features + interviews

Hamilton: A Critics’ Dialogue

[I am one voice among many in this article originally published by “Exeunt Staff” in Exeunt Magazine, October 31, 2016. All New York production photos by Joan Marcus.]

Overwhelming levels of Hamil-hype have surrounded Lin Manuel Miranda’s Founding Fathers musical since it opened Off-Broadway. Exeunt’s New York team debate how the Hamilton phenomenon influences their relationship with the show – and how, as it opens in London, its story has renewed political bite.

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Molly Grogan: The phenomenon that is Hamilton kicked off its national tour in Chicago last week and settles into its second season on Broadway, with new leads after the departure last summer of its original cast. I saw it for the first time on a press ticket and besides the expected, now famous pleasures of the music, lyrics and book, as well as the strengths of the new cast, it was interesting to watch the show in this election season as it posits some very pertinent questions. The hype continues unabated, and tickets continue to be as expensive and hard to come-by as ever, if you want to see it before 2018. Justified? Interpretations? What does Hamilton mean for you?

Hailey Bachrach: I both love and am very conflicted about Hamilton, and you touch on a lot of the sources of that conflict! It’s clearly such a brilliant and exciting show, and has so much to say about the moment we’re living in– but I struggle to reconcile its billing as a “theatrical revolution” and its widely recognized importance with the fact that so few people can afford to see it. That said: it’s great. I wish everyone could see it just for that.

Loren Noveck: Hamilton, as in the show I am embarrassed not to have seen when it was still at the Public and I thought, I wasn’t all that excited about In the Heights, so how great can it be? I haven’t seen the show, in other words, and all my thoughts are about it as a cultural object not an art experience (though I saw big swaths of it on the PBS documentary last night and was pleasantly surprised some of the songs I didn’t know, as well as the choreography and overall staging). It’s weird for a Broadway show to become this kind of phenomenon–as Hailey says, there are issues with affordability, but even if they gave all the tickets away, a Broadway show can’t ever reach the entire country the way a hit movie or TV show or record can; the distribution mechanism just doesn’t exist. I do think it’s perfectly positioned (and no one could have planned this!) to have arrived at a moment where the Obama administration, which at first seemed like a genuine moment of hope for American politics and American racial evolution, is giving way to something so corrosive and dispiriting. People are hungry–I know I am–for a vision of America that’s hopeful but not blindly optimistic, that acknowledges conflict but also compromise, and that figures out a way to include everyone. I think that’s the vision Hamilton is offering.

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Hailey: Loren, I think you’re exactly right about the potential reach of a theatrical event– but don’t you think the cast album, book, and now documentary have made a certain kind of experience of the show nationally available? I don’t think it could be the phenomenon it is without those things, and of course the cast album first (I’m thinking, for example, of a straight play like Vietgone, which is about to open at MTC and I think will draw a lot of comparisons with Hamilton, but I think will never achieve the same kind of reach because you can’t just buy the album, watch the Tony performance, etc). Which of course doesn’t fully answer the question of why this musical, except, as stated, it seems to have been accidentally perfectly timed to speak to our cultural moment.

Nicole Serratore: My DVR accidentally recorded the Hamilton documentary 4 times this weekend which feels like a perfect metaphor for my feelings for Hamilton right now. Hamilton, you’re just a little too much! You’re just one musical. One very powerful and remarkable musical. But take it down a notch.

Sometimes I realize I need to check my Hamilton privilege. When I first saw it, I loved it. I was eager to scoop up any morsel about the show and the performers and of course see it one more time if I possibly could get a ticket. But the Hamil-hype has been a relentless part of my relationship to the show.

The buzz within the theatre world was unlike anything I have ever seen and that was even before it opened Off-Broadway at The Public. Seeing it a few weeks into previews Off-Broadway I was already feeling like it could never live up to the “hype” which at that time was sky high. But of course once I finally saw it, I realized it had earned that excitement.

Now it’s hit such stratospheric levels that I want to punch it in the face sometimes for feeling like the only theater anyone wants to talk about. The hype machine has been running for two years and for me I’m Hamil-fatigued.

But that’s not really the show’s fault. Don’t hate the playa Nicole, hate the game.

Sincerely I want Hamilton to go away for just a little bit so I can miss it.

Because I miss loving it. It has a lyrical density that was so overwhelming on first view but worthy of the tomes written about it. We got to see breakout performances by stars in the making. Most important was the color conscious casting and racial politics of the work. Is it perfect? No. But it’s just such a beautifully crafted production where all the creative elements–from book to music to staging to lighting–click together in delightful harmony.

