Broadway’s cheerleading musical opens Wednesday
Photo by Michael Meseke: The creative team behind Broadway’s “Bring It On: The Musical” includes, from left: Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics), Alex Lacamoire (music supervisor), Andy Blankenbuehler (director, choreographer), Jeff Whitty (book), Tom Kitt (music, arrangements, orchestrations), and Amanda Green (lyrics).
Tom Kitt couldn’t possibly have known that winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Next to Normal” would land him back in high school.
But for the better part of the two years, the Tony-winner has been reflecting on his days at Byram Hills High School in Armonk, as he collaborated on “Bring It On: The Musical,” which opens Aug. 1 at Broadway’s St. James Theatre.
Based on the 2000 film starring Kirsten Dunst, and a franchise of followups that adhere to a similar formula, “Bring It On” has music by Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Tony-winner for “In the Heights,” and lyrics by Miranda and Amanda Green, who wrote the musical “High Fidelity” with Kitt.
The book, by “Avenue Q” writer Jeff Whitty, follows Campbell (Taylor Louderman) who dreams of being captain of the cheerleading squad at suburban Truman High School. Her dream comes true, but a series of setbacks lands her in gritty, urban Jackson High, where there’s a dance “crew,” but no one would be caught dead shaking a pompom. Once at Jackson, in an environment that celebrates individuality instead of conformity, Campbell eventually finds her way again, leading to a showdown with Truman at a national cheering competition. The cast features a company of national-champion cheerleaders who perform elaborate high-flying routines and aerial stunts.
“Bring It On” took a non-traditional road to Broadway. Instead of one out-of-town tryout, the musical reached New York after getting on its feet in Atlanta and riding a 13-city tour from Los Angeles to Toronto. Its Broadway run is limited, scheduled to end Oct. 7.
Kitt called to discuss his latest project.
It has been 20 years since you graduated from Byram Hills.
A: Has it? (Laughs.) That’s a great way to begin this interview. I wish we’d get something together, but we didn’t for the 10th, so I assume we won’t for the 20th.
Was part of the process of “Bring It On” to put yourself back in the halls at Byram Hills?
A: It really was. That’s what I found so appealing about working on this, because I think that’s a time in your life when your emotions run really high, there’s a lot of deep material to draw from from those years. So I was excited to go back into that world and write about it.
Were the Byram Hills Bobcat cheerleaders on your radar back then?
A: (Laughs.) I don’t think the Bobcat cheerleaders were quite like what we have in the show. But I do remember the cheerleaders, because we had friends on the JV football team, so we would go, at 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning and there’d be maybe four cheerleaders on the JV squad who were screaming their hearts out. It was nice to see, but not quite like what we’re seeing on the stage at the St. James.
Did you have to change your approach to writing music for “Bring It On,” because some of the songs were the basis for cheerleading routines? Or is it still “5, 6, 7, 8”?
A: There is a different approach because you know that people are going to be stunting to it. As a composer, you have to write music that supports the movement, but also make sure they can perform all the things you’re writing. It was something I had to adapt to and observe what was going on and make changes accordingly.
Not the same as when you wrote “Next to Normal.”
A: No. Not the same thing, but “American Idiot” had those challenges, too, because of that brilliant choreography from Stephen Hogett. That’s what I love about the collaborative process. Everybody is feeding off of everyone and trying to make sure that the facets that everyone is working on are excelling the way they need to.
You and Amanda Green had done “High Fidelity” together. You and Lin Miranda had both won Tonys. How did that dynamic, three people collaborating on music and lyrics, work?
A: When (director-choreographer) Andy Blankenbuehler first talked to me about “Bring It On,” it was this general idea that Lin and I would collaborate on the music and Amanda came on board soon after that. Amanda and I were going to look at the Truman material first and Lin was going to do the Jackson material. And knowing the template of “Bring It On,” I knew that was an exciting idea, especially since Lin gets the world of hip-hop and R&B. And above that, Lin is an incredible melodist and lyricist, so what I was secretly hoping, which is what happened, was that that would go away and the three of us would collaborate on the entire score.
All three of you worked on the whole score or did you kind of break into teams?
