As they prepare for their Chicago opening Wednesday, the cast of the touring cheerleader musical "Bring It On" is sitting, cheerfully, in Des Moines, Iowa, working on major changes to its Broadway-bound show.
In essence, the producers (Mike Isaacson and Kristin Caskey of Fox Theatricals) and the creative team have been trying to address what West Coast critics identified as the unusual show's main problem: plenty in the way of pep, enthusiasm and calisthenic action, and too little in way of nuance, credible characterization and emotional connection. "Never have I been so aware of calories burned onstage before," Charles McNulty wrote in the Los Angeles Times, when the show played his city in November. "But who goes to a musical to vicariously sweat?"
Who indeed? With that verdict (and similar ones from San Francisco) building pyramids in their minds, everyone has gone back into the dressing room to seriously adjust the game plan. There is now new music, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt, with lyrics by Amanda Green, new pages of dialogue from writer Jeff Whitty, and a lot of revised staging from director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler.
"The show has a huge 'wow' factor," Blankenbuehler said in a recent telephone interview. "The music in the show is exciting and the girls really fly through the air, which is a very exciting new dimension for a musical. But that has to be balanced by truthful emotion. We now realize we have to give the characters and the audience more opportunities to breathe into the moment and connect with each other. Things can seem like life and death when you're a teenager, and when you get to 40 you realize that's not true. But going through that process is still vital to this show."
Said Kitt, speaking from New York: "Big changes were made before Des Moines, and there will be more in time for Chicago." Meanwhile, Isaacson said, the changes that are going into the show this week are by far the most significant during "Bring It On's" trajectory. On Wednesday, when the show opens at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, something approaching a "Bring It On 2.0" will emerge.
"Bring It On" is, of course, based on the 2000 movie starring Kirsten Dunst, which follows a cheerleading squad forced to scramble at the last moment after discovering that its perfectly choreographed routine was, in fact, stolen from another school. The stage show features original choreography. But at present, the cast of the live version, which was first produced in January 2011 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, must feel rather like its characters. This kind of rehearse-and-perform work is tough for veterans of the business of touring musicals, but "Bring It On" has exceptionally young cast members, many of whom are not so much actresses as competitive cheerleaders, which the show demands.
"Literally, we set a record for the most people joining Equity from one show," Blankenbuehler said. "Half our cast had never done a musical before. Everyone has been out of their usual element, which is one of the most exciting things."
"This was never going to be one of those shows where you could do four weeks out of town and then come to Broadway," Isaacson said. "There are things going on here that simply have never been done before in a musical."
Said Caskey: "We really had no idea whether it was going to be possible to incorporate major stunting into a show that also needed to have a full dance vocabulary, multiple musical styles and to tell a story. We're still in (the) process, but there now has been a real meshing of this cast. They've really come together now."
"Bring It On" is following what those in the touring theater business like to call the "Mamma Mia!"model, after the famously successful ABBA musical, which played Chicago and other cities long before New York. Instead of opening directly on Broadway, or even after an out-of-town tryout, this approach involves putting together a tour of several U.S. cities prior to a Broadway production. The advantages of this mode of producing are that shows can be developed and improved on a less frenetic and more measured schedule, as critics and audiences in several different markets offer feedback, and the creative directors can parachute into and out of different cities as their schedules allow. It also means that potentially populist shows can tour without the baggage of negative Broadway reviews, should they be forthcoming, and still build some revenue, preventing a total loss.
The approach tends not to work with serious or unknown titles that need a Broadway imprimatur for presenters across the country to be interested in booking them and for audiences to want to buy tickets. But with a title like "Bring It On," which comes with a built-in audience of fans of the movie — and of competitive cheerleading in general — the idea of such a tour was clearly a smart way to go, especially because the creators of the show are established and widely trusted Broadway names, with credits like "In the Heights" and "Avenue Q."
"It was great being able to walk away from Los Angeles, exhausted, and then come back to the show with new ideas," said Blankenbuehler. "What you can do with this model is really focus in on what will make your product better."
"I would not have signed on if this were just something frivolous and light," said Kitt, who also composed the score to "Next to Normal," a show about as far removed from cheerleaders as anyone can imagine. "'Bring It On' wants to be entertaining, but it has to be more than that. Musicals are hard. You're in them because you're passionate about them. But they take a long time."
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