Democracy in action has never looked cooler than in “Hamilton,” in which the fighting strength of people who changed the world comes through in the tension and bravado of the choreography.
Contemporary urgency is the great gift of this remarkable musical, which has begun its fourth year on Broadway and has spawned numerous touring productions, including one now at the Kennedy Center. Credit the fiery magnetism of its key performers (I’ve recently seen both the New York and Washington casts, and they’re equally strong), as well as creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize-winning rap lyrics and compositional mastery.
But there’s another, relatively unsung hero, and his name is Andy Blankenbuehler.
He’s the one who makes the revolution sexy. And not just because the dancers are, pretty much, wearing underwear. (And boots.)
Blankenbuehler won a Tony for his “Hamilton” choreography and has two others, for Miranda’s earlier musical “In the Heights” and, more recently, “Bandstand.” Yet the intricacy and impact of his work haven’t received nearly the same critical attention as “Hamilton’s” other elements.
I suspect that’s because the dancing is so fast-paced and punchy, like Miranda’s lyrics, and it’s difficult for the eye and the mind to process. It mostly looks like hip-hop, but it’s deeply idiosyncratic. The dancers are incessantly vigorous — you can feel their energy course through you, vicariously — but they accomplish this with few kicks and almost no jumps. The action is taut and contained, with a lot of propulsion through the arms and shoulders.
There are no dance breaks, no production numbers divorced from the lyrics. And though the musical tells the story of Revolutionary War hero and Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, you see no Colonial-era reels, no minuets, not a single status step from the days of dance masters and balls.
Blankenbuehler said in an interview that he helped himself generously to the Justin Timberlake style manual, as well as the acrobatic eroticism of Paula Abdul. He borrowed a moment here and there from Broadway and Hollywood greats such as Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Fred Astaire and Jack Cole. “Hamilton” delivers these influences beautifully. But where it stakes its own turf is in your nervous system. It refuses to let you think about your to-do list: It grabs your focus and holds you captive, afraid to miss what’s coming next. The way the dancers respond to the lyrics can make you feel like you’re living the story, participating in it.
That, at least, is what it does for me.
Let’s look at one of the show’s most memorable song-and-dance numbers — “The Room Where It Happens.” Here, as Hamilton’s nemesis, Aaron Burr, rages about being shut out of the dealmaking between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the song takes on a theme you could find in a Fosse musical: the insidious intertwining of power, secrecy and jealousy, staged in an atmosphere of deep shadows and deeper tensions. It’s a celebration of the ego and the dark impulses that fuel it. Blankenbuehler dips deliciously into the Fosse playbook, giving the dancers splayed fingers, jolting haunches and dance-hall struts that draw out the beat. Picture the women in black fishnets instead of their nude-colored bodices and leggings and I’ll wager you’ll pick up hints of the cellblock tango from Fosse’s “Chicago.”
But Blankenbuehler doesn’t stop there. With nods to vaudeville and burlesque, there’s a lot going on here, including hip-hop’s body rolls and chest pops — and lots of attitude. The men and women are equally, slinkily seductive.
Blankenbuehler’s work is full of surprises, an achievement in a nearly through-choreographed musical that’s almost three hours long. I wanted to know how he did it, so we met recently at the 42nd Street Studios in New York to talk during his lunch break.
Of course, the choreographer long ago moved on from “Hamilton” — he’s now rehearsing a new musical called “Only Gold,” about an Indian jeweler in turn-of-the century Paris; he’s taking on writing and directorial duties, as well as the choreography. Blankenbuehler got his start as a Broadway dancer, and he still has the trim physique, along with a froth of unruly black hair and an unmistakable vigor. When we met — after he burst through the doors — it was clear he was still feeling the exhilaration of seeing his new project come to life. (No word yet on when it will hit the stage.)
Blankenbuehler has no appetite for formal steps or technique. “I’m not interested in dance vocabulary. I’m interested in people vocabulary, and heightening it into dance,” he says. “So if I’m a Redcoat, the idea of how I hold a really heavy 35-pound gun becomes the dance step.”
To create the movement for the song “Stay Alive,” where Hamilton laments the hell of the Revolutionary War, with troops eating their horses and George Washington despondent, Blankenbuehler stuck pictures on his walls of Redcoats as they were depicted in paintings, looking like intense, unemotional killing machines. In the choreography that resulted, he says, “there is no emotion, there’s no funk; it’s just tension, and it’s always leaning forward, so we can understand the stakes that the Bluecoats are trying to win against.”
Capturing tension became Blankenbuehler’s marker of successful choreography, using tension to help explain the conflict of the main character — like Burr’s growing, almost manic resolve in “The Room Where It Happens” — and reminding the audience of the subtext. For this, Blankenbuehler draws on our emotional responses to movement, the way we feel tension immediately when we see people with their shoulders hunched.
The audience, he says, “doesn’t need to analyze it. The movement just needs to manipulate them.” Blankenbuehler likens it to how the music from the movie “Jaws” scares us, that low, thrumming, simple beat prompting an immediate response: Something bad is about to happen.
Yet with about 25 production numbers in “Hamilton,” Blankenbuehler didn’t want to exhaust the audience. He had to find something simple to make each one feel different. And so: “Let’s do an entire Battle of Yorktown with no guns in our hands.” (Instead, the dancer-soldiers, women as well as men, move in a kind of stylized sign language, reaching behind, above, tossing memories and the past to the ground.) “And then when the guns finally touched our hands, we win the war. It was about, when do I introduce props? When do I introduce a different kind of a shoe?”
Most of the show is tightly, minutely choreographed — every gesture, every angle of the leg. But there are a few moments where the dancers improvise along certain parameters, such as in the song “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” in which Hamilton’s infidelity blows up on early American social media.
Letting the dancers freestyle is important, Blankenbuehler says, because the key concept of the show is equating the revolutionaries with hip-hop culture. “It was people breaking the rules,” he says. “People disregarding the standard and saying, ‘You know what, I’m unhappy and there’s a better way to do it.’ And when you look at hip-hop music today, that’s what it’s doing.
“That allows us to tell this 275-year-old story in a way that says nothing has changed. It’s your story, because the audience looks at the social unrest onstage and recognizes it from down the street.”
The tributes to Blankenbuehler’s dance idols are part of this. Years ago, as a young dancer who had just arrived in New York, he bought a front-row ticket to the show “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” an anthology of Robbins’s work. After each suite, he recalls, “the cast put their feet together and bowed their heads.”
You see that same humble bow from the cast in “Hamilton’s” opening number, the song that introduces its loquacious, impulsive and prickly hero.
“And remember,” Blankenbuehler says, “they’re bowing to the whole idea of Alexander Hamilton and our accomplishment as a country. But that’s also my way of saying I understand, truly, how it can feel, because of my idolization of Jerome Robbins.”
In June 1788, the Hamilton of history delivered these words on the adoption of the Constitution: “Here, sir, the people govern.” The musical “Hamilton” unapologetically draws a line from that sentiment to its retelling through rap and hip-hop. It proudly throws its own medium — Broadway and the whole entertainment industry — into the mix. It presents its characters as, in Blankenbuehler’s words, Olympians and superhumans, standing in for our forefathers, and for us, who are charged to carry on their ideals.
Government by the people looks terrific here. It looks like a racially diverse cast and a gender-neutral army and a ballroom where couples grind because the old-school norms are a bore. It’s embodied in all the reaching forward, the grabbing, the slamming away of fears. It’s freedom you can feel. It even makes you want to join in.
Hamilton Through Sept. 16 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.