There’s something about seeing a musical live and in person—where the total vision of all of the elements of musical theatre (book, score, orchestrations, design, direction, choreography and performance) hits the audience on impact. To watch these musicals move is to understand them. Choreography is the driver behind the movement. Each show’s message and story lives in the bodies of its performers, and choreographers are the engine, bringing nuance and beauty to the stage.
This year’s crop of musicals pushed boundaries in storytelling through a vast array of sounds and styles—each with distinctive choreography to match. Randy Skinner and Savion Glover resurrected tap dance this season, Skinner in his MGM-style Dames at Sea and Glover in his hoof-heavy Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. Newcomer Hofesh Shechter brought his grounded folksy style and Israeli roots to Fiddler on the Roof, while veteran Sergio Trujillo injected his Latino heritage into the Gloria Estefan bio-musical On Your Feet! Of course, Andy Blankenbuehler completes the reunion of the In the Heights dream team to bring his hard-hitting style to Hamilton. These five Tony-nominated choreographers each sat down (or danced!) with Playbill in special locations that capture the essence of their show in order to dig into the inspirations driving dance in their shows and to unearth their visions and processes in creating the concept for how each show moves.
ANDY BLANKENBUEHLER, THE ARCHITECT
“It really is bodies as architecture,” says Blankenbuehler as he sits on the campus of Columbia University (née King’s College, Hamilton’s alma mater) in front of Hamilton Hall. Blankenbuehler is the type of creative who thrives within boundaries. “Parameters are so good for me. … In that way, Hamilton has been extraordinary to me in providing me rules. You know, the scenic design for [In the] 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.
“[There is] that Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Jerome Robbins lesson about ‘Your [show] is governed by the rules that you establish in the opening.’ So I take very seriously the first time the ensemble dances. 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 establishing where we’re going to go tonight, but also they’re responding to [Hamilton’s] ability to write, but their body is grooving like he just invented the coolest new fashion. So that establishes the rule of saying ‘the articulation of words is as cool as it gets’ because, you know, Lin [-Manuel Miranda] thought Hamilton was a rapper.”
READ MORE: Andy Blankenbuehler on his choreographic style, exclusive details of his vision for Hamilton’s ensemble and the role they play in the story, plus looking back on In The Heights, its similarities to Hamilton and the special alchemy of the Hamilton creative team.
HOFESH SHECHTER, THE SCULPTOR
“For me, music is the most important thing when I come and create a dance,” says Shechter as he wraps up shooting at the sanctuary of the West Side Jewish Center in midtown Manhattan. “Also knowing Bart Sher, the director, he came with a vision that I really liked, and the vision was: It’s raw; it’s direct, it’s in the shtetl. You feel, you know?
“Dance is about making the best with what you’ve got in the room, and that material is human beings—the people that are in front of you. You must connect to them, and you just see that they are connecting to what you’re doing.” In a show that’s not as dance-heavy as the rest of the nominees, Shechter focused on the grounding and molding of every step.
“Something about the dance is not dance-y as much, but it has to feel like the real people are really there doing the dance, and I loved that approach. And in that sense it gave me complete freedom in how to approach it, but I have to say I did very little preparation for it. I felt an instant connection to the music, an instant connection to the subject, that subject of past and present and tradition and how do we move on?”
RANDY SKINNER, THE FILMMAKER
“I love the opportunity to do the big ol’ dance numbers. It’s how I grew up. It’s what I love,” says Skinner, sitting by Pier 46 on the Hudson River, the Intrepid poised in the background. The veteran of the bunch, Skinner moved to New York in 1976 and has been working in the business since. Having grown up in the age of the great MGM musicals and later working as assistant to Gower Champion, Skinner choreographed his Dames at Sea through the lens of American musical film. “American musical film is kind of our art form, those big bit musicals—what they call the Golden Age,” says Skinner. This fall’s Dames at Sea was his valentine to those Warner Brothers depression-era musicals.
“The thing about Dames, which was so exciting to me, was that we were able to do what we call a dance-driven show, where it is a lot about the dancing but with no ensemble, where you had six people. You can paint in different colors. You can really get intricate. You can do all sorts of rhythms that you can’t quite put on a chorus because of the number of people.
“Fred and Ginger, those are my two role models, they sang and did the scene until they had to dance, and then after they danced, they never came back and sang again. They made the statement and then the dance finished the scene…. I think it was Stephen Sondheim’s book or a book about Stephen Sondheim where it says, ‘You either sing about it or talk about it, but you don’t do both.’ I feel the same way with dance.”
SERGIO TRUJILLO, THE ENERGIZER
Get Trujillo in a room with space, and he will fill it with his boundless enthusiasm and exuberant movement. “To choreograph this show, I didn’t have to dig in very deep [for the steps], but what I did have to do was really get in touch with the essence of who I am,” he says, perched on a stool on the dance floor of Hudson Terrace.
For On Your Feet!, the choreographer who initially made his mark with musicals like Jersey Boys and All Shook Up tapped into his culture and upbringing to inject an authentic Latin fervor into the production. “I grew up dancing, listening, watching Gloria, videos and music, so I knew subconsciously how she moved and she performed, but we’re on a Broadway stage and that character has to occupy a different kind of framework. So I took liberties within the show to extrapolate: If Sergio Trujillo was choreographing Gloria Estefan, that’s what he would do.
“For me to do something that I can actually put my stamp on it, that I can actually throw the history of my culture into, it’s just beautiful.”
SAVION GLOVER, THE LISTENER
“My personal style at this point in my life is more audio; it’s more driven on less visual and more musicality,” says Glover as he strolls through the heart of the theatre district, “but because of my upbringing, my fabulous mentors and teachers that I’ve had throughout my dance journey or career, I also possess a style that is of the past. It was just a matter of me reaching back. It’s like one foot in the past, one foot in the future.
“I was always looking at footage of dancers from Nicholas Brothers to Ralph Brown to Sand Man to Miller Brothers and Lois, and I grew up looking at old footage.” While visuals helped, Glover always returned to his foundation: sound. “I don’t deal with, ‘It’s going to be hop flap flap flap shuffle step.’ I don’t deal with that. I just say, ‘We’re doing shoo-koo-ba-doom-boom-oom-bam,’ and that’s what it is.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.