When director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler began to conceptualize “Bring It On: The Musical,” he decided to bring in two songwriting teams. He was trying to save time. Turns out the decision has been a creative catalyst, too.
“A new musical usually takes about five years (to develop),” Blankenbuehler says of the Alliance Theatre world premiere, which begins previews Jan. 15 and is based on the popular cheerleader-film franchise. “And we needed to do it in about 2½.”
As adapted by “Avenue Q” librettist Jeff Whitty, the musical is the story of a cheer-leading competition between two very different high schools: urban Jackson High and upper-crust Truman High. To pen the tunes for Jackson, Blankenbuehler enlisted Lin-Manuel Miranda, the hip-hop savvy composer of “In the Heights.” To capture the pop-rock sound of Truman, he called in Tom Kitt and Amanda Green, co-authors of Broadway’s “High Fidelity.”
Working independently at first, the songwriters eventually began to share, finishing each other’s songs the way old friends finish each other’s sentences. “They began coming up with music that was so fun,” Whitty says, “and in a way it was these two different sounds. But then they also started meeting in the middle. Tom would write a song in what was originally Lin’s world, and Lin would write songs in Tom’s world. So it became this wonderful, as Lin says, stew of music.”
Based on the talent alone, “Bring It On” is one of the most closely watched musicals anywhere. Blankenbuehler, Whitty, Miranda and Kitt are all Tony Award winners, and Kitt picked up the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for "Next to Normal." A post-Alliance tour is in the works, but a Broadway run won’t be decided until later.
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“I think Atlanta audiences will tell us where we want to go,” Miranda says.
On a recent day of rehearsals, we talked to the team about “Bring It On” and their careers so far.
A few years ago, the Oregon native wrote a naughty little parody of “The Laramie Project” that caught the eyes of the producers of “Avenue Q,” who were looking for a writer to shape Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez’s zany TV pilot for puppets into a cohesive musical. When actor Gary Coleman died earlier this year, Whitty had just a few hours to tweak the shows before the evening performance. (The troubled star was a character in the musical, and Whitty had hoped that Coleman would eventually perform the role.) “It was just such a completely mixed bag of emotions,” he says wistfully. While “Bring It On” readies for its Atlanta closeup, Whitty is also adapting Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” novels into a musical, which will have its world premiere at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre in May. For “Bring It On,” Whitty situates the action in the world of the films, but he doesn’t copy any one plot. “It’s a story about Campbell, a lead cheerleader, who basically starts out at the top of her game. She’s captain of her squad, which is headed straight for nationals. But forces conspire to completely dethrone her, and she ends up getting sent to a completely different school in a totally different part of town.” Lots of comedy, a little back-stabbing and some killer cheer moves ensue.
These are bittersweet times for the composer of “In the Heights,” which won the 2008 Tony for best musical. Recently, he reprised his character, Usnavi, for the Puerto Rican production of “Heights,” which is about the teeming street life of New York’s largely Latino Washington Heights. Just before Christmas, Miranda ducked out of “Bring It On” rehearsals to scoot up to New York, where he has appeared in final performances of “In the Heights,” which closes Jan. 9. “I am very grateful that I have ‘Bring It On' to come back to,” Miranda quips. “Otherwise, I would be eating a tub of ice cream and crying for a week.” The composer/lyricist says he’s able to use more hip-hop in “Bring It On” than he did in “Heights.” (“That’s just the world these kids live in.”) At his September wedding reception, Miranda and his father-in-law serenaded his wife, Vanessa, with a surprise remake of “L’Chaim,” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” The song-and-dance routine has since become something of a YouTube sensation. “I will be more famous for that than anything I write,” cracks the effusive composer, who turns 31 on Jan. 16. Somehow we don’t believe it.
