NEW YORK — As the triple Tony-winning choreographer of “Hamilton,” “In the Heights” and “Bandstand,” Andy Blankenbuehler has found artistic glory, satisfaction and success beyond imagining.
“There’s a lot of storytelling ability in dance, but in musical theater, people champion words first,” he says on a recent evening at the off-Broadway MCC Theater, a couple of hours before the curtain rises on his new show, “Only Gold.” “And so many times as a dancer, you don’t feel integral. You don’t feel like you are helping the story really come around.”
So he decided there was only one thing to do: flip open his laptop and write it himself.
The result is a vigorous and wholly unconventional theatrical production that’s part rock ballet, part musical theater. Blankenbuehler, 52, not only directed and choreographed “Only Gold” — he also co-wrote the book, with playwright Ted Malawer. The story, which Blankenbuehler devised, is set in fiery 1928 Paris, where a visiting king hopes to rekindle a cold marriage while his queen, their daughter and a jeweler’s wife try to seize control of their own lives.
“That idea was really exciting to me — the pressure that society puts on us to find perfection, to find the shiniest thing, to be in charge,” says Blankenbuehler, the creator of such iconic “Hamilton” dance numbers as the intricate, explosive “The Room Where It Happens” and the rotating, rewinding “Satisfied.”
Blankenbuehler knew exactly what kind of musical atmosphere he wanted for “Only Gold”: “crazy, female-empowered music,” he says, “with a headbanging, garage-band sound.” He tapped British pop star and actor Kate Nash to create it. She wrote the show’s music and lyrics and narrates it, too, toggling between that role and singing and playing piano onstage. She’s backed by a live orchestra piped in from an adjoining studio.
It’s no surprise that the show’s theme of embracing new possibilities echoes Blankenbuehler’s own creative cri de coeur. He doesn’t really need to take risks at this point, having long ago made it as an artist, but he’s keen on challenging himself. He’s taken his choreography in new directions over the years, working in film (the adaptation of “Cats,” whose 2016 Broadway revival he also choreographed) and television (the FX series “Fosse/Verdon”). In 2019, the Tulsa Ballet premiered his first concert dance piece.
And yet, with a thriving career as a dance maestro, why take on the headache of coming up with a whole new show, too — literally dreaming up just about every bit of it?
After all, the dancing alone is taxing enough to create. Blankenbuehler’s method is to dance out a slew of options for each scene, experimenting for hours on end in the studio before landing on the single best choice, and then refining it over and over.
Settling into an empty office at the theater, Blankenbuehler sets down the laptop tucked under his arm. He’s slim and wiry, bristling with athleticism. Having spent the afternoon fine-tuning “Only Gold” for its official opening, he’s still in rehearsal clothes — black track jacket, running pants and sneakers. His voice bears traces of fatigue, but his words spill out at an energetic clip as he talks about the ups and downs of bringing this show to life. Especially when it came to the writing.
“As a choreographer, I’m functioning on all cylinders. I feel like I’m stronger than I’ve ever been,” he says. “But as a writer, I’m a complete novice. And so it was a horrible feeling.”
As the show came together rather bumpily, with not enough time and too much backstory and dance numbers that needed cutting, Blankenbuehler kept thinking about how “Hamilton” just clicked, for God’s sake — which is one heck of a yardstick.
But he kept at it for the sake of the dancing. To harness its power, the way he felt it in his own body.
“Most composers and writers don’t write for dance possibility. They write for singers’ possibility. They write for actors’ possibility,” he says. “My mission statement was, I want dance to tell the story. I want dancers to feel like they’re telling the story.
“In many ways, choreographers — we are writers,” he adds. “We’re just physical writers. And I think that’s where our industry at large sometimes doesn’t have faith in dance, because they think that dance is just finishing an idea, or putting the final coat of paint on an idea. But if we do our job well, the audience is learning so much more. If you do it well, you’re writing characters.”
The idea to create “Only Gold” came to him after the 2008 opening of “In the Heights,” the first Broadway musical written by actor-songwriter-playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, with its celebration of Dominican American life embodied in Blankenbuehler’s sharply etched, propulsive movement. A year or two after scooping up his first Tony for it, Blankenbuehler was on a plane, idly leafing through Vanity Fair, when a one-paragraph blurb caught his eye.
