...This clip, "'Hamilton' Choreographer Breaks Down His Moves," popped up on my YouTube recommended list. I mean, I could watch Hamilton's dance wizard Andy Blankenbuehler talk about anything. Have you read our interview with him back when he was making the moves for Bandstand? The guy is freaking fascinating.
Nearly two years after its Broadway debut, Hamilton is still the hottest ticket in town. The show is still sold out every single night, and for Kamille Upshaw, that means bringing her A-game every night—even if she doesn't end up onstage. As one of the cast's swings, Upshaw may fill in for an injured or vacationing cast member, or she could end up getting called in mid-show if something happens to an ensemble member. (No pressure.) She needs to know all the choreography at all times, and needs to be warmed up no matter what. That also means Upshaw, a Juilliard grad and former Dance Spirit cover girl, needs to fuel her body properly so it can be ready to rock in a moment's notice. What does that entail? We got Upshaw to dish on what a day in the life of her diet is like.
We all know history is important. We all know we should know things about people like our country's Founding Fathers. We all dutifully go to history class, and read our textbooks, and take our tests.
But it's hard to get legitimately EXCITED about events that happened hundreds of years ago.
Unless you're watching those events unfold on a Broadway stage. Unless you're seeing the Founding Fathers' stories as told through Lin-Manuel Miranda's inimitable blend of rap and old-school musical theater goodness. Unless you're inhabiting a world in which 18th-century characters do amazing 21st-century choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler.
Unless, in other words, you're at a performance of Hamilton—the most exciting history lesson in the history of history lessons.
The problem is that, because the show is so stupid good, Hamilton tickets are really, really hard to come by, especially for students. But the show's producers have teamed up with The Rockefeller Foundation to create a brilliant program: They're bringing 20,000 NYC high school juniors to see Hamilton, beginning in the spring of 2016.
Best. History class. Ever.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (center), world's coolest history teacher. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
The program will also include a classroom-based curriculum, featuring copies of the primary documents on which Hamilton's book and lyrics are based. At some schools, students will also get to create their own artistic interpretations of Alexander Hamilton's life. (An all-dance version, anyone?)
And non-NYC people: No need to start yelling about New Yorkers getting All the Things. There are plans to expand the Hamilton school program all over the country once the show begins touring. Yay!
Need a little pick-me-up? Our personal Broadway hero Lin-Manuel Miranda made a Spotify playlist that's just the thing to get you through tough times. With artists and songs spanning multiple genres, like "The Hamilton Mixtape," Bob Dylan, Regina Spektor and Talib Kweli, it has something for everyone. After listening, you'll feel like you can take on the world.
Happy, happy, happy! (Photo via Rolling Stone)
Happy hump day!
(photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Sam Rudy PR)
A year after Hamilton’s Broadway opening, people are still buzzing about the show and its famed creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Adding to the excitement, this month PBS will air Hamilton’s America, a behind-the-scenes documentary featuring the show’s entire journey—from inception to Broadway debut, and everything in between. It’ll be a wonderful all-things-Hamilton extravaganza, but here’s what you should be most excited about. —Kelly Munzenberger
1. Behind the Scenes from the Very Beginning
Filming began in 2013 two full years before Hamilton hit the Great White Way and wrapped one year into the musical’s Broadway run.
2. Historic Inspiration
The documentary will show the Hamilton cast visiting historical sites that were important to the real-life Hamilton and other Founding Fathers to better connect with the life and history of their stage characters.
3. Exclusive Performance Footage
The doc will include some never-before-seen-on-film footage of the actual show.
4. Fun Facts
You’ll be set for trivia after watching—Hamilton’s America will include some insight about Alexander Hamilton that isn’t widely known, or told in the musical.
5. Footage of Lin-Manuel Miranda at Work
Miranda’s longtime friend, Alex Horwitz, was the director of the documentary, which means he got an inside look at the play’s development and captured footage of Miranda’s creative process (like him writing original songs for the show).
