Obituary: David Toguri
Saturday 06 December 1997
There was perhaps no "Toguri style" in the trademark manner of the great trio of the post-war American director/choreographers Gower Champion, Bob Fosse (Toguri especially admired the "Fosse touch") and Michael Bennett - but David Toguri did not have in Britain the quality of new material that they could develop in the United States, while the 1980s' emergence of the British mega-musical laid more emphasis on spectacular scenery than on choreography. For Toguri in any event the material and the performer dictated the actual steps; nothing was ever put in to show off or to flourish his particular signature.
I suspect he learnt something of this self-effacement at the feet of an acknowledged hero, Gene Kelly. Growing up in Toronto, where he trained with Boris Vorkoff, he had his first break in Rodgers and Hammer-stein's Flower Drum Song, one of their weakest shows musically but with enough exotic opportunities for Kelly, directing his first Broadway musical, to exploit in the choreography supervised by Carol Haney (who had starred for Bob Fosse in The Pyjama Game).
Toguri made his West End debut when he came to London with the show in 1960 at the Palace Theatre, executing some muscular routines with an exuberant aplomb in marked contrast to the more genteel English choreography (mostly still trapped in what George Bernard Shaw used to describe as "skirt dancing") of the period. Deciding to settle in the UK he was quickly in demand and his witty, elegantly economical style found an ideal showcase in the offbeat revue Chaganog, incorporating dance and mime, at the Edinburgh Festival and subsequently at the Vaudeville in 1964.
In 1965 he opened in Charlie Girl, one of those ineptly formulaic British musicals which would close in six weeks today but which then could survive dreadful reviews to run for years at the Adelphi on the strength of its star, Anna Neagle, and hustling promotion by its impresario, Harold Fielding. As John Sasaki, a Japanese houseboy, Toguri's main contribution was to partner Anna Neagle in the show's equivalent of a Broadway "eleven o'clock number", a Charleston routine which built to a frenetic climax, providing the only moments of real class in the evening and in which Toguri made Neagle (whose best dancing days were behind her) look as good as any Broadway star.
Charlie Girl - in which, out of affection for Anna Neagle, he remained for three years - crystallised his choreographic ambitions and for 30 years as choreographer and increasingly also as director his career spanned an extraordinary range of work which nobody else in his field came close to matching.
As a choreographer, the list of leading directors with whom he worked regularly in the theatre or the opera house is eloquent testimony to his talent - Trevor Nunn, for whom he choreographed on The Baker's Wife and Measure for Measure as well as on recreating the smoky Weimar world of The Blue Angel; Peter Wood, on many National Theatre productions (his work on The Threepenny Opera and The Beggar's Opera was particularly memorable); Jim Sharman - the sexy and often hilarious routines in The Rocky Horror Show were Toguri creations on stage and on film; David Pountney - a haunting Kurt Weill Street Scene for ENO; Keith Warner - Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, with a stunning Toguri-staged finale as Japan moved into the technological age, also for ENO; and Richard Eyre.
He choreographed the triumphant Eyre production of Guys and Dolls at the National in 1982 (winning the SOLT Best Choreography Award), providing exhilarating and dynamic musical staging throughout (his Crapshooters' Ballet was perhaps the best staging of his career). He directed and choreographed the show in Australia in 1986 and returned to the National production for its 1996 revival, which was playing its final performances at the time of his death.
For television his most outstanding work was the Rock Follies series, while his movies took in Memphis Belle, Absolute Beginners (in which his electric jive numbers jolted the film into occasional life) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He was also in constant demand for video work, about which he was extremely selective - he staged David Bowie's Blue Jeans, Freddie Mercury's A Crazy Little Thing Called Love and, most memorably, Tina Turner's sizzling Break Every Rule. He never stopped enjoying working with the young and inexperienced; he became a valuable mainstay of both the National Youth Theatre and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
He always worked to the strengths of his performers and had a particularly rare talent for coaxing actors inexperienced in choreography ("I can't dance but I can move a bit," as they usually tend to put it) into often astonishing feats. On the revival of the Bernstein/Comden and Green Wonderful Town! at Watford and then at the Queen's Theatre, he preserved all the genuine charm of an essentially small-scale show but also devised some superb set pieces, integrating them seamlessly into the fabric of the characters and the story. He worked brilliantly with Maureen Lipman (playing Ruth Sherwood, the self-deprecating loser in love in 1930s Greenwich Village) so that her physical idiosyncrasies became those of the character and the funny, unusual steps seemed invented on the wing - especially in a genuinely spirit-lifting Conga routine involving a radiant Lipman and six Brazilian sailors.
I first collaborated with him on the 1974 Mermaid Theatre show Cole, which demanded of him a whole gallery of choreographic styles from different periods - the steamy Bowery waltz of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare", a burlesque sequence with Julia McKenzie as a louche Madam in "Come On In", pulsating tap-routines ("Anything Goes") and, in "Leader of a Big-Time Band", a whirlwind jitterbug for the youngest couple in the company which I asked for late in rehearsal and which, open-mouthed, I watched him stage in just a few minutes at the end of a long day.
In Cole he created especially inventive work for Una Stubbs, then at the peak of her dancing career. With the help of the Porter estate, the score of Porter's 1920s jazz ballet Within the Quota was reconstructed and for Stubbs, dressed in the briefest of black and gold shifts and carrying a huge ostrich feather fan, he devised an impudent, teasingly sensual five minutes that had the quality of an Erte drawing come to life.
Also for Una Stubbs, this time in white chiffon, he could turn to creating a dreamily romantic duet with the late Kenneth Nelson against a moving cloudscape to the yearning pulse of "Night and Day". His contribution indeed was such that I felt he must have a co- directing rather than a solely choreographic credit; typically of him in a business in which billing often becomes ludicrously self-important, he never requested this for himself.
For the past three years, although able to work intermittently, he had to battle with the cancer which killed him. Characteristically for a man whose life away from the heightened temperature of show-business was calm, quiet and centred round his close family (he was one of eight children and had a whole tribe of adoring nieces and nephews) and friends, it was fought with dignity, humour and grace.
It was impossible to believe that David Toguri was approaching 65; although his hair in recent years had whitened he had, like most former dancers, kept himself in formidable trim and in rehearsal when at his most ebullient (which was most of the time) he often seemed no more than sixteen and a half.
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