PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Bring It On; Three Cheers for Pompon Power
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of the new musical Bring It On.
Not one of the bodies is near the age of 30, and most of them haven't been seen on a Broadway stage before: A record-rattling 32 in a cast of 37 are marking their Main Stem debuts. The accent throughout is on youth. The plot's competing schools have no teachers, no principals (principles are iffy), no parents, no guidance counselors, no janitors. There is no adult — on stage, anyway — to pull down the go-for-the-burn exuberance.
The secret of director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler's success? "I collaborated with a cheerleading consultant, and we sorta found our way together," he admitted at the after-party held at the swank rooftop garden at 230 Fifth Avenue.
A Tony winner for his high-stepping, hard-driving choreography in In the Heights, Blankenbuehler confessed he was not a cheerleader in high school. "It was an all-boys school, and we didn't have any cheerleaders," he said a little sadly. At least, now he has made up for lost time — lost half-time — with a vengeance.
Among the opening-night guests you might guess — wrongly — had a cheerleader past: La Cage's Tony-winning choreographer Jerry Mitchell ("but I did stage the pompon routines"); Birdland's Jim Caruso ("No, I played the autoharp. I went to a prep school where the cheerleaders who were the most sarcastic, low-key people on Planet Earth. It was, like, 'Go. Please. Whatever'").
Armyan Bernstein, who executive-produced the source movie (Kirsten Dunst's big arrival flick of 2000) and the four fast direct-to-video sequels that followed like meteorites, also produced the Broadway-musical version with Universal Pictures and, after four years of working on it, seemed plainly pleased with what emerged: "I think what this did is it took it from the joy of storytelling in a film to the euphoria of music and dancing and cheerleading live. It was always meant to be this. This is where it was always heading, and I'm so thrilled to have been a part of it."
His game plan was to have back-to-back Tony-winning composers go toe-to-toe on a multicultural score: Into the Heights' Lin-Manuel Miranda would do the ethnic songs, and Next to Normal's Tom Kitt would cover the Caucasian front, with a wordsmith assist from his High Fidelity lyricist, Amanda Green. That was the plan, but it didn't play out that way at all.
"Everything involving Tom and Amanda was a joy to me," Miranda beamed. "It was such a collaborative effort. We thought I'd write one school, and they'd write another. But that went away so quickly because we became so interested in writing an integrated score. We wrote whatever needed to be written, whatever served the purpose. We were all writing the same score. There were no egos involved. It was really about: Best Idea in the Room Wins — and that's the best sort of collaboration you can have. I learned an enormous amount from them, and I'll always be grateful."
This collaboration, racing back and forth across ethnic lines, was the fun part for lyricist Green. "I just loved the way we all worked together," she admitted. "Lin and Tom and I wrote songs for the Truman school, songs for the Jackson school, songs for Campbell the heroine [Taylor Louderman], songs for Danielle the other heroine [Adrienne Warren], songs for Skylar, the 'beautiful-is-sometimes-enough' villainess [Kate Rockwell]. We wrote a number of songs together."
Green's comedy gene particularly comes to fore with "Killer Instinct," a wicked ditty for Skylar's deputy and the show's uber-bitch, Eva (Elle McLemore). It's more of the schadenfreude Green tapped years ago in "Every Time a Friend Succeeds a Little Piece of Me Dies Inside." "It's in the same good-hearted vein," she chirped.
Kitt did a deep bow in the direction of the words of the show — the lyrics by Green and the deliriously funny teen-talk libretto devised by Avenue Q Tony winner Jeff Whitty. "It's a very human-made show," he remarked. "I think that the emotion in the show is quite real and relatable, and I'm very proud to be a part of it."
Kitt said he and Miranda were slow to realize how their music would have to accommodate the acrobatic activity going on. "We knew it at first, but we kinda glossed over it. 'Aw, how much could it be?' When we did a reading and everyone was working at a music stand, it's glorious. 'Oh, that sounds great.' But Andy kept saying, 'Trust me. You're going to have to pare down.' Of course, when we actually saw the movement, it became very clear that we had to adapt, and we did, and I think we did a really good job. They can't sing a high note while they're flipping in the air, although some of them can. They can do anything. They're extraordinary."
There are easier ways of making a Broadway debut than being slung uncertainly hither and yon. "I have a blast," Louderman insisted. "I have nothing negative to say about this whole experience. I'm so thankful to have worked with the people I worked with. They've helped me grow as a performer and as a human being."
She was happy to report the close calls are minimal, barely existent. "In the stunt calls we do every day before the show, every once in a while, we have a stunt that falls — but usually during the show with all of that energy, the stunts go up."
"Seasoned veteran" Rockwell is one of the five — and the only female — to have been around the Broadway block before (well, twice before: Legally Blonde, Hair), and is democratically flung around as well, but she takes the ride in stride. "They have been teaching that stuff to us for two and a half years now." (The show toured prior to Broadway.)
Her blonde bitchiness — dare she say it? — came naturally to her, almost with no practice. "That's not even work. That's just me getting to use other people's words. That is probably how I feel anyway. This is my first real experience with comedy, and it is so satisfying. It's, like, immediate gratification. 'Bitter Bitch Barbie' — that's me! Isn't that wonderful? That's Jeff Whitty, 100 percent — and he's written a great, great role in Skylar." Would you call her the tart of the show? "You can say that. That's spicy. You may use the word 'tart.' There are other words that you may not use."
