Eamon Foley is the choreographer of Merrily We Roll Along at the Wallis-Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, as well as the cofounder of Grind Arts Company.
Eamon Foley is the choreographer of Merrily We Roll Along at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, as well as the cofounder of Grind Arts Company.
(© Noel Valero)

Eamon Foley had the acting career people dream about. In 2003, he danced alongside Bernadette Peters in Gypsy. A year later, he appeared with Neil Patrick Harris and Michael Cerveris in Assassins. Ensemble parts led to speaking roles, and soon found Foley originating the role of Richie in Jason Robert Brown's musical 13 in 2008. By the time 2010 rolled around, Foley had half-a-dozen Broadway credits under his belt, and he wasn't even 15 years old.

Every career has a turning point, though, and for Foley, that came while he was working with Sherie Rene Scott and Dick Scanlan on the 2010 musical Everyday Rapture. In a scene-stealing moment, Foley burst onto the stage nightly as a Sherie Rene Scott impersonator, lip-synching to "My Strongest Suit" from Aida. Foley's character strikes up a friendship with the actress, and then, in the ultimate meta-moment, calls into question whether or not she is who she say she is.

Eamon Foley (left) with Betsy Wolfe, Sherie Rene Scott, and Lindsay Mendez at the 2010 Broadway opening of Everyday Rapture.
Eamon Foley (left) with Betsy Wolfe, Sherie Rene Scott, and Lindsay Mendez at the 2010 Broadway opening of Everyday Rapture.
(© Tristan Fuge)

Those who saw Everyday Rapture can vividly remember the unbridled hilarity of this moment. Foley can, too, but for other reasons — it was the first time he discovered where his true passion lay. "At the time, I had been in the ensemble of a lot of Broadway shows, and loved it and made a lot of friends, but the most fun I had was creating dances with them backstage," he says. "Honestly, the most fulfilling part of my career as a child was choreographing the 13 presentation for Gypsy of the Year. But it was seeing [Scott] create this thing from her gut and watching that cathartic experience that made me think, 'That's what I want to do.'

When it came time to apply for college, Foley bypassed the BFA track. "I was going to become a director and choreographer, and a writer, and a producer, and make that shift that I always knew I wanted to make." At Princeton, he started making his own theater alongside several friends, including 13 castmate Graham Phillips. Together, they cofounded Grind Arts Company, dedicated to breathing contemporary life into classics. "We started with an immersive Sweeney Todd in a loading dock at Princeton. It was then that I was surer than ever. I had to keep bringing a new life to old pieces that had so much more to say."

Foley is now bringing that philosophy to director Michael Arden's production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California. This time, he's on the other side of the footlights, though, serving as choreographer and making his career dreams come true in the process.

"To bring movement to a song that had never been moved to before, especially Sondheim, is a career goal," he says. "With Grind Arts Company, I choreographed a contemporary ballet film of 'Color and Light' from Sunday in the Park With George. I emailed it to Michael and he liked it a lot. We got talking about this Merrily and how we could bring movement to it in an exciting way."

The result is a Merrily that differs vastly from other productions, especially the original, which famously flopped after 16 performances in 1981. Merrily is told in reverse, introducing audiences to three best friends, Franklin (Aaron Lazar), Charley (Wayne Brady), and Mary (Donna Vivino), at their lowest points and going backward through time to show us how they got to that point from the idealistic youngsters they once were.

This Merrily is set in a theatrical purgatory. "What we came to immediately," Foley notes, "was that this show had to be happening after Frank's death, so that there was a reason to examine, with a heightened sense, the scenes that amount to twenty minutes every four years." To do so, Arden and Foley added a trio of younger versions of the three leads to act as spectral presences of their younger selves (think Follies). The purpose is to introduce an "energy and hunger and drive" to the story, which opens as the friendships are irrevocably destroyed and closes with them in their infancy.

Aaron Lazar (right) as Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
Aaron Lazar (right) as Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
(© Kevin Parry for The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts)

"It is the weirdest mirror to life out there as musicals go," Foley says. They wanted to "make sure that we weren't just going from the starker, harsher end of their life to the brighter, more hopeful beginning of their life," in an effort to "have something grounding us in the beauty of dreaming and trying, even as we see these people in their darkest moments."

For Foley, the challenge is one that he's eager to take on, one that he's been driven to explore since he was a youngster. "I did Gypsy when I was nine. I did Assassins when I was ten. Since then, I've been pining to work on Sondheim for the rest of my life. It's important that we keep it relevant and just as sexy as it was back in the seventies, and help younger people get a sense of the power in his words so they can learn from them."

No one knows if Merrily will cross the country and make it to New York, but Foley's got more immediate plans lined up. Directly up next, he'll choreograph a December 17 concert of Paul Seibert and Patrick Lundquist's Swan Lake the Musical at the Montalban Theater, featuring Broadway's Andrew Lippa, Carrie St. Louis, and Carrie Manolakos. With Grind Arts Company, he'll find himself at the intersection of the theater world and the digital world as they embark on a dance-driven virtual reality piece.

"The theme that keeps coming up is re-creating the old for the new," he says. "Everything that has been made is important, we just have to find new ways of delivering it to audiences. I want to keep pushing the boundary of how and where theater takes place, while honoring what came before me. Especially when it comes to Sondheim. I can't get enough of that guy."

Eamon Foley and assistant choreographer Penny Wildman at the opening night of Merrily We Roll Along in Beverly Hills.
Eamon Foley and assistant choreographer Penny Wildman at the opening night of Merrily We Roll Along in Beverly Hills.
(© Benjamin Shmikler/ABImages)