“We’re in previews, so we have a crapload of changes today,” shares Adrienne Warren, aka Danielle in Bring It On: The Musical, as she speedily chews her grilled chicken panini sandwich and salad. “It’s like a new show.”
It’s Friday, and the curtains went up for the first time only five days ago. Opening night is scheduled in one week, and the two leading ladies are still sneaking to the piano to run through changes whenever they catch a free moment.
Sitting in a conference room/trailer across the street from the show’s temporary home at the Ahmanson Theatre, after rehearsal and before showtime, Warren and her co-star Taylor Louderman (Campbell) are visibly energized.
“It’s exciting to do a role where you’re actually challenged to be able to sing, dance and act,” offers Warren. “In theater, it’s weird but there are not a lot of lead roles like that anymore. Unless you’re Sutton Foster.”
This isn’t completely new territory for Warren. She originated the role of Jackson High’s dance captain diva Danielle this past February in Atlanta. Louderman is, however, Warren’s third Campbell. For both of them, the musical continues to evolve with each performance.
Director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler makes sure of it. He sits in the audience each night, watching with a mixture of anxiety and pride, whispering to women on his left and right, and scribbling notes to the actors.
Bring It On: The Musical centers around Campbell, a perky blonde cheerleader who is all set to rule as captain of the Truman High School squad in her senior year. Her boyfriend is a cheerleader, all her friends are cheerleaders; basically, for Campbell, the meaning of life is derived from cheering. Unfortunately, during the summer before her senior year, Campbell receives a letter explaining that she has been redistricted to Jackson High, which, most disappointingly, doesn’t have a cheer squad. Jackson High is a predominantly African American school, in which a squad is replaced with a dance crew led by Danielle, who has no interest in pompoms and even less concern for Campbell’s obsession — winning the national championships.
Lest audiences make any comparisons to 2000’s Bring It On starring Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union and its sequels, Warren is quick to counter: “This show has absolutely nothing to do with the movies. I think those stories, of course, are in the movies, but they happen in every high school around the country.” Louderman adds, “I don’t think I’ve seen the movie since it first came out. We don’t need to. It’s different. These are new, different characters. We’ve created them.”
Their defensive replies might be hard to understand without context. In September, the Writers Guild of America filed a request for arbitration on behalf of Bring It On screenwriter Jessica Bendinger, who claimed the musical’s producers “never acquired or received permission to use her exclusive rights.” The WGA was seeking damages and an injunction to halt the show until the producersÂ acquired Bendinger’s rights. An out-of-court settlement, with no details disclosed, was announced last week.
What Warren and Louderman choose to emphasize is that the themes highlighted in Bring It On: The Musical are likely to resonate widely, and the performers have created characters with their own personalities — in conjunction, of course with the show’s librettist Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and lyricist Amanda Green (High Fidelity).
“I was talking to Tommy Kail, the director of In the Heights,” starts Warren, who has previously worked with Kail, “and he was at our show yesterday, and the first thing he said was, “˜I was crying in the opening number, and I couldn’t figure out why.’”
It might help that Miranda of In the Heights co-wrote the score, but a major cause of Kail’s emotional reaction could be pinned on the sheer earnestness and passion of the actors.
“It’s because in the opening number, she’s [Campbell] saying what we were born to do,” shares Warren. “That is so universal. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Everyone has a passion for life, whether it’s dancing or cheering or being an accountant. You have a passion for something, and that’s why this show touches so many people, and it’s so moving in ways that people don’t even understand.”
There’s even evidence. Warren proudly details a specific instance when she looked out into the audience at a woman crying, and cheered to herself, “Ha, we got you!”
“I remember looking out during “˜Cross the Line’ and this woman, she had to be in her 60s or 70s, and she [must have been] shocked that tears were falling from her eyes. She had no idea how. That’s what’s so amazing about this show. You’re not only rooting for us as cheerleaders, and you want us to win nationals, but you’re cheering for us as human beings, as teenagers, and as people doing this amazingly innovative show on that stage, and you can see how hard we’re sweating and working, and you’re with us because of that.”
Louderman has the visible bruises to prove how hard she’s been working — as of last Friday, she was still wearing an ankle brace in parts of the show.Â The rest of the cast is chock-full of actual cheerleaders and dancers, many of whom have never acted on stage. The cast’s average age is 20.
“When we first started working on the show in Atlanta, the cheerleaders had no clue what downstage, upstage, or stage left meant,” says Warren. “We had these huge signs in the rehearsal room. One girl raised her hand and was like, “˜What’s an alto?’ They had no idea what it was, and their growth from then to now is unbelievable. Everyone’s singing.”
“Every break when we were working in Atlanta, we were trying to learn how to do something new,” she continues. “It was like going to a master class every day. They were trying to learn how to do pirouettes. We were like, “˜how do I do this tuck?’ That’s what’s so great about this cast. Every day we’re learning something new, and everyone has your back.”
“We’re all out of our comfort zone in some way or another,” adds Louderman, who would have been a junior at University of Michigan now. “We’re really there for each other in a way I don’t think you normally have with a cast.”
Like a buddy team in the musical theater trenches, with less than a week to opening night, Warren picks up where Louderman leaves off. “I think what’s so different about this show is we’re doing so much at the same time. Andy Blankenbuehler has a really great way of adding a new vocabulary to the stage. He does things that I’ve never seen, like fast motion, slow motion, backwards things. I think the hardest part is basically, you’re dancing, then you’re cheering, then you have to look out for a stunt, now you have to sing while you do it and you’re acting. We are quadruple threats in this show.”
It doesn’t look as if any local Los Angeles dance moves have been incorporated into the show while it’s in LA,Â But when I remark on the absence of many contemporary street dances, like jerking, Warren sticks up for her leader, “I think Andy focuses more on the storytelling as opposed to what’s hip now or just doing a cool dance.”
Truthfully, one Dougie here or one Cat Daddy there might not even be noticed in the flurry of flips and jumps, or the motivating messages of the musical. In one scene, Danielle is explaining to Campbell her dance philosophy and its importance to her crew. “We would still do it if nobody was watching,” Danielle says.
“That’s the line where I decide, “˜OK, that right there pins it on the dot,’” states Louderman as Campbell. “I’m going to follow you.”
“Campbell doesn’t know that at the beginning,” relays Warren. “That’s what she learns at Jackson. Growing up, I think we lose passion for things, and we lose that energy because we’re focused on worries, the stress of the world. If you can really remember why you do what you do, that you can do it no matter who’s watching, there’s something beautiful about that. You’re in love. You eat, sleep and breathe it.”
Another theme of Bring It On: The Musical is crossing the line (literally in competition and figuratively) and not allowing artistry to be put in a box.
“At the end of the show, that’s what it’s about,” says Louderman, “going outside the boundaries, showing that we don’t always have to stay within that. By the end of the show, we are comfortable with not winning because we gained a lot more.”
Bring It On: The Musical, presented by Center Theatre Group. Opens Nov. 11. Plays Tues.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 2 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Through Dec. 10. Tickets: $25-120. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. www.centertheatregroup.org, 213-628-2772.
***All Bring It On: The Musical production photos by Craig Schwartz
Most recently, Jessica Koslow was the editor of Campus Circle, an L.A.-based weekly newspaper, for four years. Before returning to her hometown, she lived in New York City, working as an editor while also freelancing for various newspapers, magazines and online publications. She received her B.A. from Brown University and is currently pursuing a master’s in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.