What: Anytown: Stories of America
Where: Guthrie Theater, Dowling Studio, 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
When: June 21-24
Cost: $22-$30, students save $5
On a winter night in 2006, just three days after opening the Bruce Springsteen dance musical “Anytown” in New York, Danial Shapiro had to make a last minute change. That morning his hair had started falling out in clumps, and his wife, Joanie Smith, had to shave his head before that night’s show.
That October, Shapiro died of prostate cancer at 48. Smith continued as the sole artistic director of Shapiro & Smith Dance Company and shelved “Anytown” by the end of the year.
Now Smith is returning to “Anytown” with some of the original cast and a new generation of dancers for six shows at the Guthrie Theater this weekend. Smith said it’s bittersweet to look back at her husband’s final performances.
“It’s hard to watch him on video. He was very sick when he was dancing this,” she said. “He literally had chemotherapy and transfusions on Monday and we opened on Tuesday.”
“Anytown” is also a special show for Shapiro and Smith because it was born out of their long relationship and Smith’s family ties.
Smith’s sister is Soozie Tyrell, violinist for the E Street Band and best friends with Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa. The two of them came up with Shapiro and Smith in New York in the 1980s. Smith said she and then-boyfriend Shapiro would push their furniture against the wall and dance while Scialfa and Tyrell played music for them.
Years later, after Shapiro had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, he and Smith wanted to craft a performance inspired by that experience. Springsteen almost never licenses his music, but he and Scialfa gave Shapiro and Smith permission to use their music in “Anytown,” and Tyrell composed new music just for the show.
Shapiro and Smith weren’t the first to graft modern dance to popular music, and the six years between productions of “Anytown” saw failed attempts at bringing Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Sting, Radiohead and more to the dance stage. These productions tended to flop because they were meant to simply appeal to a younger audience and presented superficial interpretations of familiar songs.
“The songs are so complete in themselves, they don’t need dancing,” Smith said. “So we had to find imagery that sits beside the songs and goes maybe the same emotional direction as the song but doesn’t actually do the song.”
“Anytown” follows three families that occupy different areas of the stage as they live, fight, have affairs and care for each other.
The show uses some of Springsteen’s bigger numbers like “Human Touch” and “Glory Days” but mostly avoids the big power anthems, closing with an acoustic rendition of “Born in the U.S.A.” and a little-heard version of “Empty Sky” as a duet between Scialfa and Springsteen.
The gap between productions of “Anytown” has seen a generational shift. Five of the original 11 performers have returned for the revival, including University of Minnesota theatre arts and dance department chair Carl Flink. His wife is taking over Smith’s original role.
Eddie Oroyan, who originally played Flink’s son, has stepped into Shapiro’s part. He said he was surprised and honored when Smith asked him to take over.
“Danny had a very different build than I did,” Oroyan said. “Finding the character and the movement and how it fits my body has been a challenge.”
Most of the other new additions to the cast are young, either current University dance students or recently graduated.
Laura Selle Virtucio, who moved up from playing a daughter to a mother in the revival, said she’s been enjoying passing along what she learned in the original run to a new generation.
“It’s such a show about humanity and it’s fun to impart that knowledge to students,” she said. “Sometimes they’ve trained their bodies to be dancers, and it’s nice to be able to train them that being a good human being and the human condition are a big part of becoming a dancer too.”