He makes “Elf” dance

Elf: Buddy The Elf spreads his holiday cheer in “Elf The Musical,” playing The Citi Wang Theater from November 17 - December 6. Joan Marcus photoElf: Buddy The Elf spreads his holiday cheer in “Elf The Musical,” playing The Citi Wang Theater from November 17 - December 6. Joan Marcus photo

“Elf” first jingled to life as a holiday film in 2003.  It immediately became an audience favorite, taking in more than $30 million in ticket sales in its first week.  

“Elf” tells the story of Buddy, a young orphan who mistakenly crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts only to be transported back to the North Pole.  He’s unaware that he’s human, but his enormous size and poor toy-making skills cause him to face the fact that he has never been an elf at all.

With Santa’s blessing, Buddy embarks on a holiday journey to New York City to find his birth father and learn who he really is.  Along the way, he spreads a high-spirited dose of holiday cheer and helps Manhattan discover the true meaning of Christmas.
In 2010, “Elf The Musical” opened on Broadway, with a score by Tony nominees Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, and a book by Thomas Meehan (“The Producers”) and Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”). A new holiday touring production, featuring Eric Peterson as Buddy and Christiane Noll as Emily, comes to The Citi Wang Theatre from Nov. 17 to Dec. 6.

Choreography for “Elf” is by the affable Connor Gallagher, who created the choreography for the show’s first national tour.  His many credits include “Into The Woods” for the Public Theater in Central Park, “The Robber Bridegroom” at Roundabout Theater, and Disney’s current “Beauty & The Beast” tour.

We spoke as Gallagher was putting the finishing touches on a new musical stage version of Disney’s “Tangled,” set to open on Disney’s Cruise Lines on Nov. 11.

Q. A name like Connor Gallagher certainly rings true as Irish.
A. And my middle name is Kennedy.  It doesn’t get more Irish.  I’m named after one of the characters in “Trinity.”  My Mom was reading it when she was pregnant.

Q. So how did you begin performing?
A. I started as a competitive gymnast when I was a kid. My parents tried me in all the sports and gymnastics was the one that stuck. We had to take ballet classes on Tuesdays and I gradually let go of gymnastics and started doing a little bit more ballet. And then I sort of fell into theater.  I started studying dance formally probably around 10 or 11.

Q. Do you remember your first time on stage?
A. My Mom says I was always a bit of a ham.  It’s always hard to tell when you’re a kid what your objective is, but I was always cracking jokes. I remember my first time on stage – I played Petey in “Petey and the Purple Caterpillar.” And my Mom thought, well, he’s a star.  And my Mom is not a stage Mom . . . I do remember just being very comfortable. I never had any problems up there. 

Q. You eventually shifted from performer to choreographer.  How did that happen?
A. I went to college at the University of Cincinnati, the Conservatory there.  And I spent my summers working at the St. Louis Muny. I got my equity card and right out of school I booked a Broadway show (the final Broadway company of “Beauty & The Beast”). Immediately I knew I wanted to choreograph. I was like 18.  And that’s how I got to where I am.

Q. Anyone special inspire you as you were coming along?
A. My dance teacher was a woman named Debbie Pigliavento who was dance captain on “A Chorus Line” and “42nd Street” on Broadway.  Her style of teaching and her work ethic were really strongly rooted in old school Broadway.  It’s just practice makes perfect. Truly, that’s all it is.  It’s not about beating people down, nor is it about giving them false hope.  It’s a very, very, tough industry and she always taught me, ‘Work as hard as you possibly can, recognize your strengths, strengthen your weaknesses,’ and that’s still, to this day, even as a choreographer, what rings true in my daily process.

Q. Speaking of beating people down, what are your thoughts about shows like “Dance Moms” and “So You Think You Can Dance?”  Do they build genuine interest in dancing or is it more about the drama of competition than the art?
A. I think it gets people excited and gets people talking about dance, and taking an interest in dance more than ever before.  The danger, I think, is when you’re watching a dance bite, which is 90 seconds, perhaps. You’re watching incredible dancers do things they wouldn’t necessarily sustain for a two-hour performance.  For 90 seconds, to wow an audience and to win a game show is one thing. The only problem I have with it, really, is when people come to the theater expecting that 90-second dance bite to be sustained.

Q. So let’s talk a bit about “Elf.”  How did you approach creating choreography for the show?
A. I was sort of given the dance arrangements, where in some shows – like in “Tangled,” the one I’m doing right now – I create from the ground up. For “Elf” . . . it’s like scaffolding. I get to color it in with my own [thoughts] . . . The script says Buddy and the Macy’s workers decorate the store.  Through the course of the dance we’re supposed to learn how Buddy, through his magical infectious energy and spirit, transforms Macy’s and its workers.” [There’s] “the New York City Christmas we all seem to think we know in our minds, where it’s perpetually snowing and beautiful and everyone’s happy and cheery.  Through the course of the dance, it’s my job to create that moment.”

Q. Do you find it’s a benefit that audiences come into the theater already loving the story, or is it a challenge to live up to their expectations?
A. It’s funny, I didn’t really start to take that into consideration until after we had done the first production . . . I love the film, but I guess I didn’t take into account how iconic the characters were and how iconic some of the lines were.  Of course we try to play true to those . . . We’re honoring the original script, but also we’re telling it in a completely different medium . . . Audiences have been surprised and delighted about what we’re able to do with it.

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
“Elf The Musical,” Nov. 17 - Dec. 6, Citi Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont Street, Boston.  Tickets:  800-982-2787 or citicenter.org.