Perhaps no one is looking forward to “Heat Wave: The Jack Cole Project,” an original musical having its world premiere at Queens Theatre May 3 through 20, more than Norma Doggett, a long-time resident of Forest Hills. Doggett made her Broadway debut more than 60 years ago dancing steps devised by the man who is the subject of the new revue.
The show that brought Doggett to New York, “Magdalena,” opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on Sept. 20, 1948, with a score by Heitor Villa-Lobos and a cast that included legendary Broadway leading man John Raitt. A lavish folk operetta, it was the most expensive show to have been produced on Broadway up to that time. Despite its credentials, it ran less than three months, but it contained some of Cole’s finest choreographic work.
A couple of years ago, Doggett was invited to sit on a panel paying tribute to Cole. She shared with the audience a letter written to him by another acclaimed choreographer, Agnes de Mille, who changed the face of Broadway musicals with her contributions to the landmark musical, “Oklahoma!”
In part, the letter read, “I saw ‘Magdalena’ last week and hastened to write you my grateful congratulations for some of the finest dancing I have ever seen. I don’t remember having seen musical numbers, which I thought were better staged. I sat with hanging jaw. Is there any way of saving some of those dances so that we can go on seeing them?”
And now for the first time in decades, nearly three dozen of Cole’s numbers are being recreated in “Heat Wave.” [See qboro for the full story.]
Doggett was spotlighted in several of the numbers in “Magdalena,” including one called “The Broken Pianolita,” which landed her and her dance partner, Matt Mattox, on the cover of Dance Magazine.
In her memento-filled apartment, she pulled out scrapbooks that trace her career on stages across the country. Looking through the album marked “Magdalena,” she said of Cole, “He was an innovator. “He used me well. We got along great. Other people felt he was a taskmaster. He was very specific. He wanted it done in a specific way.”
Doggett said her unusual flexibility “made it easier for the choreographer to use me. Along with the ballet, I had a lot of modern dance.”
(Dogget can still high kick.)
In addition to “Magdalena,” Doggett also appeared on Broadway in such musicals as “Bells Are Ringing,” “Call Me Madam,” “Fanny” and “Miss Liberty,” in which she understudied the leading lady and had the opportunity to go on in the starring role for one night.
And her dancing talents were preserved for posterity when she played one of the seven brides in the classic musical film, “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.”
Along the way, she worked with most of the greats of the theater’s golden era: Jerome Robbins, Joshua Logan, Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman and Gwen Verdon, who, as assistant to Cole, coached Doggett in her “Magdalena” numbers.
“I don’t think he did this for the glory,” she said of Cole. “It was a natural instinct and natural use of his talents.”
Of the upcoming tribute at Queens Theatre, she said, “I think it’s fabulous. I’m delighted. I think he’d be pleased.”