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He's 'Bring It On: The Musical's' chief cheerleader

Director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler tackles the challenges of bringing the cheerleading film to the musical theater stage.

November 06, 2011|By Rob Weinert-Kendt, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Spinning in air are Elle McLemore, left, as Eva and Taylor Louderman as Campbell in the musical "Bring It On."
Spinning in air are Elle McLemore, left, as Eva and Taylor Louderman as Campbell… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — — 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.

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