“I use a reference to Halley’s Comet,” says choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler when asked to describe his dance style. “When you see a picture of Halley’s Comet, it leads with a big face and then it trails away. So, what I try to do is I try to hit the front of the movement … that creates a pause, and in the pause, behind it, you have to capture a recognizable picture that when the audience hits the slow motion pause, they see the idea, they see the emotion, they see the character, and then it goes way again.”
Such was Blankenbuehler’s approach to his Tony-winning In the Heights, his Tony-nominated Hamilton and, soon, this summer’s anticipated revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats.
In bringing his sensibility to the show, Blankenbuehler hopes to use these pauses and pictures to define character. “I’m trying to take the show into a new layer of character depth,” he explains. “There was a real tribe mentality of the original production, which was exactly perfect on the heels of Hair and those kinds of shows. That was mesmerizing to watch onstage. I’m interested in them trying to maintain tribe, but then taking a closer look at the individuals that make the tribe.”
In fact, when I met up with Blankenbuehler on a May day, he had been working the day before with Tyler Hanes, Broadway’s soon-to-be Rum Tum Tugger, to develop character through his number.
This was also before Gillian Lynne, Cats’ original choreographer, spoke out about her disappointment that anyone was re-envisioning her work in the first place.
Still, Blankenbuehler says the show “isn’t going to be contemporary, like 2016 Cats. It’s going to still be timeless Cats.”
The difference? “I’m trying to add staccato syncopation in many places where it never existed before, whereas Gillian and Andrew’s tendency is this long, melodic line. Long melodic line’s not easy for me,” he admits. “What I’m good at is the stop and start, and so I’m adding a lot of stop and start to the show, making it more guttural.
“For example, Grizabella walks out the first time, and in the original staging, [the cats] all reacted in real time,” explains Blankenbuehler. “What I’m doing in that moment is they hit these stances where the venom is coming out of them, and then in that pause other action is happening; so, it’s like an impressionistic painting, where you see the shape of the cats, and you understand what the one cat who’s moving is thinking.”
But Blankenbuehler is cognizant that with a beloved property, he can’t change too much, and he doesn’t want to. “I’m quoting a lot of Gillian, and the show’s going to look the same design-wise, and it’s going to move the same.
“So many people were like, ‘It was the first show I saw. My mom took me to that show,’” says the choreographer. “I want those people to go back to the show and be like, ‘This is the Cats that I remember, but I don’t remember it being X, Y, Z. I don’t remember it being so complicated. I don’t remember it being so deep. I don’t remember it being so funny.’”