He’s ‘Bring It On: The Musical’s’ chief cheerleader
— There’s a lot of sugar and caffeine in the room at Studio 54, the unoccupied Broadway theater where a cast of 33 is working through a casually strenuous new dance number for “Bring It On: The Musical.” Young performers in workout clothes sip energy drinks between run-throughs; an oversized Pez dispenser modeled after Peanuts’ Lucy sits on the stage manager’s table.
When co-composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda joins a small group of observers, he offers everyone a handful of Pop Rocks. “If you take them with Red Bull, they all pop at once,” he whispers conspiratorially. “It’s like smacking the roof of your mouth.”
Director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, meanwhile, chews gum rhythmically, well beyond the rewards of flavor. Compact and tightly wound, he paces the edge of the floor-mat stage at eye level with the dancers, coaching and worrying over every step, stopping them variously to correct, admonish, encourage. If there’s a director’s chair somewhere around here, Blankenbuehler isn’t using it.
When he does sit down for a quick lunch during a rehearsal break, the restless Blankenbuehler — who won a 2008 Tony for choreographing Miranda’s “In the Heights” — is upfront about the challenges of bringing a cheerleading musical to the stage. (“Bring It On” begins a six-month national tour at the Ahmanson Theatre Nov. 11 to Dec. 10; a Broadway future is unspoken but assumed.)
“The huge obstacle we’ve had from the beginning is that we have these world-class cheerleaders who’ve never danced like this before, and dancers who’ve never cheered before, so we have to throw them both in the caldron,” Blankenbuehler says. Indeed, the “Bring It On” cast includes 11 seasoned competitive cheerleaders alongside 22 musical-theater triple threats, though in fact the entire company is so young — assistant director Holly-Anne Ruggiero quips that the one 27-year-old performer is “the grandmother of the cast” — that Blankenbuehler likens his job to teaching a master class.
“What these young performers don’t yet necessarily have the experience to understand is that these aren’t dance steps — they are the building blocks of a story,” Blankenbuehler explains. “When we dance, we’re not dancing to the music, we’re dancing to the energy shift dictated by the story. That’s a different way of thinking than a lot of them are used to.”
Blankenbuehler had his own learning curve to climb when he heard that producers of the “Bring It On” franchise, Universal Pictures and Beacon Communications, were interested in creating a stage musical. Says Glenn Ross, general manager and executive vice president, of Universal 1440 Entertainment, “We always had in the back of our minds that this would make a great musical for the stage. Cheerleading is a kind of dance, and all the movies have had dance.”
A kind of dance, maybe; but Blankenbuehler still had his work cut out for him.
“I’m not a cheerleading choreographer, in much the same way I didn’t know much about hip-hop before I did ‘In the Heights,’” says Blankenbuehler, whose dance training was more in the realm of tap. So he watched hours of competitive cheerleading on video and attended several events, absorbing vocabulary along the way. “I learned, ‘This is a pyramid, that’s a basket toss.’” Most cheer routines, though, are 21/2 minutes long, not two hours. So, in thinking about which of these high-flying stunts could be done onstage eight times a week, he came to an important conclusion.
“I told the producers, ‘Half of the numbers cannot cheer,’” Blankenbuehler recalls. That momentous choice led the stage musical version of “Bring It On” even further from the original film — and spurred some unconventional creative matchmaking.
In the 2000 original film, cheerleaders from a mostly white high school, Rancho Carne, go head to head at nationals with counterparts from mostly black East Compton High. The new musical’s book, by “Avenue Q’s” Jeff Whitty, also climaxes with a showdown at a national cheer competition, but both the names and the premises have been changed. Within minutes of meeting Campbell, the perky blond cheer squad leader at preppy Truman High, we see her whisked off by redistricting to funky, multiethnic Jackson High, where there are no cheerleaders at all. Instead, Taylor finds hip-hop dancers along the lines of “America’s Best Dance Crew,” and struggles first to join them, then reshape them into a cheer squad.