6. Close-ups with the Creatives
In addition to an intimate look at Miranda’s process, the film will follow members of the whole creative team working to bring the mega-hit to life.
7. Star-studded Interviews
It’s no secret that major A-listers are serious Hamilton fans. The doc will have interviews with President Obama, former President George W. Bush, Questlove and Black Thought, of The Roots and Jimmy Fallon.
8. Input from Legendary Hip-Hop Artist Nas
The film will show Miranda interviewing esteemed rapper Nas to discuss how writing lyrics for hip hop and writing lyrics for theater can intersect.
9. New Original Music
Bill Sherman and Questlove (both of whom were producers of the Hamilton cast album) contributed some original music to the documentary.
10. #Throwback Vibes
RadicalMedia, the producers of the documentary, also worked with Miranda on his 2009 PBS documentary In The Heights—Chasing Broadway Dreams, which chronicled the underdog journey of Miranda’s first Tony-winning musical, In the Heights.
Holiday Inn Hits Broadway
The latest show to grace the Great White Way? A throwback to Hollywood’s glamorous golden age. Inspired by the Academy Award–winning film, Holiday Inn features music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and tons of showstopping dance numbers choreographed by Denis Jones. DS caught up with a few of the stars to get the inside scoop.
“My favorite aspect of this show is that I get to dance my butt off! And I get to showcase the incredible tap choreography of Denis Jones, which has been so much fun to learn.”
—Corbin Bleu, who plays Ted
“I could dance this choreo all day every day! Denis has his own style—inspired by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—that’s a combo of sweeping, gliding movements and athletic, dynamic steps. ‘Heat Wave’ is my personal favorite. It has this Latin feel to it with super-fun lifts, fan-ography and lots of accents.”
—Shina Ann Morris, ensemble dancer
“Denis has modernized the old MGM musical style without losing any of the elements that made those films so wonderful to watch. The choreo is in the ground, it’s energetic, rhythmically complex and fun to do!” —Kevin Worley, ensemble dancer
“My favorite thing about Holiday Inn is how exuberant and joyful the show is. It’ll be impossible for the audience to leave feeling depressed or upset!” —Samantha Sturm, ensemble dancer
Holiday Inn opens on Oct. 6 at Studio 54. For ticket info head to roundabouttheatre.org.
There is literally no such thing as too much Hamilton. Ever. Which is why we're suuuuper-duper pumped about the new documentary Hamilton's America, a deep dive into the making of the smash Broadway musical. And when we say deep dive, we mean DEEP: The doc took three years—three years!—to put together.
Lin-Manuel Miranda backstage at Hamilton, in a scene from Hamilton's America (RadicalMedia)
Why so long? Oh, you know—because it just casually includes interviews with the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Questlove, Jimmy Fallon, Nas and a slew of politicians. Including, um, President Barack Obama. So. There's also lots of footage of the NYC production with its original cast—footage that is, for those of who have yet to score tickets to the ever-sold-out real thing, essentially priceless.
PBS is airing Hamilton's America next Friday, October 21 at 9 pm. DO NOT THROW AWAY YOUR SHOT to see this, friends. And in the meantime, a) take PBS's excellent Hamilton quiz (we got 16 out of 16, natch!) and b) enjoy the teaser:
You already know that taking on a new role requires lots of homework, from perfecting the steps to figuring out spacing. But while it’s easy to become wrapped up in technical demands, a little extra research can make all the difference in your performance—because each piece of choreography is inspired by something, whether it’s a person, a time in history or simply an abstract harmony created by a composer.
Hope Boykin (center) in Matthew Rushing's Odetta (photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy AAADT)
“No matter how exquisite her facility may be, an uninformed dancer will never perform a more compelling Juliet than one who can use her knowledge, empathy and emotion to imbue the role with realism and create a deep connection with the audience,” says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson. We all might replay a dancer’s tricks over and over on YouTube, but the performances that leave us in tears contain so much more than technique. By researching your subject, watching the experts and honing your acting chops, you can transition from being a pretty dancer to a true artist.
