Inevitably, it seems, a hoard of ensemble dancers will appear in a cluster and shake and shimmy as they stand riding in an imagined subway car, some of them holding onto the bars — or straps, in the old days — above the seats.
Tony Award-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who won his Tony for the Manhattan-set In the Heights in 2008, is a Choreography nominee again this year for 9 to 5: The Musical, and he knows well the traps of commuterography. But the new Dolly Parton-Patricia Resnick musical directed by Joe Mantello at the Marquis Theatre has a distinct absence of straphangers. Where's the ubiquitous subway car moment?
"It almost came several times," Blankenbuehler said with a laugh. "I set it and, luckily, I have very smart people around me, including [director] Joe Mantello and my associate, Rachel [Bress], who said, 'No subway — no, don't hold the strap!' It actually existed twice in two different numbers — it got cut both times. I cut 'em myself before anybody else told me."
Blankenbuehler admitted it's a challenge to shape the commuter crowd scenes, which tend to be transitional moments in the staging.
"It does get tedious," he told Playbill.com, "so you have to say, 'How I can show this is a new way?' 'How can I be more abstract so I don't have to show what everybody's already seen?' I think we did some good things with that…being a little bit out of the box." In 9 to 5, the destination for all those wage slaves is a space that isn't exactly freeing for a choreographer. An office workplace is full of walls, desks, cubicles — obstacles.
"Parameters of routine," Blankenbuehler explained. "They're stuck in a situation. Figuring how that situation 'dances' is always a challenge, but in 9 to 5 it was a big challenge."
The "hurdles" (as he called them) of the physical world of the office don't prevent his ensemble of dancers from moving as an earthbound group, with the occasional dancer being lifted out of the crowd, skirt flying, as a theatrical image of aspiration.
(These pop-ups serve the greater metaphor of the show based on the hit 1980 film about three secretaries seeking revenge on their pig of a boss.)
Blankenbuehler said, "It was always a priority for me that the audience is able to see what's trapped inside that wants to come out. If you can't root for what wants to come out, what's the point?
"Everybody was behind the three [lead] women in the show: You understand them, you know what they're about. Physically I had to do the same thing. I had to give even the smallest ensemble parts the moment to show what they have to offer to the world."
The audience then better "appreciates when they actually get to blow the roof off" in the inevitable happy ending of the musical, which has songs by 2009 Best Score Tony nominee Parton.
Next up for Blankenbuehler is the choreography for the Encores! Summer Stars production of The Wiz, directed by his Tony-nominated In the Heights director, Thomas Kail. Both are also working on the new national tour of that show.