When I sit down with Andy Blankenbuehler on a May day in front of Hamilton Hall on the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University (Hamilton’s alma mater), he throws out the first question: Have you seen the show?
”It’s weird to have to lead with that, right? I had a meeting with somebody yesterday and they wanted details, but they didn’t know…they hadn’t seen the show!” Blankenbuehler is one of the forces behind the theatrical “hurricane” that is Broadway’s Hamilton, the same creative cabinet behind 2008’s Tony-winning In the Heights. There seems to be a special alchemy at work when Blankenbuehler collaborates with Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Tommy Kail and orchestrator-arranger-musical director Alex Lacamoire. Blankenbuehler’s movement—unmistakably Blankenbuehler—breathes life into the historical figures at the center of Miranda’s hip hop opus.
Hamilton definitely looks and feels to me like it’s in your style and in your vocabulary. How much of yourself do you bring to Hamilton and how much does Hamilton mold what you create?
AB: I’m very versatile. I can choreograph in the ’40s or whatever it is, cheerleading, but I think I reached a point of the most clarity that I’ve ever had when I met Lin. So the work, as varied as In the Heights was, stylistically, musically, he brings out some really interesting things, and it’s very inspiring to me and rhythmically what he does just works for me. There’s never a moment of me figuring out: What do I do here? It’s: Which option do I pick? because there’s a lot of options. I became the most Andy Blankenbuehler at In the Heights, even though I’d choreographed a lot of things before that, and so Hamilton is sort of another step of that. Choreographically things are not always natural for me, like hip hop is not natural for me, but the idea that the characters are so embedded into the music, so embedded into the lyrics makes my job easy.
Parameters are so good for me. So, if you know you have to wear boots, that informs the choreography. If you know that you’re supposed to be carrying a 30-pound rifle in your hand and you have to load it a certain way, that informs choreography. So, in that way, Hamilton has been extraordinary to me in providing me rules. The scenic design for Heights was very limiting because the buildings were all over the stage. Hamilton’s wide open and so those parameters—the parameters that I need—actually come from Lin’s lyrics as opposed to scenic elements. Lin gives you such a challenging road map to follow, but it’s a detailed road map.
How much choreography was built on who you cast and was there a lot of collaboration in that room?
AB: We were intent on the ensemble being an ensemble of soloists, almost the book Team of Rivals, the Lincoln book, which I know Tommy and Lin really enjoyed too. We wanted a group of people onstage who could all bring things that you cannot imagine they could bring, but the overarching ideas have to be a vision that’s not dependent on a cast. ... It’s great getting to know them to know what they can bring to it. It is [about] trust because it’s a partnership. I need those people to share my integrity, to share my attention to detail and ultimately what’s difficult is they have to be the best Andy Blankenbuehler they can be onstage, not necessarily the best themselves, and that’s the challenge.
The piece, written the way it is, dances and moves from beginning to end. How do you work with Tommy and with Lin to create the throughline, the pace?
AB: Tommy has a tremendous ability to inspire Lin’s work, and so before the first day of rehearsal they’ve directed a show that’s clear. I can see it in my head. Some shows you’re like 60 percent of the way there when you start rehearsals and then you find it together. Hamilton, we found the details together, but really the writing was so clear before the first day of rehearsal that it just was a green light for me.
The biggest collaborative thing was figuring out the ensemble’s perspective, the ensemble’s point of view because the strength of the ensemble’s point of view, I think, determines the strength of the musical. If their point of view isn’t clarified, the audience doesn’t invest in them as the lens for the piece. We had constant conversations with ourselves, but also with the cast of like “Right now you’re being Aaron Burr’s ego,” “Right now you’re being a jury that doesn’t have an opinion yet,” “Right now you’re being a jury that’s going to say, ‘Ok, I’m going to listen to Aaron Burr and see what he has to say and I’m going to stand in his shoes.”’ “Wait for It” is the most of them standing in his shoes with no point of view, literally they’re sitting like he sits, as opposed to “Room Where It Happens,” they’re being his ego, so they no longer have a point of view as an ensemble. In terms of the arcing of the show physically, I dove down a rabbit hole and just kept going. I remember a story that Andrew Lloyd Webber told me that Hal Prince had basically directed the show Phantom of the Opera on the model and after the first preview they never made any changes because they were able to really articulate their vision, even before the cast came, which is interesting.
Speaking of models and the integration of scenic elements, those turntables are amazing. Did that design come to you or did you ask for it?
