In its first season, the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend broke the mold with its unique comedy. Combining music with rom-com tropes and giving it a lens of mental illness and tired stereotypes, the show tackles serious issues while making us laugh til our sides hurt. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is also the first show to embrace the genre of musical theater in each and every episode. The musical numbers range from classical to pop, and all that’s in-between and each one features original choreography by the incredibly talented Kathryn Burns. Kathryn recently won an Emmy for her work on the show.
Talk Nerdy With Us had the delightful opportunity to catch up with Kathryn and hear what it’s like to be such an integral part of such a special show. Read on to hear what it’s like to create the movement for the residents of West Covina, California, and don’t miss new episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fridays at 9pm/8c on the CW.
First of all, congratulations on your Emmy!
Thank you! [laughs] Oh, yeah, that thing!
That’s very exciting!
Yeah, it’s been awesome.
So, I guess my first question for you is how did you get started in choreography?
I guess other than watching my sister, who’s ten years older, from the second I was born I wanted to start dancing and just imitate everything she did. Choreography for me from a young age was something I always loved. I would make up dances with my friends and stuff. But then I was on my college dance team and choreographed a bunch of stuff for Greek week, and homecoming and I got really competitive about it.
At UCB when I was studying improv, I was a professional dancer studying comedy, which confused a lot of people, but then it gave me the opportunity to choreograph a bunch of sketches. Comedy lends itself to physical comedy, obviously, which is the vocabulary of a choreographer. So, I just choreographed everything I could get my hands on and then choreographed a show called Freak Dance, which Matt Besser wrote that was every Friday at UCB for two and a half years.
It was an 80s original musical, and then they made that into a film and so I had the opportunity to choreograph and be in that and then from there it just kind of went from a combination of live sketch shows, UCB shows, and things like that.
Tell me, aside from dancing, obviously, what are you trying to accomplish with choreography?
For me, choreography that’s most interesting comes from authentic movement. So whether it’s character based or whether it’s teaching a non-dancer that they can move. I love to connect people to the freedom of movement. I try to have choreography be accessible, and come at it in a non-threatening, fun, supportive way.
So what’s the process of choreographing a musical number for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend?
Well for Crazy Ex, we have this machine system down. Rachel is super specific about her video treatments because it’s something she started off doing on YouTube and was making these hysterical music videos, and I worked with her on one of those, the one called Die When I’m Young.
After we get the script, the writers take their version of it and kind of pick the genre. So, if it’s a Marilyn Monroe style dance, obviously the choreography is going to fit that genre. But for me, what’s really fun is once I understand the genre and I understand the specifics of the scene and characters, then I can try to find the way to make it a little tongue-in-cheek, add some comedy through movement. But it has to be subtle because it can’t distract from the joke, it just has to support it. In a sense, the choreography can legitimize the genre in which we are living or spoofing.
That’s very cool.
It totally changes per music video. Sometimes I’m just there to help. Like in our premiere episode there was We Definitely Shouldn’t Have Sex Right Now and it was a super Sade kinda sexy ballad. So there wasn’t choreography per se, but I was there on set to make sure the lines look good, or the movement looks good. And I do that a bunch; I’ll be on set to look at the specifics of the movement and just see if there’s something we can add in with the joke or something we can make prettier or show easier or sexier or dirtier depending on what we’re going for.
How does a character’s personality impact your creation of the choreography? And with that, are there characters who are more fun to create dances for?
Yeah. I mean obviously, there’s a lot of performances for Rachel [Bloom] and Vinny’s been doing a bunch this season too. And Vinny is someone; he’s a walking special skill. Particularly for Josh’s angry dance, you throw in as many unique skills as you can in the time you’re given.
I can kind of predict how the leads will move now because I’ve worked with them enough. Rachel has this bouncy fun quality to her and loves a lot of head lifts and stuff. But I would say my favorite person to choreograph for is Pete Gardner, because he had never danced before Crazy Ex.
His character, Darryl, is so unabashedly goofy and he’s like the stumbling idiot with a heart of gold in a sense. His movement has this earnest childlike sensibility that I like, and he takes it seriously as an actor because it takes him a little bit longer to get the memorization into his body. Everything he does is pure gold, in my opinion.
Yeah, all the characters have different attributes, and they’re all fun.
And it’s connected to the actor itself a lot of the time; it sounds like.
It’s been said many times that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is doing something that no show has done before. It’s so different and groundbreaking. Does that impact you as far as the choreography? Do you find it’s so different from other shows you’ve worked on?
Yeah. I mean one thing is this is the first show that I’ve ever had the opportunity to be a proper department head. I’m in all the conversations; I’m in the concept meetings, and other creative meetings, and I’m able to have a through theme throughout the whole season with movement, rather than just a little bit here or there. We kind of have a vocabulary of the show. There’s a lot of thumbs up; there’s a lot of silly hand gestures. It makes fun of itself while living authentically in the genre. It has to be slightly off.
It’s funny cause a lot of the dancing gets cut. Sometimes the acting through movement is the stronger comedic choice than a highly choreographed impressive dance step. A lot of times on other shows they’re just like ‘make it as impressive as possible.’ But this is a combination, every episode, every week, every music video is a different challenge rather than just ‘OK, have dancing in the background.’
What are you most excited for us to see in this upcoming season?
Ok, well, obviously there’s a new theme song. Which I get excited about because sometimes when there’s less dancing, there’s still the opening theme song which has this 1920s showgirl moment. And actually, super-meta at the end of the first episode, I played a dancer, so I had a tiny little acting part. Then there’s a fun Marilyn Monroe moment, there are some classical tap/ballet moments, which, without giving too much away, they are as beautiful as they are weird [laughs], which I think best describes the show.
Do you have any fantasies for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? Something you’d love to have the opportunity to do?
Oh my gosh. I would love just a big ol’ cheesy musical theater number. With showgirls and costume changes and rip-away outfits, and ten 5’10” showgirls with beautiful classic kicklines and men who are dancing to the top of their ability. With the whole cast in addition to that. It would be awesome to do a Producers-style live show.
That sounds amazing.
We kind of go into music video land so I kind of wish we would do something more musical theater-y.
It would be so great if you could do a Dancing With the Stars-style tour where you go from city to city performing these musical numbers live.
Oh, yeah. Well, Rachel Bloom did a Largo show, and we all kind of sang songs, so we’ve done stuff live. But are you kidding? We’d love to go on the road. Especially with all these Broadway vets, you know?