Arranging the Dance: to David Dabbon's Journey to "Beetlejuice"
Watching the dancers of “Beetlejuice” energetically bop around the neon stage and hop on the black and white-striped couch – which is actually just a trampoline – is a complete juxtaposition from its somewhat humble beginnings.
Beginnings, in fact, that started on Spotify.
“One of the things I love doing as a dance arranger is researching music,” said David Dabbon, the dance arranger for the show. “I have a folder called ‘Beetlejuice,’ and I just drag it in like, ‘Oh I love this, that inspires me.’”
As the dance arranger for “Beetlejuice,” Dabbon worked with choreographer Connor Gallagher to make sure the dance breaks had the music and timing to tell the story effectively while simultaneously drawing the audience’s attention to the correct focal points.
But while the show currently on Broadway does just that, it did not come without its out-of-town challenges.
“There was a song when we started performances in D.C. – there was originally a dance break,” Dabbon said. “The original one we had done, it just wasn’t right. It was fun, but it didn’t need to be there. So when it was in D.C., Connor kept all the same choreography, but I knew I needed to keep all the beats the same – the hits – so I wrote an entirely new dance break.”
Dabbon said when something in the music needs adjusting, he feels a small flicker that means he needs to pay attention.
“It’s like part of my right shoulder, something that makes me kind of go like, ‘Mm, that’s not quite right,’” he said. “There’s something where you’re saying to yourself, ‘If I’m challenging it as an artist, then I know something’s not right.”
That little flicker accompanies Dabbon in everyday life as well. It is something he has tried to listen to since he began writing his own music at 8 years old.
After finding his way into the musical theatre world through summer camps where they performed unexpected Broadway shows – “Somehow I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe they’re doing ‘Fiorello!’” – Dabbon eventually began studying at the Boston Ballet.
But there was always something about the music that intoxicated him.
“A big part of music for me is how things feel in your soul – I think it’s what always made me love writing and composing. I loved movement and music,” he said.
Now, that love for music and movement informs the work.
One of the first jobs Dabbon got in New York City post-grad required him to accompany a lab of a show on piano – the position did not match his strengths.
After a few days of rehearsal, the creative team took note of Dabbon’s enthusiasm for working with singers.
He ended up being the vocal coach for that project.
“It was actually a really big moment to realize it’s not about the job, it’s about the work that you do,” he said. “If I didn’t get to do that piano job, I wouldn’t have gotten to work with the singers, and I wouldn’t have had that epiphany of, ‘Oh, I should be working in this way.’”
And Dabbon’s way of working has now followed him across the country with countless productions and educational opportunities.
One of the highlights of his career is working in Charlotte, North Carolina, every May on The Blumey Awards, a regional theatre competition that feeds into The Jimmy Awards.
Past students Dabbon has taught at The Blumey Awards include Eva Noblezada of “Hadestown” on Broadway, Mekhai Lee of “The Color Purple” national tour, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe of “Tina – The Tina Turner Musical” on the West End, and Reneé Rapp of “Mean Girls” on Broadway.
He said the biggest advice he can give to his students – and advice that helped him land “Beetlejuice” on Broadway – is to always listen to your inner voice that flickers when something is wrong, and be yourself.
“If things aren’t going the right way, figure out a new way to generate things for yourself,” he said. “Sometimes you get hired for things and it obviously might not work out, but figuring, ‘What’s my way of it? What’s the way I can be successful at it?’”
Dabbon’s way of being successful can be seen eight times a week at the Winter Garden Theatre.
He listens to his inner flicker, and he does not seem to be stopping any time soon.