Andy Blankenbuehler doesn’t actually have “Lend him an era, and he’ll make it dance” on his business card, but he could. For a conspicuous case-in-point, look no further than Broadway’s reigning juggernaut, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, where Blankenbuehler hip-hops and hurrahs his way through the American Revolution, making it both contemporary and credible. This dizzying swirl of history, character and movement is so intense you never know where his Tony-winning choreography ends and Thomas Kail’s Tony-winning direction begins.
In Bandstand, bowing on Broadway tonight at the Jacobs theater in Manhattan, he makes it easy for you, hyphenating himself and taking on both jobs. It, too, is a portrait of war-winning Americans returning to everyday sturm und drang—this, in post-World War II 1945.
If Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) had been one of the boys in the band instead of one of the boys in the bank, you would basically have Bandstand.
Our hero is Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), a Cleveland jazz pianist who cobbles together a sextet of returning war vets, replete with girl singer (Laura Osnes) who’s the war widow of his best friend. They set their sites on winning a national contest by writing a song that best salutes the U. S. troops; the winner will be used in a big MGM musical. That’s the maypole around which the cast dances—a very Mickey-Rooney-and-Judy-Garland sort of thing, but then the show gives off those kinds of sparks.
The musical’s producers hope that revisiting an iconic slice of American history will appeal to audiences during a competitive Broadway season. “Bandstand is a truly American story of love, loss, triumph and the everyday men and women whose personal bravery defined a nation”, declares the show’s press release.
“I called Hamilton kind of a hip-hop ballet, and it’s the same sort of energy in this world, too,” says Blankenbuehler. “I loved the idea of things just happening all the time so the audience has to lean forward in their chairs to follow the story-telling.”
In his second outing as a Broadway hyphenate, he certainly hasn’t made it easy on himself by picking a project that requires quadruple talents who can sing, dance, act and play musical instruments. This kind of critter, he quickly learned, doesn’t come in bunches like bananas. “It was a really difficult show to cast,” he confesses. “We would start one person at a time. We’d find somebody who could play the trumpet, and then we’d put him in the reading. Then the next reading, it might be ‘Oh, that person also plays drums.’ In a show like this, you add the cast very, very slowly.
“Last year we did Bandstand at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, NJ, and that was a great benefit because there were several musicians who had never been on stage before. It was like an acting class for them. Luckily, they had a transitional period of six months to get their feet wet and learn their craft—to really learn how to be consistent. As musicians, they already knew how to be consistent with their music.
“We were asking them to be consistent with their emotions, both speaking and acting. It was a big learning process. We also found a couple of great actors and singers who we had to make better musicians so we also needed that time period.”
The musicians recruited to make the swinging big-band sounds of the 1940s for this newly-minted “Donny Nova Band” have their post-traumatic stress disorders tucked neatly out of sight. The bassist (Brandon J. Ellis) drowns his memory of liberating Dachau in drink; the drummer (Joe Carroll) is still reeling from having a shell turn his jeep into a whirling dervish; the trombonist (Geoff Packard) is a tightly wound, terribly reluctant team player; the trumpeter (Alex Bender) and the saxophonist (James Nathan Hopkins) have their tics as well, only you have to look for them.
Bandstand’s book and lyrics were co-written by composer Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor (albeit, not the one with widow’s peak at MGM). The latter allows it wasn’t easy filling in the blanks of the nonverbal. Indeed, he says, “it was a huge challenge to write a story about men who didn’t talk about what they experienced. They were being basically followed around by the ghosts of the men they left behind on the battlefield, but they wouldn’t—or couldn’t—talk about it. This was Before Oprah, before people spoke about the traumatic things that they’ve been through.
“But Andy said to us, ‘I know how to do this. I know how to get you inside of their heads, just with the choreography and the staging. You don’t have to verbalize any of what they’re feeling because you will be able to see it.’ That’s what I love about Andy’s choreography. It’s not just movement for movement’s sake. He’s telling a story constantly with everything he has the dancers do. It takes such an enormous burden off of us writers and allows the story to function so much more truthfully.”
Blankenbuehler thrives on such challenges. “Because it’s so difficult to do a show about not communicating, I really wanted to understand what would be stuck inside of their heads—what would they be doing inside. That’s very much what our story’s about. Just because men don’t speak doesn’t mean they’re not complicated on the inside. If you were to take somebody’s inner emotions or thoughts and theatricalize them, what would that music sound like? What would that physicality look like? I think that’s a really interesting way for an audience member to watch a character.
“The great thing about our show is that it has to deal a lot with these vets—explore the physicality of what these men and women go through. What does it feel like to carry your duffle bag and put it on the floor? What does it feel like being in a trench, crawling forward? Those physicalities we can duplicate at other times in the show.”
In point of fact, the director-choreographer has been dancing to swing for 44 of his 47 years. The hip-hop rhythms that now inform his work began just a decade ago with his first Tony-winning collaboration with Kail and Miranda. “I never did hip-hop before In the Heights. I grew up doing the kind of movement that jazz music inspired—music in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s rhythmically so similar to hip-hop. It’s percussive, and the energy is really guttural and exciting.”
He adds: “Because of my relationship with Lin-Manuel and the In the Heights people, I went more with the contemporary music. Musically, it is very similar to me. In fact, when I started choreographing In the Heights, I used to choreograph 1940s’ steps and then turn them into hip-hop.”
The first of the several years that Blankenbuehler put in on Bandstand was hardly spent investigating wartime vintage dance. “I actually did less research on the dance side of it than I did on the social side of it, showing men coming home from the war.
“I watched anything and everything. I read a ton of World War II books, history and both fiction and nonfiction. There’ve been so many beautiful films made—like all the stuff Spielberg did, Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. They so graphically show the war in a way that it becomes like this very sobering history lesson. The images stick. Even though we’re not portraying the war, it’s important for the actors and me to understand what happened to these people before they got to our show.”
Blankenbuehler has risen steadily through the Broadway ranks from chorus boy (five shows) to choreographer (seven shows) to director-choreographer (debuting in 2012 with an outrageously acrobatic salute to cheerleading skills, Bring It On: The Musical). At this juncture, there appears to be no turning back. “I love wearing multiple hats,” Mr. Two-Hats is quick to admit. “I also love that my choreography is not just about dance steps. When I’m directing, I’m forced all the time to see the character first and see the story first, and that teaches me a lot as a choreographer.”