Bridgett Raffenberg from 365 Things to Do in Cincinnati caught up with Cincinnatian Andy Blankenbuehler in NYC to talk about choreographing HAMILTON.
Bridgett Raffenberg: Tell us a bit about your background and career.
Andy Blankenbuehler: I’m a director and choreographer in New York City. I grew up in Cincinnati. I moved to New York City and had a career as a Broadway performer, transitioned into choreography, met the wonderful Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy [Kail] and Alex [Lacamoire], and we all made a show called In the Heights together, and later HAMILTON. I started directing a little bit, so now I direct and choreograph on Broadway.
BR: And you are a graduate of Cincinnati’s Nativity School and St. Xavier High School.
AB: I grew up in Pleasant Ridge. I went to Nativity grade school where I did the The Music Man and Sound of Music. I did a bunch of fun plays there as a community theater artist. I went to St. X and I did not do my freshman musical, but I watched it and was so wowed by it that I knew it was something that I wanted to do.
So I did Godspell there as a sophomore, and that was the thing that killed me…I was sunk from then on out. I was going to be a Broadway performer no matter how hard it was going to be to get there. My junior year I did Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and that was the first show that I ever choreographed. My senior year I did The Wizard of Oz at TX and then the rest, as they say, is kind of history.
BR: Can you tell us a little bit of what it was like to do choreography for HAMILTON?
AB: HAMILTON was an overwhelming challenge. It was a huge piece. There’s almost 20,000 words in the show, so there’s a lot of information and a lot of lyric. I was privy to the ideas very early on when the songs were being written, and I had a great collaboration with Alex, Tommy and Lin.
I was out of town working on another show and I had a track of a reading of HAMILTON. So every morning I would push go and for like two and a half, three hours, I would listen to this show from beginning to end. The first thing that struck me was that I had to find a way to make each idea different, each chapter in the story different, each character in the story different. So that went on for months just listening and never choreographing a step. I was writing notes, things like, maybe this is where the redcoats have their guns, or maybe this is only bluecoats I see and no redcoats. Maybe this section is just stomping.
I would find those ideas and slowly I started to be able to visualize the show and then I went to work on the choreography. That process for me is I go to the gym in the morning, then I do a dance warm-up, then I just start playing the music. I improvise for a couple of hours and make up dance steps and then as soon as I feel like I have a foothold of an idea, then I start to really craft out what happens around it. It’s like oil painting, one layer on the next layer and that lasts for several months.
BR: One of the things that fascinated me was the spinning floor, the turntable. Tell me about how that came into play because it was such a huge element.
AB: When we first staged the workshop there was no revolve. We had talked about maybe the idea of it, but we hadn’t committed to it. But the way I started staging the show, it always revolved. The sense of counterclockwise momentum to me felt like time passage. It felt like the inevitability of life, maybe that’s because we read left to right. So the show kept doing this all night long. Every time we’d leave a scenic outline, drop a chair, people’s bodies would keep circling the same way.
So after we staged the first act of the show that way, then we all got back together and said what about two revolves, so they can contrast each other and go in opposite directions. And so we committed to that turntable.
Then I had a model with the two turntables on it. So what I would do is I would choreograph during the day and then I would take my ideas and I’d sit at the kitchen table with a bottle of wine and for several hours I would just slowly rotate and time the rotations, hear the music in my head and see what would feel right. It’s very different if a chair rotates in 30 seconds compared with a chair that rotates in 15 seconds. One feels rushed, one feels graceful. And so it was like a two-part process of choreographing and choreographing the turntable.
BR: There’s so much dialogue during your choreography. Is that different from other shows you’ve done?
AB: You know, early on, because the text was so important in the show and the detail was so specific, Tommy and I would say, “We have to stay out of the way of the words.” Whatever we do we had to bring the words to life, not in any way distract from them. And so there was a constant sculpting away…I might feel an idea, but then how does that idea not pull too much focus, unless I want it to be all focused and just help bring the lyrics forward.
So in a way it’s a difficult challenge, but it’s a wonderful challenge because there’s nothing greater to me as an artist than to bring a story to life. Lin’s blueprint of the story is so honest and it’s so specific that it’s almost like painting by numbers. I still have to invent the really great colors, but I know where to put the colors. And I know the characters really well. His writing makes you understand those emotional situations so well, something like “Quiet Uptown” or the tension that leads into the duel. It’s been a privilege working with something where there’s a thousand ideas and all of them could be good and I just have to pick ten.
BR: Do you have a favorite part?
AB: I have a lot of favorite parts in HAMILTON and I think as a choreographer, as an artist, the biggest blessing that HAMILTON can bring is that I actually love the work. So many times you make something and as soon as you’ve made it you wish you had done this, or that could be better. With HAMILTON we all had the sense of pride that we’ve done our best work and it actually thrills us to watch it and to re-choreograph it and to restage it on new groups.
So when I watch the show, there are a lot of moments that bring me a lot of joy. I love “Room Where It Happens.” I’m very proud of “Yorktown.” I love especially the Mulligan Rap in “Yorktown.” “The Room Where It Happens” is probably my favorite thing I’ve ever choreographed.
I really like the last fifteen minutes. “Obedient Servant” rapping into Burr’s duel, rapping into Hamilton’s duel. That was hard for me to sort of give birth to, but I’m proud of it. I really like the duels and in particular in Number Six, I like how the cast rotates one way, but the person who shoots rotates the other way. I think it’s a really interesting thing. Probably the most emotional moment for me is the two rowers at the end who are rowing Hamilton across the water.
There are a lot of moments in the show that I look back with fondness and I think when I’m old and gray, when I think about the show, I’ll love both the memory of the show but also the memory of how I got there.
About the Show:
With book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, direction by Thomas Kail, choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler and musical supervision and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, HAMILTON is based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies who became George Washington’s right-hand man during the Revolutionary War and was the new nation’s first Treasury Secretary. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, blues, rap, R&B, and Broadway, HAMILTON is the story of America then, as told by America now.