BY Jeremy Kinser
March 07 2011 9:30 AM ET
For a self-described “introvert” who’d never seen a Broadway musical before he auditioned for one at 16, choreographer Joey Pizzi has made great strides to create a name for himself. The limber 41-year-old Rhode Island native has racked up a lengthy and impressive resume as both a performer and choreographer, including the star-studded film versions of Broadway musicals Chicago, Dreamgirls, Hairspray, and Nine. Most recently he (along with co-choreographer Denise Faye) put Cher and Christina Aguilera through their paces in the lavish big-screen musical Burlesque (now available on DVD and Blu-ray).
Pizzi takes a break from his latest gig as associate choreographer on the hotly anticipated new Broadway musical adaptation of Catch Me If You Can (which opens April 10 at the Neil Simon Theatre) to share stories about working with leading ladies such as Cher, Jennifer, Meryl, and a cross-dressing Travolta, and what Liza serves for dinner on New Year’s Eve.
The Advocate: When did you realize you had a talent for dancing?
Joey Pizzi: I started taking dance classes when I was around nine or 10. I’m not sure I realized I had a talent for it, but I absolutely loved it. I had a crazy amount of energy apparently and the options were to send me to sports with my brother or to dance with my sister. [Laughs] What I realize now is that I found dancing to be this safe haven. I was a really shy kid who was just sort of figuring out my sexuality and I was in this room full of girls that I felt completely comfortable with and I was able to express myself in ways that I hadn’t done up to that point because I was so introverted.
Growing up in Rhode Island, how often did you get to New York to see theater?
I had absolutely no theater in my childhood. I came from a very working class Italian-American family. There were a lot of family gatherings and a lot of sports, but there was no theater at all. I didn’t even hear any Broadway show albums until later. I never even visited New York until I went there to audition for a show when I was 16.
One of your earliest stage credits is Cats. How did you get the job?
I was working in Orlando, Florida and at that point thinking it was the apex of show business. A tour of Cats came through and there’s such a pool of talent in Orlando that the tour had an audition. I went and they called a month later and asked me to come to San Francisco to join the tour. When you’re 18 and in it, it seems like the peak of show business.
I’m going to give you the opportunity to clear up something once and for all. How do you account for what some consider the mystifying success of Cats?
[Laughs] Well, in the beginning I think it was just the genius of marketing. They didn’t release any visuals. All you saw were these eyes and a big question mark. I think that started it and it was the ‘80s when everything was about excess. As awful as the show is, it had a lot of firsts. It had an epic song “Memory” and an epic moment when the tire rises up the heavens. There was this sense of it being high brow because it was among the first of that wave of British imports that came to town. I wish I knew why it was successful because then I’d have all that royalty money.