Andy Blankenbuehler Opens Up About Only Gold and the Road Ahead
It begins with a magazine photograph of a preposterous necklace, five strands of more than 2,000 diamonds, one of them the size of a golf ball. Some dozen years after seeing it, Andy Blankenbuehler brings a long-cherished pet project, a stunning dance musical called Only Gold, to off-Broadway’s MCC Theater for a two-month run (ending November 27).
In between, the work has morphed from a brief ballet to a two-act musical; its main character has evolved from a maharajah juggling three wives to a king coping with one; and its author has progressed from Broadway newcomer with a choreography Tony for In the Heights to celebrated master with two more Tonys—Hamilton and Bandstand—and multiple other honors, including a Dance Magazine Award. Naturally, everyone involved in Only Gold assumes that MCC is the first stop on the way to a glorious Broadway opening.
I thought so too—I’ve been a Blankenbuehler fan from the night I saw the original, unheralded, off-Broadway production of In the Heights, with its Robbins-like flow of exuberant, totally integrated dance. That’s become his signature, and with Only Gold he’s upped his already expert game,weaving dance into the very fabric of the story and letting movement illuminate not just the texture of the scenes and the elements of the plot, but also the inner lives of the characters.
Reporting for Dance Magazine has given me a privileged perch, from which I’ve watched Blankenbuehler push choreography further and further to the forefront of his musicals, following the path laid by Jerome Robbins, Susan Stroman and Twyla Tharp. He told me about Only Gold 10 years ago, in a rented dance studio on West 43rd Street, where he was working with a handful of dancers on choreography for Bring It On, the 2012 musical that was his first Broadway credit as a director. He was brimming with excitement about another new piece: Paris in the ’20s! What could be more vibrant? And did I know the work of the wonderfully offbeat British singer-songwriter Kate Nash?
He was a huge fan, and she had agreed to let him use her quirky, rhythmic music for a show to be based on an episode in the life of Bhupinder Singh, Maharajah of Patiala, who set 1920s Europe agog when he arrived from India with fabulous wealth, immense charisma, multiple wives and a trunkful of gemstones that he wanted Cartier to mount. The resulting necklace, with its over-the-top opulence, and the sad ending of its owner, who died at 46, had inspired Blankenbuehler to craft a story about a man who has everything, but nothing that makes him happy.
This weekend, talking by phone from London, where was he was on one of his regular working visits to Europe’s Hamiltons, he looked back at the “tumultuous life” of Only Gold and forward to where the next iteration of this “labor of love” might take him—because carping reviews have turned its Broadway ambitions to dust.
“My brain has been upside-down these past few weeks,” he admits. “In some ways the reviews surprised me, and in some ways they didn’t. I know there are tremendous moments in the show—moments that I’m extraordinarily proud of, that I don’t even know how I made. At the same time, I’m aware how the audience around me is reacting. So I knew before the reviews came out that there were still a lot of things that we had to work on—I was game for that.” What he wasn’t quite ready for was the overall negativity: “Even though a lot of them said really nice things, they still pointed up the problems more than the pros. So [pause]…that was just a little hard.”
Little wonder, given that Blankenbuehler is the musical’s conceiver, co-author (with Ted Malawer), director and choreographer. “Trying to figure out the way in which a story grasps an audience is difficult,” he says. “I’m really good at it as a choreographer—I can say, ‘This is the number, and this is what the number’s gonna do; here I go.’ But when I’m looking at a wider swath, a much wider picture, then it’s a complicated thing. I guess that’s the trouble you get into when you wear a lot of hats. I’m wearing a lot of hats now.”
It doesn’t help that with seven productions of Hamilton to oversee, that show’s achievements are always in his face. “It’s so good, so well-built, that it just messes you up—it’s really hard to figure out what kind of work to do next. Hamilton is so clean, so efficiently made—that’s one of the things that’s most intimidating. Efficiency is difficult—saying big things, but saying them efficiently.”
