, one day, Tharp went to the restaurant across the theatre during intermission. There, she heard the waiter say: “Don’t worry, the second act gets better!” It was then that she knew that her work wasn’t up to her standards. She had to fix the dance show in 3 weeks – before it was set to launch on Broadway in Newyork!

How to fix a flop?

The problem was that Tharp didn’t know what the problem was with her show. Was it the music that was not jiving? Was it the narrative that was confusing? Were the dance moves not good enough? Were the sets and the costumes bad?

So the first thing she started doing was gather feedback. Her son read through all the newspaper critics. And if 2 critics wrote something similar about any part of the show, Tharp focused on it.

But the most helpful feedback came from a friend who had seen the show. The friend was sitting next to someone in the audience who was a bit sensitive. In the first act, during one song, she had closed her eyes. During another song, she had shut her ears. When Tharp’s friend asked her didn’t she like the show, she answered that she liked it but didn’t know where to get the information from. It was too overwhelming for her senses. She didn’t know how to focus on what was happening on the stage!

Tharp realized that she was doing too much. She fixed it by editing and subtracting. By focusing each scene on one thing instead of three things.

She moved the spotlight away from the musicians and kept it solely on the dancers. The musicians grumbled but she stuck to her guns. Because the dancers were the story. 

She cut secondary characters. She cut dialogue. She cut a few songs that were not really moving the story ahead. 

And she started with a new song – something that introduced and focused on the main characters – letting the audience know which main dancers to pay attention to through the show.

Every subtraction led to less confusion. Every change polished the rough. 

When the show “Movin’ Out” launched on Broadway, it was a smash hit. Critics and audiences both loved it. It ran for 1331 performances straight before the show was taken on tour where it soldout in 82 cities! The show was nominated for 10 Tony’s and Tharp won best choreographer for it!

Fixing strategy: beyond feedback and focus

So feedback helps. And focusing helps. But along with that, there was a guiding light that helped Tharp make decisions. Decisions on whose feedback to listen to. Decisions on what parts of the mess to focus on – what to keep, what to delete, and what to add.

Tharp calls it “the spine!”

What does the spine mean? The spine is the first strong idea. You nurture and connect the core idea to the spine to keep it centered. The spine becomes your guiding light. Without a strong spine, you don’t have a strong body.

What is it not? The spine is not necessarily the “reason why” for your audience. As Tharp says: “The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work.” It’s a very subtle difference, but the spine is more about your instincts and intentions, not your audiences. It’s not the purpose of your work.

For example, the purpose of a musical is to entertain the audience. And earn money. But the spine of the musical could be to make them excited or make them sad or make them angry. 

The spine is not the message. It’s the structural underpinnings that allow you to stay on your message without getting lost. It’s what connects all the loose pages into a book. 

In essence, the spine is the theme that connects your intentions. If any part of your work does not keep to the theme, you should cut it. If you feel lost, think back on what the spine of your project should be. 

Examples of strong spines

When Steve Jobs came back to Apple, he cut down the product line from 350 to 10! He cut profitable products like printers. Because for him, the spine was: great user experience. “Does the product wow the user?” No one has ever been wowed with a printer!

Marie Kondo’s purpose is helping people get rid of their clutter. But her spine is bringing joy. She helps people decide to keep something not by asking if it is a needed product, but by asking: does this bring joy to you?

For Twyla Tharp, the spine for her musical was: using dance to convey the emotions of youth in the midst of war. Every decision she took and change she made was keeping that intention in mind. It’s easy to parse which feedback is helpful and what elements to focus on when you have a defined spine.

Action Summary:

  • Things go awry when you lose focus. So before you start a project, think what could be the spine for that project. Having a theme, phrase, metaphor for your intentions will make it easy to keep things focused and tight. When you do get lost, the spine anchors you.