Peggy Hickey will tell you that as far as she’s concerned, “all roads lead to Sacramento.” It’s a curious observation coming from a choreographer who lives in Los Angeles while having great professional success working in New York. Still, the Cordova High and CSUS graduate points to her Sacramento background and training as absolute ground zero for her now Broadway-highlighted career.
Hickey’s first Broadway production was “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” which won four 2014 Tony Awards, including best musical, best direction of a musical by Darko Tresnjak, and best book of a musical by Robert L. Freedman. The comic musical is based on a 1907 novel by Roy Horniman, with a sophisticated, hysterical story concerning one Monty Navarro, heir to a family fortune who decides to facilitate the demise of the eight relatives blocking his inheritance.
The touring company of “A Gentleman’s Guide” performs through Sunday at the Sacramento Community Center Theatre while Hickey is in New York rehearsing her next show, “Anastasia,” which opens March 23. She also has choreographed “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” which debuts on Broadway this fall.
Hickey came up in the old Music Circus tent era of seven shows in eight weeks. Despite the grueling schedule, she has fond memories of those times because they ultimately made her what she is now.
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“I did 18 summers in a row in that tent,” Hickey recalled by phone during an “Anastasia” rehearsal break.
Hickey was a ballet dancer who knew nothing about musicals when she became a theater major at California State University, Sacramento. She gives all credit to former Music Circus producing director Leland Ball for pushing her into the profession while she was still relatively young. At that time the visionary Ball oversaw all artistic components of Music Circus and often directed all the shows in a season. Hickey still considers him a mentor and close friend.
“It was his idea well before I was ready to stop dancing,” Hickey said. “I was semi-resistant, which was silly, but I was young.”
Ball told her she had a “good eye” and began making her a dance captain and assistant to the choreographer.
“I immediately started understanding the big picture,” Hickey said of the crash course she was getting every week in Broadway choreography.
“In the early days they would just bring in an original assistant or dance captain from the Broadway shows, so we learned the original choreography.” Hickey said. Each week there was something new because there were different shows. Often it worked really well; occasionally it didn’t.
“Sometimes I’d think, ‘That makes no sense, that is awkward,’ and other times I’d say, ‘That is brilliant,’ ” Hickey said. She started thinking how she might “fix” things or make them “better.” Without being consciously aware of it, she was gaining professional craft and marketable skills.
“You learn to learn fast; you learn to see the difference between work that makes sense and work that doesn’t make as much sense,” Hickey said.
Ball made a deal with the union so she could be the assistant choreographer on a production of “The Sound of Music.”
“He told the union, ‘if you give her a waiver, I promise she’ll join eventually,’ and he was right,” Hickey said.
She also got an unexpected, but never-forgotten, push from director Ted Pappas at the Music Circus.
“He said, ‘You’re a world-class choreographer. You need to get out in the world.’ ” Hickey said. It was a shocking idea to someone was just trying to “keep my nose clean and do good enough to get hired again.”
Hickey had no career ambition at that time beyond just working in the business she loved.
“It was the first time somebody said, ‘You know you have something that you should share.’ I don’t think like that,” Hickey said.
The next break for Hickey was when she moved to Los Angeles in the late ’80s and hooked up with the fledgling L.A .Opera. She got in on the ground floor, and where Music Circus left off, the opera took over in terms of building her career.
“I basically ended up choreographing every show at first,” Hickey said. “They would bring in a world-class director like (Franco) Zefferelli or Herb Ross or Frank Corsaro. I had no business being assigned to these guys.”
A production manager at the opera told her she was “really smart,” but if she wanted to get to the next level she should learn how to read music. He was right.
“I had to deal with libretti in many languages – Italian, Czech, German,” Hickey said. She didn’t always know what the words meant, but always knew what the music was saying. She started working operas in cities such as Chicago and San Francisco. Hickey also directed two productions for the Sacramento Opera before it went out of business.
Living in Los Angeles gave Hickey access to television and film work. She choreographed “The Brady Bunch Movie” in 1995, which led to choreography for video to the musician Beck’s song “New Pollution” and an MTV Award.
“Beck had seen the Brady Bunch movie, which was funny, and he wanted a choreographer who did funny choreography. That’s how I got ‘Romy and Michele,’ too, because it’s a comedy. I’m good with funny,” Hickey said.
Hickey lets the story inspire her. “I’m a storyteller first and a choreographer second. I tell my stories with movement. If I have a story line and a situation, then I can make up some steps, but I never come from the steps first.”
Hickey remains enamored with “Gentleman’s Guide” and thinks the touring version holds its own against the original production.
“We learned so much from the Broadway company, and we could take our tour cast to the theater and show them how this works and that works,” Hickey said.
“There are things on the tour that I think are way better than what we did on Broadway.”
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
What: The California Musical Theatre presentation of the Broadway comedy
When: Through March 12, 8 p.m Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday
Where: Sacramento Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento
Information: 916-557-1999 or go to BroadwaySacramento.com