GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Michael Mindlin of 'Bring It On'
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by Adrienne Onofri
A number of milestones in Michael Mindlin’s life have involved Andy Blankenbuehler, and vice versa. Mindlin’s first role in an original Broadway cast was in 2009’s 9 to 5, choreographed by Blankenbuehler. Now Mindlin is performing in Bring It On: The Musical, which marks Blankenbuehler’s Broadway directing debut.
The two met years ago at Broadway Dance Center, where Mindlin began taking Blankenbuehler’s theater class as soon as he moved to NYC and now teaches himself. “I pretty much attribute my theater-dance training and any kind of confidence I’ve had going to auditions and working to what I learned from him in those classes,” Mindlin says of Tony winner Blankenbuehler. “He was, and is, a big influence—and now he’s become a good friend.”
Among other career highlights, Mindlin shared the stage with such stars as Rosie O’Donnell, Ben Vereen, Charles Busch and Laura Benanti in a 2009 benefit performance of Pippin choreographed by Blankenbuehler. And it was in Blankenbuehler’s Broadway Dance class a decade ago that Mindlin met Elizabeth Racanelli. They started dating when they performed together in Footloose at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H., during the summer of 2005 and were married this May.
Mindlin and Racanelli’s wedding (and Greece honeymoon) took place right around the time Bring It On was wrapping up its national tour, which launched last fall. Mindlin was also in the workshop production of the cheerleading musical at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in early 2011. He got the part after what he calls “an insane audition process” that encompassed some half a dozen callbacks. By the time of the final callback, Mindlin had performed about five different songs from the show in auditions and learned about “stunting”—the cheerleading moves in which someone is lifted or thrown. They’re a big part of the Bring It On choreography, and Mindlin is now performing them on the Broadway stage, though he’s generally at the bottom of the pyramids.
When his agent first called him about auditioning for Bring It On, Mindlin thought it was just a courtesy from Blankenbuehler. “I don’t do hip-hop, I don’t tumble, I don’t cheer,” says Mindlin. “It just didn’t seem like the right fit.” He even left the first audition early to get to his Broadway Dance class; if he’d suspected he had any chance of being cast, he would have asked the studio to get a substitute teacher. Yet he continued to get called back for Bring It On. “The more auditions I went to,” Mindlin says, “the more I thought maybe I could get the gig, and the more I wanted the gig. The more they expressed interest, the more my interest grew. And then by the end, it was: I need to get this gig.”
As Bring It On is set in high school and many in its cast—including most of the stars as well as the professional cheerleaders in the ensemble—are making their Broadway debuts, Mindlin is an elder statesman in the company. Just shows you what a difference a few years can make in the life of a gypsy. In 9 to 5, Mindlin was one of the younger and less-experienced cast members. His next Broadway show, Mamma Mia (which he was in throughout 2010), also had actors older than him as well as of his generation. “But with this show I do feel like a veteran,” says Mindlin, who turns 30 at the end of the year. “When I think about my colleagues and a lot of the people I hang around with, I consider them veterans. I love learning, I love pushing myself. When I take dance class or go to auditions, I always follow the people who I feel are better than me and I can mimic. So I don’t like feeling like a veteran. I have a lot more to learn and am not even close to being done in this business.”
Just as Blankenbuehler did, Mindlin is planning eventually to transition from dancer to choreographer and, he hopes, director. He’s already accumulated choreography credits, including last summer’s Xanadu at ReVision Theatre on the Jersey Shore; 9 to 5 castmate Ann Harada’s 2010 “Christmas Eve With Christmas Eve” concert (in which he also performed); a 2006 production of Beauty and the Beast at Vermont’s Northern Stage that his then girlfriend Racanelli was in; and Evita at the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter, Mich., costarring that theater’s producing artistic director, Daniel Cooney (the December 2011 Gypsy of the Month), a friend from 9 to 5.
As a performer, Mindlin has been in West Side Story multiple times, dating back to high school when he played a Shark in a production at Mercer County Community College near his hometown of Princeton, N.J. He also was a Shark at Pennsylvania’s Allenberry Playhouse in 2004, and later switched over to the Jets’ side to play Baby John at Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia and Barrington Stage in the Berkshires. Mindlin considers the mid-2005 Walnut Street West Side Story a benchmark in his career. “I feel like everyone in that show has branched out to do really exciting things,” he says. The cast included Colin Cunliffe (Evita, The Addams Family), Michelle Aravena (October 2006 Gypsy of the Month), Ryan Watkinson (How to Succeed..., Promises, Promises) and Michael Longoria, who was cast during the run in something called Jersey Boys.
Somebody Mindlin met at Walnut Street got him an audition for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and it was in that show that he made his Broadway debut in fall 2005 (replacing original ensemble member Alex Sanchez). Mindlin received his Equity card doing Chitty, as he had only a few regional credits prior to that, including George M at Allenberry Playhouse the same summer he did West Side Story there.
He’s since been in the touring Radio City Christmas Spectacular during two holiday seasons (in Toronto and Arizona/southern California) and a couple of NYMF shows created by Wendy Seyb, School Daze and Freshly Tossed (Racanelli was also in both). The New Jersey native prefers working in New York and tries to avoid tours. “I don’t like leaving the city,” says Mindlin. “I thrive in New York, I teach here, I like to be part of the energy, I like to be with my wife.”
