"My choreographic life sort of changed when I met Lin," said Hamilton's Andy Blankenbuehler of his ongoing partnership with the show's Pulitzer Prize-winning creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. "His syncopation is really funky and cool, and I'm a totally rhythmic-based choreographer," he explained during a recent conversation about the details of his Tony-nominated movement. "It's closest to my own instinct, so it's really fun for me."
Andy Blankenbuehler, a former Broadway dancer, was given the opportunity to join the team of Miranda's Broadway-bound In the Heights as choreographer at a time when he didn't have a single other Broadway credit to his name. The show (his second to hit Broadway after The Apple Tree) went all the way to the 2009 Tonys, netting him an award for choreography. Since then, Blankenbuehler has gone on to work with Miranda twice more, on 2012's Bring It On, and now, Miranda's supernova of a musical, Hamilton.
"There are so many layers of detail [in Hamilton]," he said, reflecting on their most recent collaboration, which tells the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. "In the way a uniform coat would feel on your body or the way boots would feel on your feet, so it's like a field day for me as a choreographer to have such specific blueprints to work from."
What's your creative process like?
Well, you've got to figure out character. Like, a passive character has their feet together, an active character has one foot in front of the other. I learned that from Michelangelo, the statue of Moses. Moses is sitting down, but he has one foot in front of the other because he's about to stand up and deliver the Ten Commandments to the world.
And then I like to do a draft and the next day or the next week go back and do a further draft and deepen colors or lighten colors. Because every new day, I might pass somebody on my commute on the subway that makes me think of something and I'll go into the studio and I'll change a dance step. I think our responsibility in art is to never stop, which is exactly what Hamilton is about. It's exactly what Alexander Hamilton thinks. He's like, "I'm never gonna stop until we accomplish everything."
What are some of the basic building blocks in your Hamilton choreography?
One thing that makes this score so extraordinary is that there are big thematic gestures that repeat. One of those is "Just like my country I'm young scrappy and hungry." That's a big movement phrase for us. We do it in "My Shot" and it repeats several other times in the show in pieces. We do it in the middle of "Right Hand Man," we do it at the very end of the show when he says "Legacy, what is a legacy?" In my secret head, it's like a broken down version of the Pledge of Allegiance.
There's another really important [moment] that happens in "Room Where It Happens." [In that song], the ensemble was always intended, from my side, to be Burr's ego. It's like sometimes when you know you've screwed up, the voice inside your head is mocking you, like, "How could you be so stupid?" It's almost cartoony. It's almost like a play on the minstrel show idea, where people are being pushed down and just mocked. And that's how Hamilton is making Burr feel. So there's a move in that that's like a burlesque move, like an upper body shimmy, which is sort of a Fosse-esque thing.
Also Fred Astaire does this [dance from a] Bojangles movie musical where he has taps on his hands and taps on his feet and then there's 50 of him behind him. And I imitate that a little bit.
What were some of the most difficult moments for you to choreograph?
I struggled with how to use the guns in the show. The red coats use their guns but the Americans only use their guns when they win the Battle of Yorktown. But if you're gonna do a piece of choreography where you're miming shooting a gun, you better put your legs wide together and you'd better use your back, because that gun still weighs 35 pounds. Even if you don't have one in your hand, the movement has to be honest or the audience just sees right through you. I mean these people are doing hip-hop moves, and you believe they're winning the battle.
Another interesting challenge was the social dance, "Helpless/Satisfied." I wanted it to feel like a traditional gavotte, but as soon as I was learning those traditional dances I was completely uninterested in them. But what I took away from it was the formality of conversation, the distance between their bodies. They're only touching with their hands, and they're conversing while they're dancing. So if you notice in "Helpess/Satisfied," the first thing they do is just touch palms and then about 20 seconds later, they're grinding because they don't want to just touch hands, they want to grind, but also because it's that situation meeting 2016.
What moments in Hamilton still make you emotional?
The most simple moments. I spoke at [the Drama Desk Awards] last year and I was really emotional because that week my daughter was cured of cancer. It was after three years of like chemotherapy every day. And so my family went through a fight for life for three years.
I said that that night in that speech. One of my favorite moments is the rowers and the end of the show when Hamilton's dying and they're rowing next to him. Literally, that's how I felt because of my daughter. And so it's those moments that are conceptual that I'm really proud of and I'm so thankful that the writers, Lin and [director] Tommy [Kail] and [musical director] Alex [Lacamoire], are trusting dance to accomplish that.
Do you feel like Hamilton is breaking musical theater rules?
The show broke all rules from the beginning. But you know what it doesn't break the rules about? I think the reason the show is ultimately special is because it's so honest. Like, the ground zero is that we're gonna tell a real story about real connection between people. And so no matter if I'm going in slow motion or fast motion or my feet are flexed or my feet are pointed, as long as the core idea in the step in the moment is honest, then that is our rule.