Ayodele Casel is on tap for 'Funny Girl'

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Ayodele Casel is on tap for 'Funny Girl'
A sequence of tap dance moves by Ayodele Casel at the August Wilson Theater in New York, March 28, 2022. Casel, a master tap dancer, will make her Broadway debut in a revival of “Funny Girl” with a unique creative billing: tap choreographer. Justin J Wee/The New York Times.

by Michelle Ruiz

NEW YORK, NY.- When chorus auditions began in December for the buzzy revival of “Funny Girl” on Broadway, many hopefuls struggled with the tap dance combination. Some, recalled a choreographer, stopped midway through, made prayer hands of gratitude and exited.

If they came expecting simple eight-counts, they were confronted with a far more intricate, rhythmic “Rubik’s Cube,” according to Jared Grimes, 38, the actor and professional tap dancer who plays the role of Eddie Ryan, mentor to showgirl Fanny Brice, played by Beanie Feldstein.

The “mad scientist” — Grimes’ description — behind the rigorous footwork was Ayodele Casel, a master tap dancer who will make her Broadway debut with a unique creative billing: tap choreographer. It’s a credit that rarely, if ever, appears in the mainstream theater world.

Ellenore Scott, known for her work on the off-Broadway production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” is the show’s choreographer, but Michael Mayer, director of “Funny Girl,” knew she didn’t specialize in tap. So he pitched the producers a “screwy idea” to enlist Casel, 46, a mentee of Savion Glover and Gregory Hines, to modernize the musical’s tap numbers, like Act 2’s military-themed “Rat Tat Tat Tat.”

Casel’s exacting brand of tap is “like the finest dagger in the entire world just clawing up the floor,” Grimes said. Hines, who died in 2003, once praised her in an interview as a “freak of nature” — one from whom he occasionally borrowed steps. The first time Mayer saw Casel onstage, performing her autobiographical one-woman piece “While I Have the Floor” at City Center in New York in 2016, he recalled how she seemed to float.

“It was almost like she was making the floor come to her,” Mayer, 61, said. “I’ve never seen a man who had that kind of grace.” He was similarly struck by Casel’s sly sense of cool, from her trademark hairstyle — a hybrid high bun, low ponytail — to her metallic silver oxford tap shoes, a departure from expected feminine heels.

“Funny Girl,” a musical linked to Barbra Streisand and show tunes, is being infused with a multicultural artistic perspective. Casel is the daughter of a Black father and a Puerto Rican mother, raised in the Bronx and Rincón, Puerto Rico, and reared on both Celia Cruz’s salsa and the Old Hollywood films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a pair that seemed both aspirational and unattainable.

“I remember daydreaming of being seen as a tap dancer,” said Casel, who took tap as an elective movement class while attending the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. But she told herself, “Nobody’s ever going to see me like that,” she said. “There’s no way. I’m not blond. I’m not white. I’m not a movie star.”

The Fanny Brice Connection

“‘Funny Girl’ is about a woman who didn’t look like everyone else, didn’t sound like everyone else and said, ‘I’m going to make my life what I want it to be, come hell or high water,’” Mayer said. Casel, he said, has “done exactly the same thing.”

Historically, according to Casel, critics said “women lacked the ability, the physicality, to do flashy steps.” While at NYU in 1996, she lingered in the back of the Ambassador Theater during the Broadway run of “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk,” watching the show “a gazillion times on my $10 student ticket budget.” She related to the young Black hoofers, but the cast was intentionally all male.

Tony Award-nominated tap dancer and choreographer Ted Louis Levy (“Jelly’s Last Jam”), who assisted Glover with the choreography of “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk,” noticed the ever-present Casel.

“You knew why she was there,” Levy, 61, said. “She wanted to know rhythm, and she wanted to know herself.”

Levy said he wanted to invite Casel to a training program that recruited new tap talent to the production, but “they wouldn’t let me put a woman in it.” Casel was undeterred: “I would just show up and show up to the point where I could not be ignored any further.”

She attended tap jams around New York in ankle boots from Payless, to which she had taps affixed. Eventually, it reached Glover’s ear that Casel “knew the whole show,” she said. She went on to become the lone woman in Glover’s tap group, Not Your Ordinary Tappers, which made tour stops at Radio City and the White House, among other sites. At times, she said, her presence in the all-male group was noted with backhanded compliments from audience members: “They’d say, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t even know women tap danced’ or ‘you’re just like them’” — a reference to the men in the group.