A: There are a lot of songs that the three of us wrote. There are some moments that Lin and I worked on, some that Amanda and Lin worked on. Really, the score feels like the three of us sort of went through the whole thing together. Lin had suggestions about my work and vice versa. It ended up being the three of us doing the heavy lifting throughout the entire score.
Can you talk about one song that the three of you worked on?
A: The song that Campbell sings in Act 1, “One Perfect Moment,” about her hopes and dreams, is a song that the three of us wrote. Lin actually went back to his parents’ house to write some of those lyrics and delve deep into his own psychological world of high school.
Where did he go to high school?
A: I think Hunter. But that boy will suddenly start quoting Stephen Sondheim at the drop of a hat and on and on through the musical-theater canon. That’s the great thing about him. He has this hip and exciting new voice for musical theater, but he is a student of the craft so his songs do what all great musical-theater songs do. That’s the thing that we all try to bring to it, because whatever style you’re writing in, songs have to function in a certain way for a piece of musical theater. When I look at the score, that’s the thing I’m most proud of, that these songs really function, they tell the story dramatically.
“Bring It On” didn’t take the traditional road in.
A: Every show’s trajectory is different. The truth is there were no Broadway plans when we signed on and for a good part of the tour. So when people asked us, “Are you going to Broadway,” the truthful answer was “We don’t know.” What’s interesting is that, this for this show, for our developmental and creative process, touring really worked perfectly because each time you do it you think you’ve solved a bunch of things and you’re really excited and then you put it in front of an audience and realize that there are a number of things you still need to work on. It feels like in New York, from the writing standpoint, just from what I’m feeling in the theater, it feels like we’ve found the show in a new way, above the tour. I’m grateful to our producers for continuing to push us and give us these safe developmental processes and believing in the show.
We weren’t working toward Broadway — we were really working toward getting the show right — but the wonderful lining up of everything is that we ended up here and we ended up here with a show that’s strongest.
What does it have here that it didn’t have in, say, Toronto?
A: We’ve cut songs and replaced them. And Jeff Whitty rewrote book scenes. But it was also about looking at the story and asking where are people getting on board, where do we feel like we’re long. And trying to make sure that the storytelling — up to that great moment in Act 1 when things really turn for Campbell — is working in the most economic, smart and exciting way. That’s where the story really gets going and we didn’t have that “One Perfect Moment” song until we got here. And now you can’t imagine it not being there.
Sometimes, the same piece of material looks completely different with what’s around it. If you look at a song like “Light in the Dark” in “Next to Normal,” which used to come before “Feeling Electric,” cutting “Feeling Electric,” putting “I’ve Been” before “Light in the Dark” and ending Act 1 with that, that song suddenly functions in a whole different way.
I think that with “Bring It On,” it wasn’t just the re-writes. It was how we replaced things, how we rejiggered the parts to really pop some material that wasn’t landing the way we needed it to.
Talk about working with “Avenue Q” book writer Jeff Whitty.
A: He has those gifts of being hilarious and also having great heart. You laugh with his characters and you care about them a great deal. I think he has created a character in the show that is pure Jeff Whitty that I wouldn’t have seen coming and that is a home run every night: La Cienega (played by Gregory Haney). If you’re going back into the world of high school, you want to be truthful and Jeff’s work is always truthful.
This kind of feels like “Newsies” for girls. There were people who responded to that musical with rapturous applause. And there are people who know the “Bring It On” films who’ll react that way to this.
A: Except that these are not characters they know. It’s a brand-new story. It’s based on the franchise and the style of “Bring It On” and there are story elements — there are rival schools — but Jeff wrote an entirely new book, so these characters don’t exist in any of the movies. I hear people outside the theater who don’t know anything about the musical — talking about the movies — and I think they come in and have a completely different experience. People don’t know what’s going to happen.
Does that make it easier for you? You aren’t tied so tightly to the source material?
A: In this instance, it was rewarding to say, “You know what? The slate is clean and we can write what we want to write.” On the flip side of things, when I was working on “High Fidelity,” it was fun to figure out what things to take from (Nick) Hornby’s writing. I’m a fan of that material and I was thinking, “Well, if I come to this musical, I’m going to want to see that.” It works both ways.
“Bring It On: The Musical,” opens Aug. 1 for a limited run, through Oct. 7. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. $32 to $125. 212-239-6200. www.bringitonmusical.com.