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3 Oscar nominees, one little-seen musical about cheerleaders

When Ariana DeBose and Lin-Manuel Miranda collaborated on a musical about cheerleaders, based on a Kirsten Dunst franchise.

Adrienne Warren and Taylor Louderman, onstage and dressed as cheerleaders.
Adrienne Warren and Taylor Louderman at the curtain call for opening night of Bring It On: The Musical, August 1, 2012, in New York City.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

This Oscars ceremony will see the reunion of alumni from one of Broadway’s most minor but best-loved (by me) gems. By a quirk of timing, the 2022 nominees include three figures closely connected to a short-lived, comically low-stakes, joyously exuberant soap bubble of a Broadway show from 2012: Bring It On: The Musical.

Bring It On: The Musical is based on the cult classic sleepover staple film franchise that originally starred Kirsten Dunst, who is now nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Power of the Dog. It boasts music and lyrics by a team that includes Lin-Manuel Miranda, now going for his EGOT with a nomination for Encanto. And it offered Ariana DeBose, the current favorite for Best Supporting Actress for her role in West Side Story, her first big theatrical role.

That might seem like a lot of heavy hitters for a show that was only on Broadway for four months. But the glory of Bring It On, in the original and the musical, has always lain in how carefully crafted its details are. It might have all the gravitas of a sparkly pompom, but everyone involved with this show was determined to leave everything they had on the floor.

Bring It On: The Musical is heavily inspired by the tropes of the original film, but the plot is new. It concerns Campbell (Taylor Louderman on Broadway), a perky blond in the Kirsten Dunst mold who has dreamed her whole life of being head cheerleader at her wealthy white high school. The peppy-preppy music of Truman High comes courtesy of Tom Kitt, underscored by a relentless beat that seems to push Campbell ever forward toward her ambitions. “Nationals are getting closer by the minute,” she sing-chants. “Last year we took bronze. This year we’re gonna win it. Bring it!”

But just as Campbell finally makes it to her senior year, all her dreams within arm’s reach, she finds herself transferred to Jackson High, which has a majority-Black student population. There, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop reigns supreme, and Campbell can’t seem to find a way to match the groove of the movement in the hallways. “I’m looking for someone to follow so I know my way,” she explains, but everyone around her just tells her to move.

What’s more, at Jackson High, there’s no cheerleading team. This school is ruled by a dance crew, and as leader Danielle (Adrienne Warren on Broadway) explains to Campbell, “We don’t do favors for no football team.”

Over the next two acts, Campbell struggles to earn her cred with the dance crew so she can make some friends at her new school, and tries to transform the dance crew into a cheerleading team so she can achieve her dreams at Nationals. In Jeff Whitty’s nicely nuanced book, Campbell toggles back and forth between endearing striver and crass manipulator as she puts pride and morals aside and risks it all to get what she wants — regardless of the wishes of Danielle and everyone else at Jackson High.

DeBose is in a supporting comic role here as Nautica, one of the three original members of the dance crew, but she makes her presence felt. Bring It On is a dance musical first and foremost (Andy Blankenbuehler choreographed and directed the original production), and Debose bounds across the stage in every one of the tight, intricate dance numbers, beaming out the sunshiney joy that makes her a standout as Spielberg’s Anita.

In the video below, you can see the Broadway cast of Bring It On performing “It’s All Happening” at the 2013 Tony Awards. Here, Campbell has lied to Danielle and the rest of the crew to convince them that if they win Nationals, they’ll receive full college scholarships and get to be on TV, and Danielle has accordingly set out to convince the rest of the school to join their new cheerleading squad. It’s a deceptively sunny number that showcases the show’s deft characterization, Miranda’s infectious rhythms, and DeBose’s easy sparkle.

Around the three-minute mark, DeBose gets her solo as Nautica prances down an imagined red carpet, recounting all the cool stuff she’ll get when she’s famous. “Doesn’t matter what we’re famous for,” she sings, preening. “Everything we get is gonna be top drawer.”

This is early in DeBose’s career, and since it’s a live performance, you can see that her breath control isn’t quite where it will be after years of nightly performances as a company member in Hamilton (she played the Bullet). But her joy beams out across the stage as she moves — and all the while, Miranda’s minor-key melody is working in the background, reminding us that everything is not well at Jackson High. Nautica, along with everyone else cheerfully talking themselves into making a career out of cheerleading, has been lied to.

It all works out in the end, of course. But it resolves with as much complexity and care as anyone could bring to two-and-a-half dance-heavy hours of cheerleading-themed musical theater. Bring It On: The Musical is a minor miracle of a show, and it’s well worth spending some quality time with the cast recording this Oscars season.

The cast recording of Bring It On: The Musical is available to listen to on Spotify. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.