Love isn’t the only universal language anymore.
The long-running success of Stomp, the production now running strong through its seventh year in the international metropolis of New York City, proves that drumming is the other global communicator. By putting rhythm in the starring role, the show’s creators latched onto a way to appeal to crowds from every corner of the globe, and keep them coming back.
No matter how tightly Stomp’s performers have the show nailed down, however, giving a show that started seven years ago the energy of a newborn calls for expertise behind the scenes as well. Even though this is a production that makes simplicity its calling card – the “percussion” instruments involved range from wooden poles to garbage cans and Zippo lighters – it takes a complex combination of processes and philosophies to make it go right, night after night...
“When you get a production that’s this long running, the big challenge is to keep it fresh,” notes Stomp Production Manager Paul Botchis. “Keeping it looking and sounding good involves not letting the production elements like lights and sound get out of shape, and making sure the props aren’t banged up and tired. The walls of this stage get hit constantly, and we don’t want people coming and saying, ’This set looks like it’s been beat up.’ We can’t have it look like it’s about to fall down!”
For anyone who’s been to Stomp at its NYC home (the show also regularly plays in San Francisco, Austin, Texas and Warsaw, Poland) in the East Village’s Orpheum Theatre, the set looks suspiciously like the mutant offspring of a towering stage and an abandoned junkyard. Industrial rejects like old shocks, struts, barrels, and hubcaps litter the walls, almost any of it fair game for a good smashing by the good people of Stomp. But keeping all that metal garbage shiny and safe is almost a full-time job in itself, since this set probably takes more of a pounding in a week than the stage for Hello Dolly gets in a decade.
Somewhere between drummers and hard-charging ballet dancers, the eight performers who make up a Stomp show spend their time in the spotlight making purely percussive music with implements as everyday as brooms, sinks, and newspapers. As conceived by the show’s English creators, Steve McNicholas and Luke Cresswell, Stomp has succeeded by giving audiences a nonstop sequence of innovative numbers that requires a cast with a sense of rhythm, dance, and teamwork. An equally well-synchronized crew supports them from a shockingly tight space behind the scenes.
The people who audition into the Stomp lineup usually start either from a drumming or dance background, before finding that their physically demanding gig calls for a new self-definition. “I think after doing it for a while, you don’t identify yourself as a drummer or a dancer, but a ’Stomper,’” notes Stephanie Marshall, who’s been with the NYC cast since 1994. “It requires many different aspects that could be related to acting, you have different movements that could be the dancer aspect, and we all have to drum. It’s created this hybrid that’s all it’s own. I wouldn’t say that I’m a drummer, but I do know that I drum much more easily than I would have five years ago.”
“It’s so split that it’s not even funny,” Botchis adds. “The cast has drummers, dancers, actors and there’s some people that just saw the show, auditioned because they thought it was cool, and weren’t from any of those worlds. For replacements to take six to eight weeks of rehearsals, like ours do, is unheard of because in other shows it’s two weeks and you’re on. But here, you’re dealing with a show where if you do screw up, you could hurt somebody – or yourself.”