Since his 1990 arrival on the stages of New York City, dancer-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler has had it nothing but good. After showing off his best Broadway buck-and-wing in 1992's Guys and Dolls and jazz hands in 1999's Fosse, the Cincinnati native began a career as a big-league choreographer.
"A wonderful thing about youth is that you don't really know anything," Blankenbuehler, 45, says from his Manhattan home. "You trust your instinct. I didn't know about choreography, dramaturgy, humanity back when I was 17, but I trusted my gut feelings."
The newly minted choreographer first hit Marlton's Lenape Regional Performing Arts Center with Frank Wildhorn's Waiting for the Moon: An American Love Story in 2005 - and was nominated for a Barrymore Award - before returning to New York with The Apple Tree in 2006. After that, it was all upward - 2007's In the Heights, for which he won a Tony; 2009's 9 to 5; 2012's Bring It On: The Musical (in which he debuted as a director), as well as the heralded revival of Annie that same year.
And now there's Hamilton, the Broadway blockbuster that turns America's craving for independence from England into a hip-hop jamboree and the first secretary of the treasury into a sucker MC.
This week, the man who put the cheer in cheerleading with Bring It On returns to the area as the director-choreographer of a new touring production of the nearly 50-year-old Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical opens at the Merriam on Tuesday for a run through the weekend.
This isn't Blankenbuehler's first encounter with Joseph. "It was the first show I ever choreographed, in my junior year in high school," he says.
Growing up, he was inspired by Twyla Tharp, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Michael Jackson, and dance films such as White Nights and Dirty Dancing.
"I don't recall questioning how I was possibly going to make up those dance routines - there are a lot of them - I just loved the challenge and remember ideas pouring out of me."
Ideas pouring, legs flying, arms locking; these describe the elegant athleticism Blankenbuehler has applied to every musical he's touched. The choreographer claims that though every project is different, the sole constant he needs is a solid story, an emotional one.
"I see plot points or very specific character ideas," he says. "Sometimes music sets a fire under me, and I start dancing before I even draft the story beats."
Often (and successfully, both aesthetically and financially), Blankenbuehler has worked with the stories and music of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the street-smart, lit-witty conceptualist behind In the Heights, Bring It On, and the still-fresh Hamilton. "We're able to collaborate silently," Blankenbuehler says. "Our characteristics, while not always matching, always fit together to complete a perfect puzzle."
It would be simple to say Hamilton's puzzle turns constitutional history into 18th-century hip-hop as worthy of Jefferson as it is of Kendrick Lamar. For his part, Blankenbuehler's freaky movement comes from the choreographer throwing his paint box against the wall.
"Lin's music and story were going to so many places that I knew I needed to pull out anything and everything that I could," he says, referring to such dance-step reference points as Jerome Robbins, Justin Timberlake, and "Fosse, Fosse, Fosse."
Starting with In the Heights ("I got to that production late"), Blankenbuehler sees the key to Miranda's talent as the fact that it's rhythmic, "in and out. It's the best lyric around, but a lyric always tied to a rhythm unfolding with total human truth and spontaneity.
"His work is fresh, exciting, yes, but honest and exposed like no other music happening on the stage today. Through his work, I've found the rhythms of the human condition. How does jealousy move? Or determination?"
With Miranda's music, Blankenbuehler says he is not choreographing mere dance steps, "I'm choreographing life."
The task of rethinking the Rice/Lloyd Webber Dreamcoat was a different sort of challenge. Having worked on the show 27 years earlier, he recognized similar feelings upon reencountering the music: "The same musical phrases excited me. The same moments left me without answers."
The first step in creating this new version was deciding the show would not have its usual children's choir yet would still speak to the younger audiences it always has been aimed at, with ferocious contemporary energy.
"It was vital," says Blankenbuehler, "to tap into the audiences' youthful soul" through Joseph, who connects the stories of Abraham and Jacob to the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt in the Book of Genesis. "I set out to bring a fresh injection of honesty to the property, a physical vocabulary with a contemporary edge. It's not a hip-hop Joseph, but it is a Joseph where the dancing is filled with detail and attack.
"Even though Joseph is colorful and fun, that doesn't mean that its moments can't be about honesty."
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Tuesday through Sunday at the Merriam Theater,
250 S. Broad Street.