It was A Chorus Line at the Shubert Theatre that hooked a nine-year-old Jennifer Weber. She was mesmerized by the story and the costumes and the lights. And the dancing. She became one of those kids who recorded the Tony Awards from television so she could teach herself the dances. This year, she’ll be sitting at the uptown United Palace Theatre, where her name will be called twice in the introductions of nominees for Best Choreography.
Weber made her Broadway debut with two shows opening in November within just 10 days of each other: KPOP and & Juliet. And she’s Tony nominated for both. “I feel like I’m in a surreal dream,” says Weber. “I can’t even believe I’m here.”
It wasn’t just the Tonys that the young Weber was recording; it was also pop music videos. “I didn't really see it as different. Whether it was a Janet Jackson music video or 'All That Jazz' from Chicago, it was just cool choreography either way to me.” It’s that blending of worlds that she brings to the Broadway stage—a hip-hop-influenced style that focuses on storytelling.
The Helen Park, Max Vernon, and Jason Kim musical KPOP, which closed in December, centers on a Korean record label, where three big acts (the boy band, the girl group, and the solo diva), struggle on the road to success. Weber was not hugely familiar with the music genre prior to joining the project eight years ago, at a time before K-pop had really made it to the U.S. in a big way. Unlike traditional musical theatre, in which characters break into song, most of the numbers in KPOP were performed as concert numbers. Since it was mounted at Circle in the Square in a thrust configuration with audiences on three sides of the stage, the big challenge for Weber was transforming the dance numbers and formations, which would normally just be seen from the front, into something that would look good from all angles.
While KPOP’s dance language is more in conversation with the audience, & Juliet uses dance as an extension of the storytelling, as dialogue between the characters. “The numbers are in the fantasy world of the show, and they're really driving the story. They're pushing the story forward,” says Weber of & Juliet. “They're teaching you things about the characters. They're taking you on a journey with the characters throughout the entire evening.”
& Juliet, with a book by David West Read, imagines what would happen if Juliet doesn’t kill herself at the end of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare and wife Anne Hathaway are characters, battling out the storytelling enacted by all the familiar names from the tragedy—all set to a pop music score from Grammy-winning songwriter Max Martin, whose hits have been sung by Britney Spears, NSYNC, Pink, and Katy Perry, among others. Weber says her challenge with & Juliet was to not let the bigness of the music take over the storytelling, “to not let the fact that the songs are so iconic do all the work.”
For Weber, it’s always story first, though, regardless of how that story is being told. But her vocabulary is dance. And she sees choreography as an extension of body language, a universal physical language. “It’s not just dance for dance's sake. We’re using movements to express things that can't be expressed in any other mediums,” she says. “That's what makes it so magical. Because there are things you can say with your body that you can't say in any other way.”
That dance language became how Weber expressed herself as a shy kid moved through the world. “I felt super uncomfortable talking. I was like a straight-A student who never raised their hand to participate ever,” she explains. “But speaking through dance, for whatever reason, felt like my language, so comfortable to me. And then when I started going to nightclubs, I realized there was a whole world of people I could communicate with that I never had to say a word to.”
Weber doesn’t seem shy anymore. She’s effervescent and spirited. She sounds excited to talk about dance. And when she describes her own work, she uses words like “big, energetic, and explosive.” That confidence is something she gives to her casts, too. “I love to create movement that can be done by all different types of people. With & Juliet, some of the cast have amazing hip-hop backgrounds, some come from musical theatre. The movement works on everybody and everyone can bring their own flavor to it, so that everyone feels really confident. Then that gives them energy that then translates to the audience.”
While the choreographer is now enjoying her honors, she is by no means resting on laurels. She’s lately been blending her dance style with ballet. Her hip-hop ballet While You Were Gone, for which the filmed version won an Emmy, was performed live last month at Tulsa Ballet. (She has a second Emmy for the PBS capture of The Hip Hop Nutcracker, which is available for streaming on Disney+.) And she has other things in the works that she’s not allowed to speak about yet.
“I love to live in many worlds,” she says. “I like to be flexible and to have different challenges and to take things I've learned from completely different worlds, whether that's making a film or making a ballet or making theatre, or something immersive. When you work in many different worlds, you learn many different things and you get to cross paths with many different people. And then that just makes you stronger in whatever you're doing next.”