When Green met her husband, she couldn't wait to tell her parents about this “wonderful handsome Jewish doctor.” Fine, they said. “But what does he know about musical theater?” As the child of Broadway lyricist Adolph Green (“Wonderful Town,” "Bells Are Ringing”) and singer-actress Phyllis Newman, Green is theater royalty. She remembers hanging out with Jule Styne (who wanted her to do “Funny Girl”), Leonard Bernstein and Cy Coleman. “My parents would have these big parties, and they would inevitably take turns at the piano, and we would sing along,” she remembers. A career in musicals may have seemed obvious, but Green was slow to pursue it. Trained as a performer but unable to find much work, she started doing her own quirky material on the New York cabaret circuit. Later, she fell in love with the music of wry country star Lyle Lovett and tried her hand at Nashville songwriting. But that never felt authentic. Enrolling in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, she was classmates with Whitty and even played the original Gary Coleman in a workshop of “Avenue Q.” At BMI, she also forged a partnership with Kitt, and together they collaborated on Broadway’s short-lived “High Fidelity.” For “Bring It On,” she is charged with putting the words into the mouths of the spoiled and clique-ish kids of Truman High. “Kids who are used to getting what they want and what they need,” she says. Has she known such people? “I’ve heard of them,” she deadpans.
He is too modest to refer to himself as a prodigy. But the facts speak plainly. The Long Island native began studying classical piano at age 4. By his mid-30s, he had joined the elite group of Broadway composers to win a Pulitzer Prize. The honor was for the dark, rock-stoked “Next to Normal,” which looks at the devastating consequences of bipolar disorder on a young mother and her family. Now it’s on to cheerleading, which he knows from his Columbia University days. (Sort of.) “We had them, but it wasn’t the kind of culture you might find in Texas, for example, where high school football is a way of life.” Kitt won Tony Awards for the score and orchestration of “Next to Normal” and shaped the music of Green Day’s “American Idiot” and Sherie Rene Scott’s critically acclaimed “Everyday Rapture.” “What makes ‘Bring It On’ so wonderful,” he says, “is that yes, it’s the world of cheerleading, but it’s really high school issues and problems.” (In real life, Kitt has a 5-year-old son and daughter who will soon turn 2.) “It’s not just ‘Ra-ra, I’m a cheerleader,’ but it’s actually, ‘I am in high school and I am trying to figure out who I am.’ ’’ Kitt met “Next to Normal” co-author Brian Yorkey at Columbia, where they worked on “The Varsity Show.” When Yorkey saw an NBC news segment on electro-convulsive therapy, he suggested they explore the material. By then, they were at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop and needed a topic for a class project that required them to write a 10-minute show. “What we have seen,” Kitt says, “is an embracing of this musical as a way to get people to talking about the subject matter.”
“Bring It On: The Musical”
Jan. 15-Feb. 20. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org.
More on the 2011 theater season
“Sirens.” The new comedy by Deborah Zoe Laufer (“The Last Schwartz,” “End Days”) follows a couple as they sail the Greek islands on a quest to rekindle the buried flames of their 25-year marriage. Steve Coulter plays husband Sam, Mary Lynn Owen is his wife, Rose, and Kate Donadio is the Siren. Jan. 13-Feb. 6. Aurora Theatre, Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222, auroratheatre.com.
“The 39 Steps.” The Hitchcock spoof uses four actors to play innumerable roles and lots of low-budget special effects to re-create buzzing crop dusters, speeding trains and other cliff-hanging nonsense. Jan. 19-Feb. 20. Theatre in the Square, Marietta. 770-422-8369, theatreinthesquare.com.
"West Side Story." This national tour brings Arthur Laurents' historic Broadway revival to the Fox Theatre. Stepping into the director's chair, the librettist resurrected Jerome Robbins' original dances and commissioned new Spanish lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda ("In the Heights," "Bring It On"). Jan. 25-31. Presented by Broadway Across America-Atlanta, Fox Theatre. 1-800-982-2787, tickemaster.com.
“The Young Man From Atlanta.” In Horton Foote's 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, Theatrical Outfit’s Tom Key plays Houston patriarch Will Kidder, whose financially unstable life is further shaken when a young man arrives to sprinkle cryptic clues about Kidder’s dead son. Jessica Phelps West directs. Jan. 26-Feb. 20. Theatrical Outfit. 678-528-1500, theatricaloutfit.org.
“Superior Donuts.” While the Alliance Theatre readies for the April opening of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County,” Horizon Theatre brings us his more recent play — a sweet confection about a community that is fried and glazed by change. Chris Kayser stars and Horizon’s Jeff Adler directors. Feb. 25-March 27. Horizon Theatre. 404-584-7450; horizontheatre.com.