Start with “Why”
When Ephraim Sykes landed a place in the ensemble for the Broadway hit Hamilton, he wanted to understand the context of the stories he’d portray. That meant trying to answer one question: Why? “There are moments in our lives that change our minds and hearts and make us live a certain way,” he says. “For instance, there was a moment in my life when I decided to start dancing. Finding out the character’s motives is the most critical thing in terms of exploring a role. All their actions will be justified, because you know the baseline of their lives.”
San Francisco Ballet principal Vitor Luiz agrees. As he prepares to take on the iconic role of The Creature in Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein this upcoming February, Luiz aims to understand why The Creature behaves the way he does. “He just arrived in this world and his creator rejected him. He’s bitter about it,” Luiz says. “There’s a sense that he wants to be loved above all, but he doesn’t fit into this world. That’s why he becomes angry. He had a pure soul.”
Do Your Research
To understand his role in Frankenstein, Luiz began by hitting the books. “There are a bunch of movie versions,” he points out, “but studying Mary Shelley’s classic novel helps me really know what my character is going through. If you see someone else playing a role, you only imagine the character that way.” Once he’s studied the book, Luiz will turn to the movies to add to his own conclusions.
Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz in John Cranko's Onegin (photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB)
While many of Hamilton’s ensemble members read the biography on which the show was based, Sykes also loves the visual aspect of films and documentaries, because, he says, he can see more of the character’s world and pick up on his movement and mannerisms. For both Hamilton and Sykes’ recent role as Marvin on the HBO series “Vinyl,” that meant seeking out political documentaries to create a broader understanding of what his characters lived through, which informed his movement quality.
Trips to museums can also be beneficial. In 2009, PBT performed Stephen Mills’ abstract work Light/The Holocaust and Humanity Project, a piece that requires dancers to embody the emotional weight of the subject matter with every movement. “Stephen led us through a long educational process before we started rehearsing to help us become more informed, aware artists," Erickson recalls. The dancers spoke with Holocaust survivors and even took a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
As the title character in Matthew Rushing’s Odetta, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Hope Boykin was tasked with representing singer Odetta Holmes, known as the voice of the Civil Rights movement. Though it wasn’t required of her, she learned all Holmes’ lyrics. “I wanted to make sure you could hear her voice through the movement and my understanding of each song—not just through the counts or the choreography,” she says.
Learn From Other Dancers—but Leave Room for You
It’s important to stay open to advice from your choreographer, director or teacher, and don’t be afraid to seek out more experienced dancers who may also have information that will help you. If you’re performing in a recently created ballet, you might have the opportunity to speak to those who were close with the choreographer, or to the role’s originator. The first time Boykin was cast in Alvin Ailey’s 1974 work Night Creature, she sought out former company member Sarita Allen to coach her. “She was known for doing the lead,” Boykin says. “One day in rehearsal, she turned on the music and told me everything that Mr. Ailey had told her. She started doing the movement, and I had to chase her around the room—she was so full of information. As dancers, we often get caught up in our lines, but there’s so much more to a work.”
On the other hand, it’s a good idea to avoid studying others in the same role until you have a strong handle on it yourself. SFB’s Luiz explains: “You start to copy the dancer, and a copy is never as good as the original.” That doesn’t mean Luiz shuts out all other interpretations—watching other dancers, either in videos or in person, can offer new perspectives on a role he’s performed many times.
Whether you hit the library, visit a museum or talk to experts, doing your research to fully create a character will be doubly worthwhile come performance time: Not only will you be able to be in the moment onstage, you’ll also transport the audience emotionally. “Learn to be an artist first and a dancer second,” Sykes says. “You’ll go much farther in your career if you think deeper than aesthetics.”