And to not see the production is to miss out on a key to that brilliance. Yes most of the world is getting a taste of Lin’s genius through the cast recording but Tommy Kail’s direction was for me the takeaway from seeing the show. That and Daveed Diggs leaping off a table and into my heart. I honestly could watch Kail’s staging of “Satisfied” over and over until my eyes bled and I’d watch it again one more time.

Despite my Hamil-crankiness, I’m also a Hamil-hypocrite. My excitement for the show was renewed this week when I heard a London casting rumor. Now I’m trying to figure out how to get tickets for London 2018. Hamilton, why can’t I quit you.

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Loren: Honestly, the main reason I didn’t see it early is that I’m allergic to anything that’s got that much buzz before it’s even a thing! Which, yes, is in itself a kind of snobbery, and one I’m regretting. But I agree about the relentlessness. (Which is also how I feel about the role Miranda has come to play in the larger discussion; I think he’s an extraordinary artist and probably extraordinary person but not necessarily the only spokesperson theater needs.)

And Hailey, I do think it’s more accessible in certain ways than most pieces of theater–but in another way, all of those peripherals are giving people a different cultural experience. I think the value of theater is the being-in-the-room-ness. Once you’ve turned that into a recording, a book, a TV show, you’re giving people a sitting-at-home-in-their-room facsimile of it. I don’t think it’s necessarily good for theater to teach potential audiences that they can have that particular cake and eat it at home! I’m more grateful, on the subject of accessibility, that they’re devoting so much energy to getting school-group audiences in to the show. That seems like it could spark a new generation of passionate theater interest, at least if my own childhood experience of having my mind blown by an early Broadway show is any example. (A Chorus Line, if anyone wants to know.)

Martha Wade Steketee: I heard the drum beats of the Hamilton phenomenon during the first weeks of its spring 2015 run at the Public. In particular, the rapturous reflections (and return visits) by Rob Weinert-Kent, now Editor-in-Chief of American Theatre magazine, compelled my interest. Weinert-Kent’s coverage in American Theatre on in his own blog of this new American musical was impossible for me to ignore, and I jumped on a Broadway-priced ticket during the off-Broadway Public’s first announced extension before the show moved to Broadway later in the year. I’d been an awards nominator for the two prior seasons and was not yet again an awards voter, so press tickets weren’t offered as uniformly to me at that Hamilton moment. I pulled out credit card, paid Broadway-level prices for this then Off Broadway show, and settled in.

I’m a follow-the-melody classic musical gal in my Sondheim heart of hearts, and rap and other styles of music on stage always have been a hard sell for me. But I bought the whole megillah here. I was mesmerized by intimacy of the space, the density of the vision, the execution. And my dramaturg’s heart took in the resonance of the Newman that gave birth to A Chorus Line 40 years before. In fact, a week or so before my initial Hamilton performance the cast delivered “What I Did For Love” as an encore to an audience that included members of the original Chorus Line cast. I carried this into the room with me, and it influenced my affectionate embrace of the show.

I attended an August 2015 performance the week after Hamilton opened, as part of a group of teenaged theater makers I observed that summer. I learned that the show still delivers when viewed from the last rows of the balcony at the Richard Rodgers, and I thrilled to the way that the young men from Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stargate Theatre Company reacted to what they were seeing on stage. This was theatre the way they were making it. This was their lives on stage.

So for me, Hamilton is part of my personal New York theatre-going bragging rights (original run viewing) and an illustration of morphing of my conventional musical theatre tastes, and observations of a phenomenon throughout its evolution. Yeah, to be in “The Room Where It Happens.” All that. Every great success has its “but is it all that” critique. Yes, this is.

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Rafi Mittlefehldt: Loren, I think this brings up an interesting question about trusting audiences to judge only what’s in front of them, and not everything it’s related to, which is by no means a simple thing.

I’d say there’s a lot of value to the peripherals because they can be enjoyed not just as Hamilton-adjacent, but as pieces unto themselves. I’ve only listened to the cast album, but I can’t get enough of it. Yes, it’s satisfying because it gives me a glimpse of the show I haven’t seen, and probably won’t get to for a long time. But it’s also just great music, with great lyrics. What if there were no show? I’d still love this album. (And the bonus: Miranda is so prolific that you get so much more of a story out of this one than most cast albums.)

That said, I got into it with a friend who chided me for reading the script book for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child without seeing it. My reasoning was the same as with Hamilton: when was I going to be able to get a chance? But then I found it hard to separate the book from the show. I had to actively remind myself, when I found it underwhelming, that all I had in front of me was a piece of the real thing. I could judge only that.

