From Broadway to academia: Liza Gennaro’s arrival at IU

Choreography for IU Theatre’s “Spring Awakening,” which opens this weekend, comes courtesy of Liza Gennaro.

The new assistant professor of musical theater and choreography began dancing at age 8 and hails from Broadway royalty: Her father, Peter Gennaro, choreographed “Annie” and co-choreographed “West Side Story,” while her mother was a ballerina.

Liza Gennaro

Liza Gennaro

“My father was always teaching me dances as a child, and my mother danced,” she said, gesturing around an office full of framed black-and-white images of her parents, working on stages across the world. “And even as a child, I loved to go up to my room and play music and make up dances.”

That rich heritage led to her own experiences on Broadway: She choreographed the Broadway revivals of “The Most Happy Fella” and “Once Upon a Mattress” as well as the 30th anniversary tour of “Annie,” and currently sits on the Tony Award Nominating Committee.

Despite her recent shift into academia, however, she said her approach to a show doesn’t change whether she’s working with professionals or students. Before coming to the Department of Theatre and Drama, part of the College of Arts and Sciences, she taught at Princeton University, Barnard College, Yale University and Hofstra University.

“A show is a show is a show,” Gennaro said. “It’s the same process. I don’t think of it any differently at all.”

But her work for “Spring Awakening” was a bit different, she admitted, due to the unusual nature of the musical. Created by Steven Sater, with music by Duncan Sheik, the rock musical retells Frank Wedekind’s controversial German play from 1891 that follows a group of teenagers on their quest for self-discovery, love, sexuality, friendship and rebellion.

It abandons the typical marriage of time, place and music usually seen in musical theater, which often helps set choreography.

“In this show, the usual parameters of time and place are thrown out the window,” Gennaro said. “Consequently the choreographic process is unusual and a different approach is required. The dancing body is used to express underlying emotion minus the constraints of period appropriate movement lexicons.”

Gennaro is teaching musical theater dance technique and styles classes this semester, and in the spring semester plans to teach an audition-only advanced jazz class. But, thanks to her spot on the Tony committee, she also spends time in New York City catching up on the latest shows.

Can she suggest a few must-sees? “’Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ is really fantastic,” she said. And she vowed to keep us posted on her thoughts about the new production of “Annie,” slated to open Nov. 8, a production that she’s naturally “very curious” about given both her and her father’s connection to the tale of the red-haired orphan who’s lived a hard-knock life.

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