Q&A: Andy Blankenbuehler

Photo: Broadway Dance Center

The director and choreographer of Bring It On: The Musical takes us behind the scenes of the cheer phenomenon.

“This is not a democracy, it’s a cheerocracy.” This is one of the quotes that helped make the movie Bring It On (2000) an instant cheer classic. Now, 11 years and five made-for-TV sequels later, it has found a new competitor: Broadway. And there is no one better to lead the Bring It On: The Musical cheerleading squad to victory than director, choreographer and Tony Award-winner Andy Blankenbuehler.

Blankenbuehler is best known for his choreography on Broadway shows such as 9 to 5 and In the Heights. As a performer Blankenbuehler has appeared in shows such as Fosse, Contact, Man of La Mancha, Saturday Night Fever, Steel Pier, Big and Guys and Dolls. But Bring It On: The Musical marks his first time directing a show. Other team members include writer Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), composers Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), lyricist Amanda Green and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire.

This fresh and funny take on the world of competitive cheerleading makes its area debut opening Dallas Summer Musicals’ 2012 sesaon at the Music Hall at Fair Park tonight, Feb. 14, running through Feb. 26. TheaterJones asks Blankenbuehler what viewers can expect, what it’s like wearing multiple hats and what it takes to make it on Broadway.

TheaterJones: How challenging was it to create a musical based off of a movie?

Andy Blankenbuehler: We had that weight taken off of us early on. Universal Beacon Films had the umbrella title Bring It On and they said we could do absolutely anything we wanted. So we decided to write a piece from scratch. The musical is not actually based on the movie, but rather falls under the umbrella of high school competitive cheerleading in the pop culture world and that social world of high school life. And it’s all consistent with the ethnic rivalries, presence of the music and the idea of national competitive cheerleading. That was sort of our spring board to create our Bring It On.

This is your first time choreographing and directing a show. Was it difficult wearing multiple hats?

It was a huge challenge but the good thing about it was from the beginning everyone wanted the piece to be very movement orientated. I basically set out to choreograph a full-length show as opposed to pieces of a musical so the show really dances. I had a huge workload ahead of me and it was nice to be surrounded by my friends and everyone on the Bring It On team so when I faced challenges I was in the company of people who were protective and supportive of me. It was actually a great environment for me to learn the essential lessons.

How did you take off the directors hat and put on the choreographers hat and vice-versa?

I quickly learned how to compartmentalize. And most of my time, frankly, I was wearing the director hat because the director has to speak to so many people: the set designer, the costume designer, the writer, the composer, and the producers. But I would give myself really specific times to say now I am going to choreograph. And literally I would turn my phone off and not answer e-mails because I was in the dance studio. And I think if I had not done that the show would have been compromised because there is so much dancing. I was really conflicted at times because when I wanted to be concentrating on dance steps because that’s my comfort zone, I had to keep dealing with directorial challenges. So it was definitely a learning experience for me, but it’s gone pretty well so far.

Photo: Joan Marcus

What was your formula for creating the dance sequences in Bring It On: The Musical?

I sort of have a reputation as a dancer and as a choreographer for being very personal and very research-based. Like with the show In the Heights, I didn’t know anything about salsa or hip-hop before I did it and Bring It On was the same thing. I have a huge respect for competitive cheerleading and I wanted the show to have an integrity about it that was true. So I decided from the very beginning that I was going to use cheerleading in sort of different ways. I was going to have totally legit cheerleading routines and then numbers where I used cheerleading vocabulary in the structure of routine, but then I was going to stylize it. Like for example, in the middle of a cheerleading routine maybe the whole stage goes into slow motion and one person is singing about what they are thinking.

I also spend a long time storyboarding ideas. So before I get into a room with the dancers or the cast I have already decided how I want to present each number through weeks and weeks of preparation. I always like to go into the room with 75 percent of the choreography complete and then with a brilliant cast and my assistants it all comes together. And I think that preparation lets everyone do their best work.

When casting Bring It On: The Musical what qualities where you looking for in your dancers?

From the beginning I didn’t want to fake cheerleading. And I realized I wasn’t going to be able to teach Broadway dancers to do what cheerleaders have been doing for 15 years. These kids grew up flying through the air and that’s not something you can teach someone during the rehearsal process. I made the decision early on to have two groups of people and integrate them together. I have a group of people who are more traditional singer/dancer/actors who have done musicals and then we have about 15 people in the show who have never done a musical, but are world-class tumblers and cheerleaders. This way, I let the cheerleaders take the lead on some material, I let the dancers take the lead on other material and at the same time everyone does everything.

What I tend to do is I give material in an audition setting that is very stylized and see if they can do it. And once I figure out they can do it or not then we test them on their ability to understand it intellectually. Like if the moment is about insecurity for example. I’m never going to talk to them about acting, but I push their buttons in a rehearsal type setting to see if they can adapt to my ideas. Some dancers are strictly athletics and they can only execute movement. They don’t dance with their hearts or brains much. Then there are other dancers who dance with their brains and their hearts completely, but they don’t have any technique. The audition process is about finding that dancer that has both.

In many articles I have read about you, you have been called the new face of Broadway in terms of your choreography? How do you respond to this statement?

I tend not to read things out there because what we do is so delicate emotionally and I tend to want things really badly. I feel as artists we have to invest so much heart in what we do and that’s what I think. If I am lucky enough to get opportunities and be surrounded by people who are great thinkers and can also help me get closer to my goals it’s a great ride. So, I am flattered when people have nice things to say about me. And I’m flattered to think that I’m helping people see things in a new way. In so many ways I feel like a total novice and I feel like I’m just starting to get good at what I do. I’m always struggling to figure out where the next lesson comes from because I’m hungry to keep learning.

According to the book No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, in the 1930s a dancer was considered a sell out within the modern dance community if they took a job on Broadway. How has this perception changed?

I have never been in the concert dance world so I all I can say is there is definitely a difference between the commercial and non-commercial dance world. And sometimes company dancers, like City Ballet, they make a great living. They’re in the commercial world but they’re artistically at the top of their craft. And I think that Broadway is a commercial venue and being in a commercial show doesn’t mean the work is bad. There are musicals out there that have changed people’s lives. The movement might be simplistic, the music might be academic, but for some reason emotionally it changes people’s lives. And I think as long as people do good work then they should be respected.

What advice do you have for dancers contemplating a career in Broadway?

The hard part about being a Broadway dancer is there isn’t just one thing you have to do, you have to do everything. One day you’re auditioning for a hip-hop show like Bring It On and the next day you’re auditioning for a Sting musical. So, the technique has to be really good, but it also has to be really versatile so you can pick up styles quickly. And you know nine times out of ten you have to sing well.

This was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.



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