Was she ever intimidated?

Casel shrugged and said, “I’m from the Bronx.”

When she was 9, her mother, Aida Tirado, sent her to live with Casel’s maternal grandparents in rural Rincón, “to protect me from a really tough domestic situation,” Casel said. The decision was painful, Tirado recalled, but, she said, “As a mom, you look out for your child. You want the best for her, so you do what you have to do.” The music of Celia Cruz and José Feliciano was ubiquitous, and so was a sense of legacy, Casel said, an “understanding that there are people who came before you and sacrificed a lot so that you could be very comfortable.”

An insatiable student of history, Casel has long emphasized tap’s Black roots.

“I know that a lot of people credit African and Irish influence. I’m going to be radical and say that it is a widely, predominantly Black experience,” Casel said.

In lionizing the likes of Astaire and Rogers, tap was whitewashed, Casel has argued. “A lot of people don’t know about John Bubbles,” she said, referring to Astaire’s teacher, one of “the progenitors” of tap. “He changed and elevated the way we were able to move our feet by adding notes and dropping heels.”

She is vehement about speaking the names of Black female tap dancers forgotten by history, including in her one-woman show “Diary of a Tap Dancer.” Jeni LeGon was “the first Black woman to be signed to a major Hollywood studio, but who was dropped after Eleanor Powell came in”; Louise Madison (“people said she would eat Gregory Hines alive”); and Juanita Pitts, a dancer in the 1940s, who, like Casel, was known to perform in suits and flats.

“They learned by watching the men, doing the steps backstage or in the alleyway, the same way that I had been doing during ‘Noise, Funk,’” Casel said. It was “heartbreaking to know that 50 years later, that same thing was taking place.”

Modernizing a Classic

With the revival of “Funny Girl,” opening April 24 at the August Wilson Theater, Casel is reclaiming the legacy of tap in one of Broadway’s most hallowed productions.

“We have an opportunity to infuse history and a rhythmic sensibility that may not have been present the first time the show was seen,” she said. In Harvey Fierstein’s update to the 1964 book, the role of Eddie Ryan has been expanded and cast for the first time on Broadway with a Black actor (Grimes). The character is promoted to dance director of the Ziegfeld Follies, creating a natural vehicle for Casel’s choreography.

“I look at Eddie Ryan and I think he’s the conglomerate of Baby Laurance and Sammy Davis Jr.,” she said. Her dizzying combinations aim to evoke what Ryan “would have choreographed with his experience, which was so rich as a Black man” in the early 1900s. “The thing is that we weren’t seeing that. We were seeing a very curated version of tap dancing in Hollywood.”

One of the most-transformed numbers under Casel is “Eddie’s Tap,” a solo by Grimes. During rehearsals in February, there was booming live piano and drum accompaniment, but Casel’s syncopations, performed by Grimes in dusty blue wingtip tap shoes, become the music instead. To Casel, the solo “sounds like freedom and it sounds like swing and it sounds like heaven.”

Mayer said, “That’s the magic of Ayo.”

Grimes who calls Casel a mentor, said she is “a young legend.” When he was 14, Grimes’ mother used to drive him from High Point, North Carolina, to New York to take Casel’s tap classes at Steps on Broadway.

“It’s full circle,” he said of their “Funny Girl” collaboration.

For Mayer, modernizing “Funny Girl” has meant inviting overlooked influences. “All of the artists in the room are very committed to creating a show that is responsive to the moment we’re living in,” he said.

Casel and others make the show “inherently contemporary,” said Torya Beard, the assistant director of the production, who is also Casel’s wife. “Who tells the story, what we hold in our bodies when we sing, when we dance, when we laugh.”

The choreography in the show may well create a splashy, mainstream moment for tap, the dancing itself becoming a star alongside Feldstein.

“Beanie is fearless,” Casel wrote in an email. “When she’s dancing, I see pure joy in her expression. I know that feeling.” (In a behind-the-scenes video posted to Instagram, Feldstein said her favorite part of rehearsals was watching Casel teach “Rat Tat Tat Tat.” “It’s the most extraordinary tap dancing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” she says in the video.)

In lieu of a biography in the “Funny Girl” Playbill, Casel gives thanks to “the tap dancing women who paved the way for this moment,” including LeGon, Pitts and Lois Bright, carrying the memory of her foremothers.

“My name being on that poster means that they are there with me as well,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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