He was, however, happy to be part of out-of-town tryouts for Bring It On and 9 to 5, which played at the Ahmanson in L.A. in fall 2008. In fact, he turned down a part in Broadway’s The Little Mermaid while he was still waiting to hear if he’d gotten into 9 to 5. “For me the risk was worth it,” says Mindlin. “To work for [director] Joe Mantello and Andy Blankenbuehler and be a part of the process of a new musical—being able to work from the ground up—was very exciting.”
Though 9 to 5 flopped on Broadway, it became another benchmark for Mindlin. He even got to go on a few times in a featured role: Josh, son of Violet (Allison Janney). “Working with Joe and being on the younger end of the cast, I learned a lot about professionalism and the process,” he says. “The cast gelled; it was a wonderful group.” He’s reached another level with Bring It On, which has a libretto by Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and score by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal), Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) and Amanda Green (the upcoming Hands on a Hardbody). “I’ve grown the most in this [show],” Mindlin remarks. “I’ve learned a lot about my talents and my limitations. There’s a lot of new elements in this show, and we have smart, intense people on the creative team who are in their prime right now and are so passionate about what they do and take it so seriously.”
In the Bring It On Playbill, Mindlin says he’s an “avid baseball fan.” He roots for the Yankees, and he grew up playing catcher. For a while he was on the baseball team and performing in local theater at the same time. “I would go to the games in my stage makeup,” he recalls. But his baseball days ended at age 12, when he broke his femur jumping off a three-foot pile of wood chips in his backyard. When he returned to baseball a year later, he was “afraid of the ball,” he says, and “couldn’t keep up with the pitches.”
The injury actually helped him somewhat as a dancer: His leg was set in the cast slightly turned out, and ever since he’s had good turnout in that leg—important especially to ballet technique. Mindlin trained at Princeton Ballet School from around age 13. He’d started dancing not long before at a theater day camp that offered concentrations in acting, singing and dancing; he was going to focus on voice at the camp until “a bunch of cute girls” asked him to join the dance group. Prior to the ballet school, Mindlin took tap at another studio but didn’t like it that much, and he took jazz at Princeton Ballet before moving onto ballet itself. “I enjoyed the structure, the discipline, the attention,” he says. “I was one boy among 20 girls, I got to do leads and solos.” He never wished to pursue ballet professionally, though. “My thought for dance was that it was a means to an end,” Mindlin states. “I wanted to be as technically sound as possible, so when it came to theater I would have an edge.”
He got into theater with a role in A Christmas Carol at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre when he was about 10, and went on to perform in shows at other local theaters. He attended Stagedoor Manor for two summers (“That is when it got serious”), and by his last two years in high school was going to Princeton Ballet six days a week for classes or rehearsals. He’d occasionally come into NYC to see Broadway shows (among them Cats, Show Boat and Footloose) or ballet at Lincoln Center and to take classes at Broadway Dance taught by Frank Hatchett and Michèle Assaf.
Mindlin gives his parents the most credit for inspiring him. His mother has been an opera singer and voice teacher at Westminster Choir College in Princeton. “The appreciation I have for music is because of her,” he says, remembering listening to her vast record collection, which included everything from classical to folk to cast albums. Mindlin’s father passed his love of theater onto his son—but, sadly, was killed in an auto accident when Michael was 5. “My father passing away when I was really young has had a big influence on the passion that I've had for dance and theater,” he says. “[They've been] therapy, a way to deal with a lot of anger or stress or love.”
After high school, Mindlin enrolled in the dance program at the State University of New York at Purchase, well known for its performing majors. But he realized he didn’t want to spend so much time training in concert dance, and he dropped out after a year. He then studied for 15 months at AMDA (American Musical and Dramatic Academy) in Manhattan. “It was the best ticket for me at that time to get to New York,” Mindlin says. “It got me familiar with the city. I made some really great connections. It was a good confidence-booster, and a great way to get propelled into the craziness that is New York City.”
That “craziness” now entails dealing regularly with assorted physical ailments. Toward the end of his year and a half in Mamma Mia—where he played Pepper, who hooks up (and sings “Does Your Mother Know”) with the older Tanya—he pulled his hamstring doing a toe-touch jump and still can feel effects from it. Over his time in Bring It On, he’s pulled his Achilles tendon and sprained an ankle. Mindlin says he now has to “warm up to warm up,” which he does with Thera-Band exercises and by loosening his back and ankles.
His pride and satisfaction with his work is ultimately worth the aches and pains, according to Mindlin. “Being an ensemble member of a company not only gives me a lot of insight into choreographing and overall structure of a piece but it lets me develop a character that is unique to myself and my vision of the story, while still honoring what the director and playwright intended,” he says, adding: “I believe that the gypsies of Broadway, like in Greek theater way before us, inform the audience how they should be feeling, where they should be focusing and what they should be thinking at any given moment. It’s very gratifying.”
Photos of Michael, from top: as a high school cheerleader in Bring It On, with Shonica Gooden and Gregory Haney behind him; performing a piece choreographed by Lorna Ventura for DanceBreak 2011; left, in the 1970s-set 9 to 5, with Timothy George Anderson (center) and Paul Castree; with his wife, Liz Racanelli, at Fenway Park; as Pepper to Judy McLane’s Tanya in Mamma Mia. [Bring It On photos by Joan Marcus]