It described an outrageous $25 million diamond necklace on display in Paris that had been commissioned by the notorious Maharajah Bhupinder Singh in 1928. As the choreographer read about this eccentric ruler — a gifted athlete with extravagant appetites and wives, kids, concubines and Rolls-Royces galore, who died in his 40s — a production took shape in his mind.
“I instantly had this thought about writing a story,” Blankenbuehler says, “about a person who achieved everything that the world told them they were supposed to achieve, only to realize that it didn’t make them happy.”
The vibrant energy of Paris in the 1920s also spoke to him — the chaotic, creative “années folles,” or crazy years, when the arts and surrealism exploded and women shook off social mores, igniting a sexual revolution.
He gathered dancers into a studio and began working on moves, crafting corporeal signatures for the royals, hotel staff, jewelers. Then “Hamilton” happened. In time Blankenbuehler returned to “Only Gold.” Rehearsals, workshops. Funders signed on. So far, so good. He just needed to whip up a script. Then, in 2020, the covid shutdowns.
Also, he underwent knee surgery.
“Being stifled behind a desk, behind a computer, was 10 times as bad because I really was imprisoned,” he says. “With my surgery, with no dancers in the studio, with unfinished music. Like, I really did feel stuck … putting it on paper and not feeling good at it.” His fingers stray to the collar of his T-shirt, giving it a tug.
Malawer, his writing partner, disagrees.
“If he wants a career as a playwright, he can have one,” Malawer says. “I think he’s a fabulous writer. What’s so great about it is his innate sensibility. He approaches life and writing through a real hopeful and romantic lens, and he was confident in what he wanted.”
Crafting the script with the director-choreographer was also convenient, Malawer added, because after writing a scene together, when covid precautions allowed, Blankenbuehler would work on it further in the studio with the dancers.
“The next day, he’d say, ‘Here are the road blocks I’m hitting. How do we address this in the text?’ That allowed us to move along in a holistic way.”
But taking on so many roles presented problems, Blankenbuehler says. He missed the intense collaboration that birthed “Hamilton.”
“I know what it feels like when you get it right” because of that blockbuster show, he says. “But it was a ‘we’ getting it right, not me getting it right. And so that’s part of the problem with being director-choreographer-writer. I’ve excluded collaborators. When you have really smart people on a team, everything gets better. So the more specific my ideas get, unfortunately I have less collaborators. That can limit you.”
Blankenbuehler squints. He sits quietly for a moment.
“This is a good time to say that post-‘Hamilton,’ it’s hard to allow yourself to not be good at something,” he says finally. “I think that’s really what it is. And so I have to allow myself to not be good.”
There isn’t a great deal of precedent for what Blankenbuehler wants to do, as a musical-theater choreographer aiming to elevate dance by conceiving the whole shebang. Influences include Susan Stroman’s “Contact,” short stories told in dance with minimal dialogue, which Blankenbuehler performed in on Broadway. He also admires English choreographer Matthew Bourne, creator of wordless dance dramas. He praises Bourne’s “Play Without Words,” a tense study of sex and class in London based on the 1963 British film “The Servant.”
He holds Twyla Tharp’s Broadway production “Movin’ Out” in especially high regard. The jukebox dance musical about friends and lovers dealing with the Vietnam War, with songs by Billy Joel, “changed my life,” he says.
“I only want to write things that move,” Blankenbuehler says. “I want to write for the choreographer. I’m going to create scenarios that physicalize themselves in unique ways.” His newest writing project is about the making of the Panama Canal, when disease and despair felled thousands of workers in the jungle.
“That’s an interesting scenario to me,” he says. “To be in a situation of such physicality, trudging through the jungle, finding your way in a flood when it never stops raining.
“I mean, think what that does to your body! And then what personal conflict could you be going through at that same time? Missing your loved one, having never said goodbye to your parents? That’s ripe for a story.”
Blankenbuehler jiggles his knee. “I know I’m going to be a writer, because my body’s not going to hold up,” he continues.
“And for now, I’m just going to write for dance. Because while I can still choreograph, I want to do the biggest stuff I can do.”