Between the October closing of 9 to 5: The Musical’s Los Angeles tryout and the start of rehearsals for its April arrival on Broadway, the performers were on hiatus. Nevertheless, on a chill February day Andy Blankenbuehler was in his small Times Square studio, busily adjusting the choreography along with an assistant and five specially hired dancers. Not just working but sweating, trying out high-speed, stop-and-go moves for each member of a momentary crowd that converges to help change a scene.
The show, based on the 1980 movie comedy, is set in 1979, in the antediluvian days before the business world gave up typewriters, Rolodexes, and unblushing sexism. It centers on three fed-up female workers who decide to get back at their insufferable boss. Stephanie J. Block plays a newly hired divorcee; Megan Hilty is a country blond with a sexpot look and a monogamous marriage; and Allison Janney is the super-competent office manager who never gets promoted. Although the show has a lot of dancing, it’s not about the choreography per se, says Blankenbuehler: “It’s about the situations of these three women. A big part of that is the pulse and drive of the male-dominated world that’s eating them up.” It’s the choreography that puts that energy onstage.
The musical, directed by Joe Mantello, has songs by Dolly Parton (who starred in the film with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin). After L.A., the creators decided to replace two numbers and, of course, to tweak some others. Today, Blankenbuehler is tweaking, adding some byplay between dancers here, squaring off a hiked shoulder there, and closing up the spacing between dancers to provide a tighter screen for Block’s costume change. When the problems are all solved, when each dancer has been given individual moves that mesh into a picture that is neither too simple nor overly ornate, they run through the sequence twice more as Blankenbuehler records it with his digital camera.
As with much of Blankenbuehler’s work, it’s layered and complicated. “We’re gonna just have to rehearse the hell out of it so it doesn’t look like a mess,” Blankenbuehler says to his assistant, Rachel Bress, before returning to his computer to see what’s next on his to-do list.
“I am the to-do list king,” he says, laughing, after the session ends. He’d started with 18 pages of items he wanted to work through before the beginning of rehearsals. He was now down to eight. But then he’d made another list to guide him for today, with this particular group of dancers.
“Every day when I’m in prep,” he explains, “I have different kinds of people in. Tomorrow we’re doing a new number from scratch, so I want really experimental people in the room, people who are dissimilar to me. I love having somebody who’s a contemporary dancer, somebody who’s a salsa dancer. Because then I’ll have my idea, and they’ll spin it off in different ways.”
Only one member of today’s crew, Jennifer Balagna, is actually in the 9 to 5 cast. Cynthia Salgado and Collin Baja are Juilliard-trained concert dancers. Abbie Cooper has toured with Broadway shows. Natalie Caruncho is a beginner. The to-do list ensures that “the room’s energy won’t die,” says Blankenbuehler. “I want one thing to lead to the next thing so everyone can contribute.”
His mania for preparation comes in part from working with Susan Stroman, for whom he danced in Big, Contact, and Steel Pier. “I learned so much from her,” he says. “She was the nicest person ever in the room, but so prepared. And that really makes the cast feel respected. I’ve been in situations as a dancer when there wasn’t any preparation, and I felt almost like nobody cared about us.”
He hastens to point out that while he’s “all about efficiency,” that doesn’t mean stifling his or others’ creativity. “You’re still going to change things on the spot,” he says. “I love the experimental quality in the room. But I feel like you have to steer it.”
In the past, the money for all the experimenting and tweaking that took place in his own studio was coming from his own pocket. Now that he has a Tony on his resumé—for the nonstop flow of Latin and hip hop dance he devised for In the Heights—he also has some negotiating juice. “But it’s still coming out of my pocket,” he sighs. “I’m never paid enough to make it come out even.”
He’s had the studio, with its windows overlooking 43rd Street and its little Fosse shrine of black derbies on the wall, for five years. The rent, which he began paying long before he had any income as a choreographer, will soon be $3,200 a month. “It’s a compromise, a sacrifice,” he admits. “But it has to be there for me. If I have to do a script revision, I pace the floor for eight hours. I can’t do that at home.”
Sylviane Gold writes for The New York Times and other publications.
Photo: Joan Marcus, Courtesy 9 to 5