“I like to think of myself as a choreographer who can tell a story,” says Andy Blankenbuehler.
At 46, the Cincinnati-born choreographer is one of the most successful storytellers on Broadway right now, having masterminded the movement for two wildly different shows: Hamilton and the revival of Cats, which opened at the Neil Simon Theatre in July. Blankenbuehler has been nominated for a Best Choreography Tony four times, and has walked away with the award twice, both for collaborations with writer-composer-actor-rapper (and and Fast Company Most Creative Person) Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton and In the Heights).
We recently chatted with Blankenbuehler about his creative life.
How did you first get into the arts?
I grew up in Cincinnati. I remember doing art projects, and I would see such big ideas, but I would only be able to accomplish a draft of it. I always bit off more than I could chew. I remember in second grade, I made a circus, a Styrofoam block that was 2-feet-by-2-feet, with three rings and an elephant. I tried to do so much. People were coming in with 6-by-6 inch projects. Meanwhile, I grew up dancing. My sisters danced ahead of me, and from age 17 on, I was unstoppable, I just wanted to dance every day. I attended college briefly, but it wasn’t for me, so I moved to New York.
With Hamilton, did you ever feel you bit off more than you could chew?
It’s the biggest story I’ve ever told, and the most choreography I’ve ever done. Though I spent less time working on it than I did with Bring It On or In The Heights because Hamilton came to me so evolved already. So I never had to make mistakes on pieces of the show that were gonna get thrown out. The show became about, how can I apply everything I’ve learned not just in dance, but in life?
In life? What are some examples there?
Later in the show, the family themes. I have two kids, and while creating Hamilton, my daughter was fighting cancer. The whole second act has such resonance for me. It was hard for me to choreograph, it hit so close to home when Hamilton’s son is dying. One of the most simplistic moments in the show is also one of my favorite moments, when Hamilton gets shot in the end. Two men slide next to him and row him across the Hudson. That hit me like a thunderbolt. I can always feel myself carrying my daughter to the hospital. So those things became less about the choreography and more about events that hit home. (Blankenbuehler’s daughter has since recovered.)
I feel like one of the marks of a good craftsperson is knowing when to go minimalist.
“Less is more” was the mantra of Bob Fosse. For every one step in Hamilton, I probably cut eight steps. Only one makes the final cut. For the transition out of the opening number, I choreographed a 30-second transition for the entire ensemble. That 30-second transition is now one second long, a drum beat and a pose.
Did you have to go through the 30-second misadventure in order to arrive at the right answer?
I do personally. Not everyone does. I get part of the way there, then walk away from it, then bring an assistant in. Or I choreograph an idea, then bring in the people who dance hip hop better, and together we find it.
In Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin talks about how [his musical director] Alex Lacamoire runs away with idea after idea, and Lin has to say, “Wait, three ideas back—that was the winner.”
Alex and I are similar that way. I go further than Alex. I overanalyze everything. It was a big learning curve for me when my daughter got sick. I realized I didn’t have time in life to spend 10 hours on a decision. I started wearing all the same color clothes, to simplify my routines in life. And in the dance studio, I started trying to close my eyes, visualize my idea, and trust my first impulse.
Can you say more about trusting first impulses?
I was just thinking about Lin and Alex. Lin writes in Garageband [an elementary music application]—he does these down-and-dirty original demos. Then Alex adds crazy layering. With In the Heights, when I went to choreograph the song “Carnaval Del Barrio,” I went back into Lin’s original demo. The original impulse was important for me to follow. And I found in the demo, he did this thing with a grungy bass. The final version wasn’t that grungy—Alex he had added layers on top of it. But after listening to the original impulse in the demo, I decided to make the step continue to be that grungy.
How was working on Cats different from Hamilton?
It’s a world of difference, maybe the biggest challenge I’ve taken on in my career. I had strong recollections of the show from my youth, and I felt I should not change the DNA. What I wanted to do was go in, tighten it up, quicken it up. I also wanted to look at, how can the idea of character for these cats be more chiseled at? I wanted to dig deeper into their individualism.
What I noticed in your Cats was you have these scenes with 20 cat-people in a pack, but each is moving in a slightly different way.
There’s a tribe energy about the play. But in today’s culture, the idea is, let’s be a community of individuals. I think that’s what makes America beautiful, and the world beautiful. In the original show, there was a lot of unison to the choreography. I pulled away from some of those unison ideas. I wanted to force the eye a bit more, to make a focal point.
It seems hugely labor-intensive to choreograph 20 dancers slightly differently, versus just giving one set of instructions to a pack.
It’s like that circus in the second grade. It’s completely labor-intensive. You’re choreographing 20 numbers instead of one number. It’s a choice of mine, and sometimes it gets me into trouble, and I can’t carry the ball across the line.
You also incorporate many dance styles in your choreography.
I used to beat my self up. I did a show with African dance, and I took three classes a day for six weeks. Now I don’t do that. I just need to understand enough, then be open-minded enough to share with other people [who are collaborators and experts in that form of dance].
What’s your process? How does your choreography evolve over the course of developing a show?
I video everything. With Hamilton, there were hundreds of hours of choreography that were never in the show. I might have 10 drafts of the same step. I’ll pull up the videos, and video number one might have the correct step, but video two has the better hands. I usually have two assistants with me: We go back to the laptop, learn it off the laptop, and then that’s what we teach to the dancer.
The original Cats choreographer Gillian Lynne was quoted about being unhappy about not choreographing the revival.
Gillian and I had a very long email exchange yesterday. We’re on the same page and see eye-to-eye. She was hurt she wasn’t in the room with us, but I felt like we needed the creative license to be in the room alone. That’s got to be hard. I said to my wife, “What is it going to be like when Hamilton has the first major revival in 30 years?” My wife said, “I’m not letting you leave the house.” I think that’s probably hard for Gillian.
So she was hurt not to be in the room where it happened. But isn’t the word wide enough for both Andy and Gillian?
I love that the world is wide enough for both of these artistic visions. Cats didn’t become Andy Blankenbuehler’s Cats, and it’s not just Gillian Lynn’s either. The world is wide enough for both our ideas to exist in the same show.
This interview has been condensed and edited.