AB: Tommy and [scenic designer David] Korins really took the lead on finding our show, finding our theme and the structure. We had talked about a turntable [at first], but we never did anything about it. I think we were also a little nervous about being compared to Les Mis because the show is very similar to Les Mis. All the staging I knew was always going to rotate, so even though we had no turntable it rotated the exact same way, you always felt that circular motion, but as soon as we staged it we were like, “Well, we really should have a turntable. It makes sense.” I had never worked on a turntable and I had definitely never worked on two tables, but the idea is almost like when you twist a Coke can and the aluminum bends, that the idea is to me that Hamilton is always pushing inevitability. He’s always racing towards something that we know—because it’s history—that we know is going to happen, so there’s a sense of time is actually moving forward and fate is actually moving forward, but their story is one of conflict. “Are we going to beat the Brits?” “Are we going to find independence?” “Am I going to kill you?” “Is my son going to die?” All of these things push us against fate and so that’s why the second turntable being able to rotate the other way is so strong. One of my favorite moments is in the duel when the person who kills him always rotates the wrong way. So, if you’ll notice, the person who gets shot rotates the way of resisting fate, which to me is clockwise, and inevitability is to me the other direction. I love the passing. It’s very disturbing to me.
In the opening number when his mother’s lifted, when the cousin dies, and then later in the show that moment with the bullet... Tell me what creating that was like for you in terms of using the bodies in the way that you do?
AB: Well, it really is bodies as architecture, but it’s also that part of the opening number sets the clockwise versus counter-clockwise in the show, even without a turntable because we didn’t want to use a turntable in the opening. It’s just passing images. I love those two moments and also it was important to me to start the opening number with stylized vocabulary rather than being literal, knowing that eventually we had to get to stylized gestures for everything major—the starting of the country, Washington. That’s the Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Jerome Robbins lesson about, “Your opening number is governed by the rules that you establish in the opening.” So, I take very seriously the very first time the ensemble dances.
In In the Heights it was “Packing up and picking up and every day,” that sets up everything in one step. Our very first step is “Word got around, they said ‘This kid is insane, man,”’ and what happens is the ensemble all warp in slow motion, so that’s like establishing where we’re going to go tonight, but also they’re responding to his ability to write, but their body is grooving like he just invented the coolest new fashion. That establishes the rule of saying, “The articulation of words is as cool as it gets” because, you know, Lin thought Hamilton was a rapper.
The Bullet transition was one of my favorites. Do you know the Breakup Transition in In the Heights? It’s equivalent—where the two couples stop and one walks away—it’s kind of the same idea. I made them up the exact same way. I knew really clear in my head that [Hamilton’s] ability to write saved his life many times, but literally with Washington. Because he looks down to write, the bullet goes right over his head. That was the important part, not the slow motion of the bullet, but the bullet goes slow so that you see it miss him, you know?
You mention that the opening number introduces the style of the piece from the get-go. How do you describe your own style?
AB: Well, I think it changes in every show. I use a reference to Halley’s Comet a lot when I’m teaching, being that when you see a picture of Halley’s Comet it leads with a big face, and then it trails away. So, what I try to do is I try to hit the front of the movement like either literally right at the top of the beat or sometimes ahead of the beat, but there’s always an emphasis on the front of the beat that creates a pause and in the pause behind it you have to capture a recognizable picture that when the audience hits the slow motion pause or whatever it is they see the idea, they see the emotion, they see the character, and then it goes way again. That pause can be a sixteenth note, or it can be slow motion. It’s that idea of creating moving pictures.
Is there a difference, for you, an overlapping but a simultaneous distinction between what is dance and what is choreography?
AB: Yeah, that’s a really good question that we should also go into the things that I don’t feel should dance, because I’ve made that mistake a lot. [There are times] when they should not dance, when the best way to tell the story is through the voice or through a light cue.
But I think choreography crosses all the boundaries. I’m so inspired by Stephen Hoggett. It’s like I say a lot of times in the dance studio, like “How can we Hoggett this?” I use it as a verb, like “How can this be an idea, not a step?” Like it’s an idea, and that happens in Hamilton with turntable cues. It happens with the absence of movement…is oftentimes the best choreography—like the stopping of “Hurricane.” When the hurricane hits, and really they’re hitting these descriptive shapes, but the choreography is the turntable carrying them. And I think that that’s my best contribution, but that’s actually where most people don’t understand that it’s choreography. I enjoy the fine line between the scene and the bigger heightened number and a lot of people just go from zero to 60 because 60 is exciting, but I actually like the blurred line of “Are they dancing or are they not?”
Check out more original photos and interviews with the other four Tony-nominated choreographers.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.