Tom Kitt, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Amanda Green share their Bring It On songwriting process with Playbill Video.
Some special nasty words are saved back for McLemore, who plays her equally blonde and bitchy henchman, Eva. She's gleefully unrepentant: "I'm having the time of my life. Who doesn't want to be the villain? The girl everyone loves to hate, I hope." Happily, she pays for her sins eight times a week: "I have to do a basket-toss, some extensions, and a leapfrog, and a fall-down — quite a bit of stuff I had to learn."
If AJ Blankenship isn't the king of swings, he certainly redefines swing: "It's so much fun to be a swing in this show," he said with heart-holding sincerity. "All the worlds have collided for this show — all the dancing and the cheerleading and the tumbling. We eat up the audience's reaction so much. It helps us to perform."
Acrobatically, Ariana DeBose has a light sentence: "I only go up in the air once — but once is enough, and then my feet are safely on the ground. I have to say, however, that I do feel so safe when I am in the air. We have an incredible team."
Her character, Nautica, functions as Warren's No. 2 in command. "I'm the edgy one. I'm the Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes from the group TLC. That's what I am in the Jackson trio of black girls, and it's an absolute pleasure to be that person every night. Awesome."
Janet Krupin, as Kylar in the Caucasian camp, gets off easy in the stunt department, too: "The most difficult thing I get to do is dance in cowboy boots." She said the exuberance of the opening-night audience was the rule, not the exception. "It has been like that every single night we have played. That's what's so incredible!"
Jason Gotay, the stillest person on stage, is the love interest that leading lady Louderman gravitates toward. "I like the fact that he is super-grounded," Gotay explained. "When the action of the show is so chaotic, he's just chillin' — his energy is a lot more low-key than everyone else, and I love that about him." How super-grounded is he? "I'm the only one out of everyone who doesn't do any stunts."
Even the rotund Ryann Redmond, who provides some good sidekick comic relief, has her time in the sky, wearing what she called "messy buns" but what looks like Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett wig from Sweeney Todd ("A dream role of mine, actually," she beamed). Her role of Bridget has a social point. "She has a great message for chubby girls," she pointed out. "Bridget doesn't care what anyone thinks. When she finally gets accepted, she gets to shine at Jackson."
Nicolas Womack, as Twig, is on the accepting side of that, forming a funny subsidiary couple with Bridget. His favorite part? "It has to be raps. All of Lin's raps are really great." So, he said, is the company he is currently keeping. "They all have heart, and they all commit to what they're doing on stage, so it's just an easy breeze."
Another character with a social purpose is the transgender girl on the Jackson campus, La Cienega, played with confidence and strength by Gregory Haney.
"Jeff and Andy let me do exactly what I wanted to do with the character, which is amazing — so she is very comfortable in her own shoes," he said — even though he isn't particularly comfortable in her shoes, coming off at least three inches shorter off-stage than he is on stage. "It's the heels. It changes my posture — and it's also the hair. I'm five-seven. With hair and heels, I'm five-ten."
Dominique Johnson is particularly pleased to play a cool Jackson jock. "I was never The Cool Guy in school. I love that he's mellow and calm and so butchy.
"Someone said to me, 'From now on, you will be Broadway Actor Dominique Johnson.' When they said that, it was all I could do to stand up. I was about to fall on the ground. Imagine the biggest dream you could ever dream, and then someone says you got it. It makes me think of that quote: 'What happens when your dream comes true? You dream bigger dreams.' Now, after tonight, I will dream bigger dreams."
In from In the Heights to spur certain key players and pals onto glory: (Janet Dacal, director Thomas Kail, Joshua Henry, producer Jeffrey Seller, Krysta Rodriguez, Eliseo Roman and book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes, a brand-new Pulitzer Prize winner.
Also in attendance: John Shea, Entertainment Weekly kingpin Jess Cagle, Disney actress Bella Thorne, The Manns (Terrence Mann and Charlotte D'Amboise, booked for Diane Paulus' Pippin overhaul at Cambridge's ART ), John Tartaglia, The Normal Heart's Joe Mantello and Tony-winning John Benjamin Hickey, playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo (whose Really, Really opens Jan. 31 at the Lucille Lortel, directed by David Cromer for MCC Theater), Phish's Trey Anastasio now of Hands on a Hard Body (Amanda Green's other double-dip of the Broadway season, due in March), Constantine Maroulis (bracing for a full-company rehearsal of Jekyll & Hyde, which he'll take on the road — to Broadway), How to Succeed's super successful Rob Ashford, Peter and the Starcatcher adapter Rick Elice and its director, Roger Rees (who's taking his one-man show to London), Howard McGillin (set for an upcoming Tuesday and Wednesday at 54 Below) with partner, attorney Richard Samson, director Michael Mayer (looking forward to working at the Metropolitan Opera in December), Megan Hilty and Brian Gallagher, set designer David Korins with little Stella, Thoroughly Modern Millie composer Jeanine Tesori, and adapter Dick Scanlan and Billy Porter just rapping his foot impatiently to begin rehearsals for Kinky Boots on Aug. 13.
Playbill Video attends the Broadway opening night of Bring It On.
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