Andy Blankenbuehler

Hamilton’s Andy Blankenbuehler on His Tony Award-Winning Choreography

Fans of Hamilton who might have only heard the cast album finally get to see the masterpiece in its full glory. The pop-culture phenomenon — which earned 11 Tony Awards including Best Musical, a Grammy Award, and Pulitzer Prize — is now available on Disney+.

That means Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is taking center stage in living rooms around the world — and for some viewers, it might appear different. 

Cinematic Focus

“It clearly is a live theatrical presentation, but there’s things about it that feel very [cinematic],” Blankenbuehler explained. When the show is viewed from a theatre, the audience is free to look wherever their eyes wonder. “[My choreography] affect[s] focus, but ultimately, the final decision comes to you in film. We tell you where to look much more. Because of that, the frame of my choreography is actually different on the movie than it is on stage.”

“It’s such a stunning experience when you watch the show from the front,” he said of sitting in the theater but adding that on film, “The show still works. The show is still exciting.”

Blankenbuehler worked with Hamilton’s director, Tommy Kail, briefly in the editing studio when they started putting the film together a few years ago but his attention was focused on opening another Broadway show at the time. Since Hamilton, Blankenbuehler went on to choreograph a revival of Cats (as well as the film) and the musical, Bandstand, which earned him another Tony Award.

Behind the Scenes

For every show Blankenbuehler works on, he spends a ton of time researching the era before putting his steps on paper. Sometimes its historical research and other times its about fashion. “In Bandstand, the average gentleman smokes. I don’t smoke, but in 1940, they did. So, I had to learn what it would feel like to have that as a crutch or vise. With Hamilton, I was really preoccupied with boots; guns; coats; the weight of the fabric.”

He read the Alexander Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow on which the show is inspired by but learned much of the history about the election of 1800 and The Federalist Papers from Tommy Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“What was more important to me as the physical builder was creating people who were honest; creating people who were very accessible to contemporary people,” he explained of what went into choreographing the show. “So when an audience member saw the love relationship on stage, like Angelica and Hamilton or Eliza and Hamilton, they would recognize elements of that attraction. I wanted to get those things right. Because ultimately, I think a lot of the audience doesn’t know the history. They know, we’re American. They know the Declaration of Independence, and they know there was a war with England, but they don’t know the specifics.”

To get that feeling up on stage, Blankenbuehler created an inspiration wall plastered with archival photos, oil paintings, or anything from that time period of the 1700s, which was challenging since there aren’t photos from that era.

“There may be a photograph of somebody from 200 years ago or 100 years ago, and I’ll imitate the way one of their shoulders is higher than the other. That’ll become the choreography with one shoulder higher than the other. I just think that’s a really exciting way to tap into the things that have happened before us.”

Where to Look

Something also to note, which Blankenbuehler says is supposed to be subtle subtext “not to be noticed but to be felt,” is which way the characters turn throughout the two hours and forty-minute performance.

“All during the night, I represent the idea of inevitability from left to right. So the whole show keeps rotating that way. Like when Hamilton has a new idea — he turns left. When we resist fate, we turn right. So when Hamilton dies, he turns right. When Philip (Anthony Ramos) dies, he rotates right. When Washington (Christopher Jackson) leaves his post, he rotates right.” 

What audiences might also notice is the linear staging during Aaron Burr’s (Leslie Odom Jr.) numbers. “Most staging around the Burr is linear. It’s square. Everything Hamilton does happens in circles. [In] all his moments; the ensemble functions in straight lines around him as opposed to curves.”

The Bullet

Fans have also been drawing attention on social media to Ariana DeBose’s exceptional and standout performance as “The Bullet.” The Tony Award-nominated actress is set to appear as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and Alyssa Greene in Ryan Murphy’s The Prom on Netflix later this year.

“The thing about ‘The Bullet’ that is moving to me, is that in the opening number, she’s not carrying the bullet…she’s carrying the responsibility of the story,” explained Blankenbuehler. “She’s actually trying to slow down the bullet because so much has to be said for us to understand Hamilton, but also understand our faults as humans to understand where we might go in the future. The first time she grabs the bullet, she’s slowing it down, because we have to understand that Hamilton must write for George Washington in order to save his own life. Hamilton bends down to write in his journal and the bullet goes over his head. So that is what is, to me, being illustrated there. In the finale, she grabs the bullet. Every cast member joins her to help slow down the bullet. In those few moments is when he knows what was most important in his life: Washington, [his] son, Laurens, Lafayette, Jefferson, and Eliza. The bullet is slowing down so he can set her free, so to speak.”

Back to the Beginning

It was an already established creative collaboration that made choreography like “The Bullet” possible in Hamilton. His partnership with Kail, Miranda, and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire began with In The Heights.

Blankenbuehler actually had to interview with Kail, Miranda, and playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes for the choreographer position on Heights — and at first, he didn’t get the job.

“I actually presented a piece of my own choreography, not from their show but just to talk about,” he recalled of the interview. Blankenbuehler says typically choreographers are asked to present staging ideas using songs from the proposed show. “Ultimately, they went with somebody else.” A year later, Blankenbuehler learned that the person that was originally hired for the show didn’t work out and that’s when he got the gig.

“We were talking as people,” Blankenbuehler said of one of the reasons why the dynamic with Miranda and Kail works. “I remember, they came in and they were laughing so hard about The West Wing and I was like, ‘these are normal dudes and it was a really nice energy to be in.”

He said this meeting was relatively at the beginning of their careers when “nobody had done anything — everybody had something to prove. Even though I had a big Broadway dance career, I had a lot to prove. Every one of us was hungry, hungry, hungry, and I think that was appealing to all of us.”

In the Future

In the Heights, Blankenbuehler said, was one of the last interviews he ever had to do.

Now, he has several new projects that are “in a bit of limbo right now” due to the pandemic including the new musical Only Gold. He chose to work on this one while in self-isolation from his home dance studio.

“It’s so beautiful and it’s so risky,” he teased about Only Gold, which is about a maharaja in 1920s Paris set to Kate Nash’s music. “it’s so out of the box that it may be a grand failure. But it’s been an exceptional time of artistic therapy — not just COVID isolation but the last few years.”

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