Blankenbuehler knew this story would need a varied and contemporary soundtrack, so he suggested doubling up composing teams to pull it off: Lin-Manuel Miranda would handle hip-hop duties, and composer Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”) and lyricist Amanda Green (“High Fidelity,” also with Kitt) would write the pop tunes. But in much the same way that the cast would blend theater and cheer performers into one, this neat division of songwriting labor soon dissolved into a team effort.
“It started out with the two teams in their own corners — Lin had his assignments, we had our assignments,” Green recalls. But, as Miranda puts it, “it very quickly went from, ‘Here’s your assignment’ to ‘All hands on deck!’”
So Miranda wrote songs for Campbell’s point of view, while Green and Kitt wrote an empowerment anthem for Jackson misfits called “Ain’t No Thing.” Says Kitt, “This needed to feel like a score that three people worked on together, and not sort of schizophrenic. What was great was that our agent — we’re all represented by the same agent — came to an early reading and had no idea who wrote what.”
This free-ranging collaboration had more than aesthetic dividends: It also meant that the show got written a lot faster than your average musical.
“We did our first reading in less than 12 months from the first word being put down on paper, and that was about 70% of the score we have today,” Blankenbuehler says. “And then our first production was less than nine months after that. That’s really fast.”
The initial production was at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Ga., last January. Critical and audience response was encouraging, but the team left with clear ideas of the next steps the show needed to take. For one, they got some new lead actors: Newcomer Taylor Louderman, a 20-year-old musical theater major from the University of Michigan, plays Campbell, while Adrienne Warren, who appeared in last year’s national revival tour of “Dreamgirls,” plays Danielle, the hip-hop crew leader at Jackson.
After Atlanta, the producers also hatched the unconventional strategy that will take the show to 12 North American cities between now and next June, but not (yet) New York. Though many Broadway shows do at least one tryout before New York, and the current hits “Mamma Mia!” and “Memphis” had a series of productions before coming to the Main Stem, the producers of “Bring It On” seem content to let the momentum build.
“They’re approaching this very wisely,” says Center Theatre Group Artistic Director Michael Ritchie, who booked the show into the Ahmanson after seeing the workshop two years ago. “They’re both developing the show itself and developing the audience for it with this national tour. They’re building value over time, and that’s really smart.”
Universal’s Ross gives another reason for the tour.
“We want to build word of mouth,” Ross says. “We want people to see this is not just the movie put onstage — it’s a new piece inspired by the movies, but it has a whole set of different, wonderful elements working for it.” (Indeed, the show’s departures from the original film got a bit of unintended publicity this fall when screenwriter Jessica Bendinger sued the producers for taking her idea without credit or compensation, and enlisted the Writers Guild in a threat to stop the musical; the two sides reached a settlement last month.)
All that time on the road may also continue a development Miranda noticed with gratification early this year.
“Toward the end of the Atlanta run, I was backstage while they were prepping a song, and I heard one of the cheerleaders say to another, ‘I don’t think my character would do that.’ I was like, ‘Whoa! They turned into actors quick.’”
But if there’s a whiff of greasepaint about Whitty’s script, with backstage back-stabbing elements à la “All About Eve,” this is still a sports story at heart, and that’s the level the creators intend it to play on.
“None of us wanted to make a girlie musical about cheerleaders,” Blankenbuehler says. “Our target audience is not just a girl who’s a cheerleader, but the 16-year-old guy who may be hot for a cheerleader and who has a sporting mentality.”
Blankenbuehler relishes bridging that divide, recalling a response from a preview audience of “In the Heights.”
“This guy was sitting in front of me with his baseball cap on — his wife had probably dragged him,” Blankenbuehler says. By the end of the up-tempo “96,000,” though, the guy in the cap “reacted like somebody had just scored a three-pointer at the buzzer. He had a sporting reaction to loving that number.”
That taught him, he says, that “it’s not about dance steps. It’s just about translating a message through physicality, no matter how you do it.”
Cue the basket toss.
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