When some people listen to music, they close their eyes and soak in the tune.
John Luther experiences something more transformative, and that’s been the case since he was a child.
“For most choreographers, if not all, we literally see music,” said Luther, career development coordinator with the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design. “When we hear it, we see what it would look like on bodies. It wasn’t until I was 8 years old that I figured out that not everyone sees music.
“That was pretty revelatory. Having that sense of music helped propel me into wanting to dance more.”
Dance and musical theater provide an ideal stage and creative outlet for Luther, who spent several years dancing professionally before tackling the responsibilities that come with directing and choreographing productions.
Name a musical, and there’s a high likelihood Luther has performed, directed or choreographed it — and in some cases, all three.
Luther’s latest undertaking — “Jersey Boys the Musical” through the Birmingham Village Players — concludes a three-weekend run Nov. 10-12. The show tells the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, taking audience members through the highs and lows of each member of the singing group and featuring a whopping 30 songs.
It’s a punctuation mark on a lifelong passion for dance and musical theater that has taken Luther across the country and around the world.
Growing up in a house with parents who encouraged their five children to explore the arts and humanities, Luther became interested in dance after attending his older sister’s ballet recitals.
“I really developed a passion for performing art in which you didn’t speak,” he said. “Ballet is just this amazing performing art that you don’t speak, and it’s really beautiful to look at, and the athleticism now in ballet will blow your mind.”
He started taking ballet classes in his early teens and by the time he turned 18, he wanted to pursue dance as a profession.
“You can go to college anytime, but you can only dance when you’re young,” he said.
He hopped on a bus to New York and was on scholarship through the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Manhattan and danced in Miami before deciding he wanted to focus on ballet over contemporary dance.
He did ballet until the age of 25 — “when I realized I wasn’t going to be (Mikhail) Baryshnikov” — and turned his focus to performing in musical theater. Included in his performances were two European tours with “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Luther had not shared the news he was cast in “Jesus Christ Superstar” because he had been offered and accepted a role in a production of “Oliver.” The day he agreed to do “Jesus Christ Superstar” instead, he got a phone call.
“My dad called me and he said, ‘Congratulations, you’re going to Europe,’” he said. “I was like, ‘How do you know this?’ It was the weirdest thing, he just knew. I have no idea to this day. It was one of those weird things that happen in the universe.”
Along the way, Luther had performed or been cast in “Hello Dolly” and “A Chorus Line,” among many other musicals. When he was 30, Luther auditioned for roles in new productions of both “Hello Dolly” and “A Chorus Line.”
“I was rejected from both auditions, and I said, ‘This is a sign from the universe that it’s time to pack it up and go to college,’” Luther said. “I always said I would go to college when I’m 30. So I did.”
After graduating from Hunter College in Manhattan, he came to the U-M School of Social Work for his master’s degree, and started at Stamps in his current role in 2001. Around that time, he started to direct and choreograph at community theaters around southeast Michigan and eventually with Windsor Light Musical Theatre in Canada.
“I get to do stuff that I still love doing during the day and I’ve come back to stuff I love doing at night,” he said.
He directed or choreographed dozens of musicals leading up to a production of “Chicago” through Windsor Light in March 2020, when the pandemic shut down it and the musical theater world.
“Jersey Boys” is his first foray back into choreographing and directing since then. In May, while Luther was choreographing the musical, the director had to drop the show, so Luther offered to take on both roles.
“It’s a huge collaboration,” Luther said of doing both. “As director, you’re the head of what’s happening, but you don’t want to be the kind of director who (says) it’s my way or the highway. You want to rely on designers that can show you something you would have never thought of yourself.
“You’re definitely calling the shots, but you’re only calling shots you know about. You have to collaborate and do it successfully.”
“Jersey Boys” is a departure from the musicals Luther would normally take on, like “Cabaret,” “Chicago” or “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and that wasn’t lost on him.
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“On the surface it’s the story of four white, straight guys from New Jersey in the 1960s or 1970s. What do I have to relate to in this material?” Luther said. “I did a deep dive and did some research on who these people were or still are. The more I learned and more I dug into the material, the more I realized I loved this show.”
The choreography was largely furniture moves since many of the musical’s 30 songs feature performers singing at a microphone rather than dancing across a stage. Still, Luther says he hopes attendees are transported to the lounge, club or concert hall where the songs are performed.
Down the road, Luther said, he would love to work on “Chess,” “Sunset Boulevard” or “Evita,” but he’s in no hurry.
“I’ve reached a point where I think I’m going to let the universe take over and see what comes my way,” he said. “COVID really disrupted a lot of things and one of them was my go-go-go, finish one show, start another. It interrupted that, and I’m kind of liking that I don’t have to go from one thing to the next.
“Even if I never did anything again, I can feel fortunate.”