Before “Hamilton” moved audiences, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler had to find the right moves to accompany this year’s hottest Broadway musical.
“I’ll spend a lot of hours listening to the music but not dancing,” Blankenbuehler detailed of his process. “I listen to the music on the treadmill, the subway, everywhere I go. And then a day comes when I feel like I’m ready to start choreographing.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” scored a record-breaking 16 Tony Award nominations this year, including one for best choreography. It will be Blankenbuehler’s second Tony award for best choreography if he wins on Sunday night — his first was for Miranda’s 2008 breakout musical “In the Heights.”
“Lin’s score is dynamic, it’s so beautiful, that I felt like the spectrum was really wide,” he said of crafting the choreography for “Hamilton.” “Like, some moments could be balletic, some moments could feel like Justin Timberlake, some moments could feel like Bob Fosse.”
With such a broad range, it’s difficult to point to the show’s defining style. “It’s all over the map,” Blankenbuehler continued. “The show is really from an immigrant’s perspective. So it’s as if saying: we all came from someplace else, and we became this country. And so that poses the question of: where did our music come from?”
For “Hamilton,” the answer is an African beat. “I felt like I could use any dance style from the birth of that dance beat to today’s hip hop,” he explained. “Because we immediately break all the rules in the show, I felt like immediately that gave me permission: that if I want to do a krumping step, I can do krumping, if I want to do jitterbug, I can do jitterbug. If I want to do Motown, I can do Motown. Because all of those things are with an African beat. So really, all bets were off.”
That stylistic range allowed Blankenbuehler to shape a different choreography for each song. “I had to figure out how the fight sequences could all differ from each other,” he explained. “There was frankly just so much music that I knew I had to be that versatile or the material would become repetitive — I was very nervous about the show becoming repetitive.” Repetitive: not a word often uttered in connection to “Hamilton” — the show has been lauded for its ability to fully engage audiences for the entirety of its 2 hour 45 minute run time.
Despite the range of dance styles incorporated into the show, Blankenbuehler didn’t cite versatility as the main criteria he looks for during auditions. Instead, he sets out to find dancers who show “a sense of gravity,” he said. “These have to be real people who understand loss, death, love. Those are major themes in our show, so it’s not about the dance step, it’s about the dance step capturing that true emotion.”
Blankenbuehler ran into a few moments of writer’s block while choreographing the musical, including for “Room Where It Happens,” which he described as his best work. “I put a lot of pressure on myself, because it was my favorite song in the show, and I knew it could be one of the best things I’ve ever staged. The pressure got to me a little bit,” he said. “It’s really difficult when there are no parameters — it’s called ‘white canvas syndrome.’ But there are parameters — like what does it feel like when there’s a 20-pound gun in your hand? Then that dictates the choreography. What does it feel like when you’re wearing boots? That dictates the choreography. I have to make those parameters happen.”
A self-described method choreographer, Blankenbuehler felt out those conditions himself — and sure enough, a wall of his top-floor home dance studio in Harlem features a row of colonial style hats. To keep the parameters consistent while choreographing, he wears the exact same outfit everyday. His look currently consists of a polo shirt, canvas sneakers and Lululemon pants, which he’s been wearing to choreograph the “Cats” Broadway revival, his next project — the musical has proved difficult to approach from a Method approach (“They’re cats. I’m not a cat.”)
“Like many people, I moved to New York City having been inspired by Gregory Hines, [Mikhail] Baryshnikov, ‘Cats’, ‘Chorus Line,'” he said. Blankenbuehler earned his Equity Card working for ‘Chorus Line,’ but never got an opportunity to link up with “Cats,” which closed in 2000. He was recruited into the revival production by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and is one of the only people on the creative team who wasn’t involved with the original Broadway staging, which includes director Sir Trevor Nunn and costume and scenic designer John Napier.
“‘Hamilton’ is a daunting piece of theater, but there’s a freedom to knowing it never existed before,” Blankenbuehler mused. “It’s a different kind of pressure with ‘Cats.’ I felt very strongly that millions of people have a relationship with ‘Cats,’ and I didn’t want to break the piece,” he continued. “So I didn’t feel like I could take the DNA out of it. I felt it was really important to preserve the spirit and look of what’s already there, but then just change it to match the new audience’s expectations. Because in 30 years, the audience has changed a lot.”
Before audiences can size up “Cats” on Broadway in July, when it enters previews, they may first see Blankenbuehler take the Tony Awards stage. Other nominees in the running for the best choreography award include Savion Glover for “Shuffle Along;” Hofesh Shechter for “Fiddler on the Roof;” Randy Skinner for “Dames at Sea,” and Sergio Trujillo for “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan.” “I met Savion Glover when he was a kid — I was 18 and he was probably 12. He’s the best dancer in the world,” Blankenbuehler remarked of his peer.
It’s a competitive field, but Blankenbuehler was quick to label that a positive sign for his profession.
“We were at the Astaire Awards the other day, and Sergio [Trujillo] said, ‘What a great time it is to be a dancer, what a great time it is to be a choreographer,'” Blankenbuehler recalled. “For a very long time, there were no dance shows on Broadway, and then there was one a year. This year alone, there’s so much dancing on Broadway,” he continued. “What’s also important is that dance is important for the shows. A reason I stopped dancing was because I felt like I was killing myself, and that what I was being asked to do wasn’t affecting the show. If you were in the audience, it wasn’t changing your life and making you leave the theater and treat life in a different way.”