If Only Gold meanders a bit, it’s not the fault of the choreography. The one thing the reviewers, the audiences, and the rest of us here at Dance Magazine agree about are the superb dances and the astounding dancing. Not surprising, given the leads: Tharp favorite Karine Plantadit, “So You Think You Can Dance”sensation Gaby Diaz, West Side Story veteran Ryan Steele, and frequent Blankenbuehler collaborator Ryan VanDenBoom. But each of the 14 ensemble members is also a standout—which is saying a lot, given the caliber of the performers they’re supporting. Even Blankenbuehler can’t get over them.
“When you make a show,” he says, “you intentionally try to get all different skill sets. Within an ensemble of, say, five men, one will be a very experienced partner, one does extraordinary things on the floor, one is eccentric and goofy—they do different things. So the blocking of the show is really hard. Figuring out who goes where, it’s ‘I have to get him stage right, because he sings this high note and then he has to do this lift.’ It’s a lot of work to get the right people into the right place. But with this show, I didn’t have to worry, because they could all do everything. When I realized that one night, when I was blocking for the next day, I was like, ‘Oh, my god!’ Talk about a gift! To have a group of dancers who really can do anything!”
So, of course, he’s given them wondrous things to do. And that goes back to his earliest days on Broadway, dancing in the chorus. He loved it, he says, but he longed to be the one thing you can’t be in a Broadway ensemble: an individual. So he made sure that in Only Gold, each of the dancers gets an opportunity to “step forward” as a specific human being. “But even when these dancers are in a group,” he says, “they are so individual.”
They play Parisians in the street when King Belenus (the majestic Terrence Mann) and his entourage arrive from their mythical homeland, and then become servants and jewelers and partygoers as the King, his lonely queen (Plantadit, riveting) and their headstrong daughter (Diaz, dazzling) contend over whom she will marry; the family becomes enmeshed with a talented watchmaker (VanDenBoom) and his piano-teacher wife (Hannah Cruz), who are struggling to realize their thwarted artistic ambitions. Nash herself, as the Narrator, announces the evening’s theme at the outset: “listening to your heart.” But making musicals also means listening to your head.
Blankenbuehler’s initial pitch to Nash was a romantic “mini-film” with swirling masses of dancers devolving into couples doing flirty, French-flavored choreography to her songs. When she gave Blankenbuehler the okay, he began the tinkering that would fill his downtime for the next decade.
“For, like, 10 years, it was really just a therapy project,” he says—“me exercising my impulses. Because when you’re making a new show, you’re problem-solving. You’re not often using the impulses that you dream about using your whole life. All these years you’re learning this amazing tap rhythm over there, you have this amazing hip-hop class over here—things that create fires in you, that give us all this juice. But we’re hardly able to employ those things when we’re working.”
His answer was teaching. “I was using my classes at Broadway Dance Center, each 45-second combination, as opportunities to experiment, real opportunities to say, ‘Hey, if I could do a crazy speakeasy, what would it look like?’ And then my writing projects became the next step—me writing down the balletic ideas that I had in my head. So I started working on this idea.” Then a job would come up and he’d let it go, and tackle it again in the downtime after a show opened. “I’d teach a couple of the Only Gold dances in a class, and spend nights working on the script. It was a way to recharge my batteries, and that happened several times over.”
By 2013, it was ready for a lab, which he used to figure out if he was making a ballet or a musical, and discovered that the music needed to be more specific if it was to go forward as a musical. “And then the piece went away,” he says, “because of Hamilton, Cats, everything.” It stayed gone until 2018, when he did a four-week workshop of it that never got past the first act. But in a tantalizing showing, that first act had gorgeous, impassioned dancing from Sean Martin Hingston as the Maharajah and Alessandra Ferri as his first love, now the senior wife in a household that included Georgina Pazcoguin and Justice Moore as the younger wives. “Again, I continued to learn about it in different ways,” Blankenbuehler says, “and I was actually planning to stay focused on it.” But the Cats movie and the COVID-19 pandemic intervened, “and it really lost momentum,” he says.
In any case, he’d decided that the Maharajah and his wives had been a distraction. “The story that I wanted to tell actually had nothing to do with polygamy,” he says. “It was about a person who simply had followed everything society and culture had told him would make him content and powerful—that that’s what he needed to shoot for. And he stopped listening to what would make himself happy.” So the Maharajah gave way to King Belenus, Queen Roksana, Princess Tooba and the Parisians who change their lives.
