But for Blankenbuehler -- who won the Tony Award for In The Heights in 2008 and whose credits range from Broadway's 9 To 5 to concert work for Bette Midler -- being a blank slate was a plus. "I had no ingrained idea of what cheerleading was, so I had a fresh take on everything," he says.
Blankenbuehler's first goal was to make some connections in the cheerleading world, so he began attending competitions and enlisted the help of premier cheerleading company Varsity as well as Jessica Colombo, a respected cheerleading competition judge and choreographer. He spent hours surfing YouTube in order to get familiar with the various moves and different styles of cheerleading, then turned to Colombo for feedback in terms of what would work for the stage.
"In cheerleading competitions a lot of things fail; some stunts don't hit," says Blankenbuehler. "But in our show we needed to hit the stunts all the time. So we started to develop the choreography in a way that it could look visually exciting but be repeatable."
Still, Blankenbuehler knew he didn't want cheerleading to take up the entire show. Instead, the creative team, which includes bookwriter Jeff Whitty, composer Tom Kitt, and lyricists Lin-Manuel Miranda and Amanda Green, worked together to alter the plot of the original movie. Now, cheerleading fanatic Campbell (played by Taylor Louderman) is placed into a multiethnic school with no cheerleading squad. As she struggles to fit in and form a squad from scratch, the choreography balances a strong hip-hop element with visually exciting cheerleading stunts.
"We have a really great arsenal of tools to pull from," says Blankenbuehler. "In a normal musical, when an emotional moment gets really big, the soloist might sing a high note. We're accomplishing the same thing through physicality. That girl flying up in the air is a 3-D physical representation of a high note, so we have physical vocabulary that goes bigger than you're used to seeing."
The company includes traditional Broadway triple threats as well as 13 cast members who cheered competitively or at the college level, which made for some interesting rehearsals. "You'd say, 'Take a step stage right,' and they wouldn't know what we were talking about," recalls Blankenbuehler, who early on posted signs on the walls of the rehearsal studio indicating "Stage Right" and "Stage Left."
"It was a constant education," he says. "It was the same with the musical theater actors. If we changed a cheerleading move, it wasn't second nature to them, so we had to drill it and drill it and drill it, whereas the cheerleaders could roll with the punches."
As one might imagine, safety is a major concern for this show, where the actors are sometimes tossed up 23 feet in the air. Accordingly, the production follows the same rules and regulations as national cheerleading competitions, including the use of a padded and sprung floor, and the stunts are rehearsed daily, in the same way that productions featuring combat hold a fight call before curtain.
"We have a whole staff of people who specialize in cheerleading, so there's always quality control," he says. "Technique is vital. Every day there are reminders about where the foot goes, where the hands go, the timing. Ours is a show where we can't round the edges."
Most importantly, Blankenbuehler says cheerleading is simply the lens used to tell the story. "We all have opinions on cheerleaders," he says. "In high school we either hated the cheerleader, we had a crush on the cheerleader, we were envious, or we thought they were stupid. Whatever the cliché was, people have the same clichés about the show. But in the end, we're really intent on creating a musical that's an exciting emotional story. I think that's going to surprise some people."
Don't show this again.