By ERIC GRODE
Counting the direct-to-DVD sequels, there are five Bring It On movies, and Bring It On: The Musical mimics exactly none of them.
Now in previews at the St. James Theatre, this new cheerleading musical---loosely inspired by the 2000 Kirsten Dunst film and featuring a roster of blue-chip writing talent---will be remembered as a rare and possibly unique phenomenon: a movie adaptation that has virtually nothing to do with its source material.
"I went into this project assuming it was going to be based on the movie," says Jeff Whitty, the Tony Award-winning book writer (Avenue Q) who joined the Bring It On team four years ago. "But the producers were clear that we could do whatever we wanted. It took a minute to get on that road mentally, but it opened so many doors."
Since then, Whitty has weathered what he calls "thousands of hours of meetings" with his collaborators. He's joined by the In the Heights tandem of composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (who also directs here), along with co-composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and co-lyricist Amanda Green (High Fidelity).
"I don't want to go to the theatre and watch something I could watch on DVD," Whitty says. "I've already heard those jokes, and so much of humor is dependent on surprises."
The title remains, obviously, as does the constant stream of young women being hurled into the air. Other than that, Whitty and his collaborators have chosen an entirely different path, lifting just a few details from the films .
"I like to say Bring It On: The Musical is inspired by the movies but not beholden to any of them," he says. The plot follows a perky cheerleader who is suddenly redistricted to a school without a cheer squad (gasp!), where she tangles with a hip-hop dance crew that's suspicious of her pep.
Much of this refurbishment happened after the musical's original production in Atlanta in early 2011. By the time it reconvened that fall for the national tour (of which the Broadway mounting is part), Whitty and company were prepared to make major adjustments as the show traveled from city to city.
Whitty, who recently wrote the book to a musical adaptation of Armistead Maupin's <i>Tales of the City</i> and also has written several plays, contrasts this gestational period with the typical preview process. "A lot of the time, there's a point where you just have to put Band-Aids on it and do the best you can," he says. "What's so great here is that we had eight months to go over it and over it."
The show changed quite a bit before the tour kicked off in November, and Whitty estimates that he has rewritten another 40 to 50 percent of the book since then. (And counting: A recent interview began late after he and the rest of the team had spent several hours honing the first 45 seconds of the show.)
"My biggest goal was to give this show an emotional resonance that it didn't really have on the tour," he says. "I didn't want to lose any of the humor, but I wanted it to draw blood."
Bring It On should finally reach completion just in time for Tales of the City revisions to commence in a few months. After that, Whitty is ready to stop playing with others. "These have both been incredibly satisfying collaborations," he says, "but I'm ready to be by myself and work on my own plays for a while." As evidenced by Bring It On, coming up with new ideas likely won't be a problem.
Based in New York, Eric Grode is a theatre critic and reporter and a regular contributor to TDF Stages
Photo by Joan Marcus