The two months Blankenbuehler spent mounting the revised piece for MCC were the hardest of his career, he says: “In some ways really stressful, in some ways really exciting.” He describes frantic, ridiculously long days and nights and finally quitting at 1:30 in the morning smiling happily. “I was so happy because I was getting to do the gutsy work I always wanted to do, but also I was telling a story about heart. You know me—I have a real life, my family, my wife and my kids, and I want to tell a story that keeps going back to the heart.”
And then the critics arrived. He says he’d stopped reading reviews 12 years ago, but started again after the glowing notices that greeted Hamilton. “That’s not smart; that’s not good,” he maintains. “And this time around I decided to not read the reviews.” But when everyone around him said, “You need to read the reviews,” he relented. Not surprisingly, he’s thought about them in the same deep way he thinks about everything relating to his work.
“The difficulty,” he notes, “is there’s lots of different things to be reviewed. There is emotional impact. There is the idea of using vocabulary in new ways. And the bottom line is people have a hard time talking about dance. So if I’m trying to do something where dance is integral to the storytelling, I have to know that most people who talk about it won’t be able to talk about it in a way that really does it justice.” His way of dealing with that is simple: “You’ve got to take the good with the bad.”
In addition, he says, “I have my own criticism of the show, so I keep working. That’s what I do—I keep working until I can’t work anymore.” So even while in Europe for Hamilton, he’s already thinking about “the road map of the changes” that will make Only Gold successful. “It’s not so much ‘Let’s change this scene.’ It’s bigger ideas about how the audience should feel as they progress into the story.” And he’s also thinking about what a successful Only Gold would mean.
“There’s a line in the show about how you define success,” he says. “So in the last couple of weeks, I’m like, ‘Okay, Andy how do you define success?’ You wrote a show that was produced, and people said, ‘These are some of the best dances I’ve ever seen in my life.’ And I also look at them with such pride. That should all be success. Unfortunately, I’m also the maker of the show, so figuring out how to define success is a big deal for me. For me, success isn’t: You run the show for four weeks and it goes into people’s hearts and minds and dies. It’s gone. That’s not success to me. Success to me is it keeps going.”
To that end, he thinks he needs to turn the show into a full-evening ballet. He can’t see it in the rep of any existing company without a total revamp in which the Narrator sings all the songs while everyone else dances, and that’s not the show he wants to do. Plus the dancers would have to learn to dance his snappy way, with Fosse accents and hip-hop beats—a big ask for concert dancers. So he’s hoping that in its next, better life, Only Gold will be perfected with a pickup cast and performed at venues like Sadler’s Wells, in the way that Matthew Bourne’s work circulates.
What won’t change is that mongrel mix of music, dance and dialogue that characterizes even dance-driven musicals, though the reviews prompted some doubts. “I went through several weeks of really asking myself questions, like ‘Do I need to forsake this goal of experimenting with this fusion of dance and theater?’ I don’t like dance theater—I like when people talk,” he says. He’s come to the conclusion that the key is using music consistently, and establishing early, so audiences understand, “that I’m not going to stop moving, and I’m going to talk at the same time.”
By the same token, he says he’s “really open” in the coming years to working with existing dance companies on new story ballets. He says he doesn’t have the vocabulary or the desire to do plotless works. “I have to tell a story,” he says. “An idea that has a beginning, a middle and an end.” And there are other limits. “The older I get now, I have to really decide how much I’m willing to not dance,” he says. “My ideas are only getting bigger. But my dancing’s not…I’m still dancing hard, but 10 years from now I’m not gonna be dancing that hard. So my ideas will still be detailed and specific, but my ability to envision that choreography won’t be.”
I remind him of the many choreographers who’ve worked through their 60s and well into their 80s, but he’s not buying it. They were doing “the exact same stuff” they’d been doing for 40 years, he notes. “The difficulty is every show is different from the one I did before. I’m doing swing dancing one day and cheerleading the next.”
And Paris in the ’20s the next. “Now,” he says, “my job is to be really honest with myself: Can I make Only Gold really a great show? I don’t want to make a good show; I want to make a great show. But what’s so interesting with a piece like this is when something works really well, you have to go into surgery saying ‘Okay, how can I not touch that organ?’ ”