Andy Blankenbuehler makes the post-'Hamilton' leap
Posted April 13
NEW YORK — After a long day working on his new Broadway show, Andy Blankenbuehler recently came home, poured himself a glass of wine and tried to unwind the way only he can.
The director-choreographer logged onto Pinterest and cruised through dozens of folders, examining images of the way folds of clothing catch light. That's how this Tony winner unwinds? For Blankenbuehler, it's like therapy.
"All I was looking at was light hitting dancers," he explained. "Many people think that I'm very tunnel-visioned because I'm quietly absorbing."
Blankenbuehler is directing the new musical "Bandstand," which this month competes on Broadway with two other musicals he choreographed — the revival of "Cats" and a little show called "Hamilton." And next month, his reimagining of the film "Dirty Dancing" arrives on ABC.
"I'm just a kid in a candy store for me to be able to have such amazing projects to work on," he said. Even so, he recognizes the pressure coming off his work on Lin-Manuel Miranda's bio of Alexander Hamilton. "A show like 'Hamilton' changes the stakes in a lot of ways as an artist and as a business person."
"Bandstand " tells the story of six World War II veterans who join together in Cleveland to compete in a radio contest with dreams of stardom. It has earned praise for its frank handling of veterans dealing with PTSD and a culture in denial.
The swing musical adds to Blankenbuehler's astonishing range, which includes cheerleading twirls for "Bring It On: The Musical," big, bold numbers in "9 to 5," Depression-era movement for "Annie," hip-hop in "Hamilton" and feline friskiness in "Cats."
It actually lands in a sweet spot for Blankenbuehler — he's an avid fan of the 1940s, soaking up movies, books and images of World War II. "The '40s have always spoken to me," he said. "That generation faced totally different circumstances than us and they stepped up. They stepped up with such conviction and put so much on the line. I find that very, very interesting."
Blankenbuehler, 47, started dancing when he was 3. He had an older sister who attended dance classes and — like a scene from "A Chorus Line" — he went, too, with his mother crocheting in the hall. "My sister stopped dancing. I kept dancing," he said.
As a high school freshman, he saw his school's production of "Bye Bye Birdie" and regretted not being a part of it. The next year, he danced in the school's "Godspell." That summer, at a theater camp in Cincinnati, he choreographed the entire "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
"There was no turning back after that," he said.
Blankenbuehler moved to New York in 1990 and landed in the ensembles of "Guys and Dolls" and "Steel Pier." He also toured with "Music of the Night" and "West Side Story." Despite not having a background in salsa or hip-hop, he went on to choreograph Miranda's first hit, "In the Heights," which earned him his first Tony. His love of research led him to Los Angeles, where he took six classes a day to learn choreography.
Richard Oberacker, who wrote the music and co-wrote the story and lyrics for "Bandstand" and toured with Blankenbuehler, said his old friend is relentless as an artist, constantly probing.
"He has this unbelievable mind where he just wants to get inside every single moment. He comes at everything from 360 degrees. He never stops asking questions," said Oberacker.
For "Dirty Dancing," his first foray into film, Blankenbuehler replicated his approach to rethinking "Cats" — tighten, improve parts, but don't mess with the cherished DNA. "The job assignment wasn't to recreate the wheel. It was to do what was there but go deeper," he said.
Blankenbuehler isn't a choreographer who gets hung up on proper technique or perfect leaps. His movements are inspired by things as varied as architecture or the way people act in subways.
"I was always the person who was like, 'Oh, look at the way that clown looks!' or 'Look at the way that person is bending over because their bag is so heavy.' Those are the things that are interesting to me."
One of the best things about "Hamilton" was Blankenbuehler's use of an ensemble member to carry a bullet across the stage in slow motion, a feat he happily confesses he lifted from Quentin Tarantino films.
"For me, I'm like this mad scientists in the corner," he said. "You have to live in a way that you're awake."
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