For many professional performers, a passion for their craft forms at a young age and continues to build as they hone it; this was not the case for Mark Stuart. He didn’t find dancing until he fell into it at random when he was attending Syracuse University, where he studied music composition and finance on a clarinet scholarship.
One would never guess that he hasn’t been dancing since he could walk. Stuart has forged a thriving career in choreography that includes films, commercials, music videos, and projects both on Broadway and off. He even helped choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (“In the Heights”, “Cats”) with pre-production on a little show called “Hamilton.” The Wantagh native now adds Broadway’s “Bandstand” to his resume. He just completed work on the new musical as the associate choreographer, once again teaming up with director and choreographer Blankenbuehler to create a piece that he says “moves people to tears.”
“Andy has always wanted Bandstand to be a story that happens in 1945 but that looks at it through a contemporary lens so that it becomes more relatable to people,” says Stuart of the musical, now open at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
“That’s sort of the beauty of the story in general. It’s very timely because it’s about these soldiers coming home from World War II, and what they had to deal with on a daily basis. That’s still happening with people in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not something that people really talk about now, and especially didn’t back in 1945. So he [Blankenbuehler] asked, ‘How do we take this music and this style of movement that is very authentic, but look at it through a contemporary lens? How can we make it grow from just being strictly vintage movement? We’ve created what I think is a really unique style of movement to tell the story, something that has rarely been seen before.”
Before becoming Blankenbuehler’s go-to guy, Stuart’s only theater experience was playing in the pit for Wantagh High School productions. He credits the school’s music program for helping him hone his skills in the arts. “My brother and I played in the jazz bands and the orchestras, so we had a huge exposure to the arts and how powerful they could be.”
Stuart’s band director also had prompted him to pursue his natural talents. “Mrs. Dragovitch had a huge influence on me, not just musically, but also in terms of becoming a leader and understanding how important music is.”
Stuart further developed a love for the arts by taking in Manhattan theater with his family — easy enough, due to his close proximity to the city (“I never took that for granted,” he recalls). In fact, he was able to enjoy the best of both worlds, enjoying his passion for volleyball by competing in tournaments in Long Beach.
Another favorite Long Island memory that shaped him? “Bellcrest Deli in Bellmore — that was THE place!” he says. “I used to go there with my folks all the time. I’m a pushover for a pastrami sandwich!”
When Stuart started college and happened to be at Swing Night at a downtown bar in Syracuse, he took a chance on dance and fell in love. “I was at the American Lindy Hop Championships and I won, and then all of a sudden I was teaching and performing a little before I landed the national tour of the Broadway musical Swing,” he remembers fondly.
“Suddenly, I was a dancer! As soon as I was partnering my athletic experience with it, I just understood it. That’s the weird thing. When most people grow up dancing they do tap and ballet, but they don’t really learn how to move with somebody. Unfortunately, that’s a rare commodity these days.”
Stuart says that 50 percent of “Bandstand” is partnered dancing. As associate choreographer for this project, he helped brainstorm ideas, taught moves, fixed problem areas, talked about the arc of the show, and made sure the movement was telling the story.
“Part of being an associate is being trusted to just take care of things,” Stuart says. “With Andy directing and choreographing the show he can’t be everywhere at once, but he’s so brilliant and open-minded.” In fact, Blankenbuehler trusts Stuart so inherently that he tasked Stuart and his wife, 2017 Chita Rivera Award nominee Jaime Verazin (who also acts as assistant choreographer and performs in “Bandstand”) with helping him to choreograph the remake of ABC’s “Dirty Dancing,” which will air May 24.
“What’s cool about this version is that it’s sort of real!” says Stuart of the highly-anticipated television event. “[Star] Abigail Breslin was 19 when we started rehearsal, so she’s learning how to be a woman, and she hadn’t really danced before so we taught her. That is also the story of [the character] Baby.” Additionally, Stuart is working with Verazin in directing and choreographing a concert series at the Tokyu Theatre Orb this year, after a successful run with it last year. “This year it’s going to be a little bit bigger!” he says, excitedly. In 2015, Stuart brought “Standard Time” to the Off-Broadway stage (with the help of Associate Producer and brother, Jeffrey Eckstein), and Stuart says he continues to develop it in hopes of bringing new life to it on another stage.
“We want to incorporate more of what’s happening in the world and in our country,” he says of the musical that follows three period specific love stories through the world of dance. “It has become even more relevant today.”
With Bandstand getting plenty of buzz, in addition to being nominated for three Outer Critics Circle Awards, seven Drama Desk Awards, and two Tony Awards (including Best Choreography), Stuart is on track to become the go-to guy for directors and choreographers.
“I’m very selective about the people that I spend time with, or am willing to work with,” he says of his future plans, which will certainly include more visits to Wantagh, where his parents still reside. “With Andy, I will say yes to anything. Not because of what he’s done, but because of who he is. I want to surround myself with good people.” And a pastrami sandwich wouldn’t hurt.
To purchase tickets for Bandstand, visit www.Telecharge.com or www.BandstandBroadway.com.