Interview: Hamilton Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler
I couldn’t have an interview with Andy Blankenbuehler without asking about Hamilton, the mega Broadway musical which he choreographed that has equivocally become a cultural phenomenon. Sure, I was chatting with him about his new production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat —which is coming to Philly at the end of December — but his creative juice behind both productions is quite similar.
“It’s hard to talk about it because it is so big,” he says of Hamilton. “The process mirrored my life. My daughter was going through chemo while I was working on the show, so we were literally fighting for life, which is what the show is about. It’s a rite of passage. It tested everything that created my emotional life for the last 45 years, and it is all the things I’ve ever wanted to do.”
As with Hamilton, he thinks Joseph, which will turn 50 years old in a matter of months, has to contain a sense of truth. The Andrew Lloyd Webber show, which has had many incarnations through the years, is one of the first that Blankenbuehler did as a kid. Growing up Catholic, he says he struggled with seeing the show beyond the literal Biblical stories that, on the surface level, seem to be the core of the musical. But it’s a lot more than that.
“It’s about redemption and about second chances,” he says. “There’s so many productions of it that have been so 2-D, but we’ve moved beyond those. The biggest part is that we have a responsibility as artists to find truth. I’m a big believer that we ought to talk to kids as if they were adults, and kids are going to the theater to see these shows, and for some of them, it’s their first show ever. As with Hamilton, in Joseph there is a level of emotional truth that forces the audience to go on the journey.”
Blankenbuehler would know about that “journey.” He’s staged and choreographed some of Broadway’s biggest hits, including In The Heights, 9 to 5, and the recent revival of Annie. He’s also performed in a number of shows, including Fosse and Guys and Dolls. But, as he tells me, it wasn’t until recently that he noticed a change in his work and how he approaches it.
“I’ve spent my life trying to make things shiny,” he says. “That’s fine, and you can make a living trying to make things shiny, but I’ve come to the conclusion in the best possible way that if I want to change the rules, I have to break them first.”
That’s where his working relationship with Andrew Lloyd Webber comes in, a man who Blankenbuehler says “set out to break the rules” and is “unafraid to say anything.” He’s working on another project with Webber, something he can’t yet talk about, and he’s spent a lot of time with the famed composer.
“He is genius and courageous and a romantic,” Blankenbuehler says. “Andrew has an unabashed sensibility in creating melody. The melodies take you to places and the audience recognizes that sensibility. He has a gutsiness that does not age.”
His love for Webber all but grew recently when he saw the composer’s newest, Broadway’s School of Rock. “It’s totally different, but carried by a passion for music,” he says.
It seems that the same passion is in Blankenbuehler, who says that even his children seem to understand how musical theater has impacted their lives.
“On Thanksgiving, my family and I were holding hands and my daughter was saying a prayer,” he says. “She said, ‘Thank you, Mommy, and Daddy, and Lin-Manuel‘” (If you don’t know who the last one is, he’s the genius behind Hamilton).
“We’ve been very, very lucky,” Blankenbuehler adds. “I have had to live pay check to pay check for 40 years, so there’s a real pride of accomplishment that we’ve made it.”
Andy Blankenbuehler’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat comes to Philadelphia’s Merriam Theatre December 29th through January 3rd. For tickets and more information, click here.
PS: I reached out to the Kimmel to see if and when we might see Hamilton here in Philly. Fran Egler, Director of Broadway Philadelphia Programming, told me, “We are in discussion with the show’s booking agents. We look forward to bringing it to Philadelphia in the future.”
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