In the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton, alumna Stephanie Klemons, as dance captain and associate choreographer, makes sure everyone is making the right moves.
In the award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton—about the improbable rise of Alexander Hamilton as an orphaned immigrant from the British West Indies to George Washington’s military confidant, treasury secretary, and visionary for a nation—Aaron Burr warns the precocious upstart to watch his step (“talk less, smile more”). Alumna Stephanie Klemons has the same advice for Hamilton—in her case, for Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the hip-hop musical who also stars as Hamilton. In her role as the dance captain for the production, Klemons RC’04 keeps a trained eye on Miranda and all the cast members to make sure that they are executing their dance steps and stage movements just the way Klemons taught them—one dancer at a time over long months of preparation—in her job fulfilling the vision of renowned choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, the winner of the 2016 Tony Award for best choreography.
“Members of a dance ensemble commonly think that, after doing something 450 times, they are doing the same thing the same way,” says Klemons, also the associate choreographer for Hamilton, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2016 and 11 Tony Awards, including best new musical, after being nominated for a record 16. “But it can become something quite different. So I really have to keep a really close eye on the dancing and the traffic patterns and the scene transitions. It’s a little bit like fixing a leaking faucet before the drip becomes something else. My duty is to maintain the integrity of the show. It’s a lot to digest.”
First opening Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre in January 2015, Hamilton has been the hottest ticket in town since moving to Broadway last August at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Miranda, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the show, came to the radical idea of a musical featuring hip-hop music and a multiracial cast in the roles of the nation’s Founding Fathers after picking up Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton on a whim. Two chapters in, Miranda was hooked—and began to create the enchanting odyssey of Alexander Hamilton as the epitome of the American immigrant story. In telling the rich tale, Hamilton runs close to three hours and features 46 scenes, most of them complemented by demanding, physical dancing—a choreographic nod to the revolutionary fervor surrounding America’s founding. Klemons says that it’s a production as demanding on the performers as it is entertaining for enthralled theatergoers.
“The cast members realize that they are part of this crazy phenomenon, but it’s also the most exhausting show that any of us have been in,” says Klemons, who was Miranda’s associate choreographer for Bring It On: The Musical and dance captain for In the Heights, his first Broadway musical (and winner of four Tony Awards in 2008). “So, we are all a family backstage, holding one another up and working under a lot of pressure. Fortunately, I am surrounded by the hardest-working people I’ve met.”
As if the job of dance captain weren’t enough, Klemons is also a swing—an all-purpose reserve dancer who must be able to assume any dancer’s role. Klemons gets to the theater four hours before show time to rehearse, each day burnishing the moves of a different dancer. She also teaches other swings and understudies, arranging rehearsals to keep everybody in tip-top readiness.
Klemons—who majored in both dance (with a concentration in choreography) as well as genetics/microbiology (with a concentration in clinical research)—began teaching dance after arriving in New York City, a means to an end as she established herself in musical theater. But Klemons realized she had a knack for dance instruction. “As a teacher, you have to make sure that your students have a bucket to catch the water you are throwing at them,” she says. “You have to connect with people and make sure that they can process it. At this point, I feel like I have five or six ways to teach something to reach anybody.”
Her ability to impart to dancers the vision of Blankenbuehler, the award-winning choreographer with whom she’s worked for 10 years, explains why Miranda routinely turns to the pair for his productions. Miranda, in turn, happens to be a dream to work for. “Lin is the best collaborator I have worked with; it’s magical,” says Klemons. “He knows what he does very well, and he lets you do what you do very well. He’s very gracious.”
He’s even OK with Klemons’s gentle admonitions to correct his ways, part of the weekly routine when, after watching a couple of productions, she comes backstage to give cast members their “notes,” gentle reprimands for things that need remediation onstage. Miranda, she says, has to be reminded now and then to watch his steps, particularly during the song “Satisfied.”
“Stephanie has to correct me more than anybody in the cast,” says Miranda, joking onstage moments before a January production. “I have about 20 jobs during the show, and dancing is probably the one I do least well. I have always chosen Stephanie to work with me because she knows every move cold—and tells me what to do.”
If the pace of participating in Hamilton seems beyond human capacity, Klemons says she developed her facility for detail at Rutgers, juggling that demanding double major. “I just loved it at Rutgers,” says Klemons, who grew up in Monmouth County, New Jersey. “I was so uniquely built by the university.”
Like everyone associated with the musical, she is still amazed that Hamilton has been such a phenomenon, and that she has had no small part in its success. “I do take great pride in my work in Hamilton,” says Klemons. “I may not have made up the steps, but I taught every single one of them.” •