I agree with your point on the danger of conflating theatre with its many facsimiles, but I don’t know that anything could really dilute the power of the original in this case. If the peripherals reduce access to the original and replace it for the audience — like people who would otherwise read a book, but skip it for the movie version, for example — that’s one thing. But with big shows like Hamilton, at least, the peripherals are often the difference between getting some little bit, or nothing at all.

Katie Ebner-Landy: I agree with Hailey’s first point about reach, and I think we are right to question what about here and now has made it so successful. I saw it when I first arrived in New York, just as it was opening on Broadway, and wasn’t overwhelmed by the experience. I put this down to being a Brit in New York, having less familiarity with the historical context and being perhaps a bit more used to non-traditional casting. (Although don’t get me wrong, British theatre has a huge way to go in this respect. See Lyn Gardner on that here) How much would you say this last groundbreaking and important fact of Hamilton has to do with the success? Do you think the hype will continue in London?

Alison Durkee: I was another early Hamilton-goer — I first saw the show at the Public after it had been extended, and then was able to get a balcony seat just after it opened on Broadway. I think the show is brilliantly written and speaks to our current moment in a way that makes me really happy that it’s been able to transcend the theatre world and actually have an effect on the broader culture. But at the same time, I do wonder how the experience has changed now for people sitting in the same balcony seat I sat in (which, as a tall person, was not a comfortable experience) but paying at least 5 times the price (let alone the orchestra seats now going for thousands of dollars). Can any show be worth that much?

I can see both sides of Loren and Rafi’s point about the show becoming known through its abbreviated forms — I appreciate the accessibility that it brings to people that aren’t able to see the show, and also realize there’s a danger in people feeling content with a product that doesn’t actually fully convey what the piece is. But what gives me hope is that I think one of the reasons that Hamilton is so incredibly good is because of how it harnesses the potential of what musical theatre can be. In a commercial theatre landscape that’s so littered with media adaptations that don’t always make their case for why they needed to be theatricalized in the first place, Hamilton is a show that absolutely could not exist as powerfully as it does in any other form than musical theatre. By taking advantage of the suspension of disbelief that’s inherent in theatre (and especially musical theatre) through its music, casting, choreography, etc — along with theatre’s liveness and ability to be performed in the current moment — Hamilton creates this unique vision that bridges the gap between Hamilton’s America and the America of today in a way that no other form of historical adaptation probably could.

This all makes Hamilton feel revolutionary and innovative, but I’d argue that there’s also a natural connection between Hamilton and the “classic” musicals that have come before, going back to Rodgers and Hammerstein using Oklahoma! as a way to talk about social tolerance during World War II. I think that musical theatre has a unique potential to use “escapist” entertainment as a way to reflect the era in which it’s being produced and communicate something to audiences about their own American experience — and Hamilton is tapping into that tradition.

The biggest disappointment I have about the Hamilton phenomenon is that it’s put a spotlight on Broadway without impacting the success of other shows; people who can’t get into Hamilton aren’t spending their money on a different theatre ticket, and that’s disheartening. I do think, however, that even for people who know Hamilton as a cultural icon or just listen to the cast recording and haven’t seen the show, the show and its broader cultural impact is communicating something about what theatre can be and has the potential to do, and that makes me feel optimistic. Going back to Katie’s question, though, I do wonder what this means in terms of Hamilton’s success once it leaves America. I think it’s a really strong and well-written work that can stand on its own merits, and I know non-Americans who love the show, but will it be as successful in the broader culture when the audience can’t relate to that shared history and how Hamilton conveys the American experience? That I’m not sure of.

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Molly: Interestingly, I was at another show yesterday where I heard two separate groups in the audience talking about Hamilton, and the gist of both conversations was: “Of course, I haven’t seen Hamilton; no one has!” That was the first time I had heard of the production referred to so frankly as a cultural good reserved for an exclusive audience. The joy felt at the possibility of seeing Hamilton has turned into the disappointment of knowing you’ll never get to, and we’re just accepting that, maybe contenting ourselves with the DVD, and moving on. And, as Alison indicated, I think all theater gets a bad rap for that, especially in this country where culture is already perceived as elitist. Having written on theater for 20 years in France, where I seldom paid more than $25 ticket, I still get sticker-shock every time I see Broadway prices. Which got me thinking that, since culture is still a common good that everyone has a right to in France, maybe the better hero to celebrate was Lafayette.

In any case, that attitude that I overheard marks an important turning point, in my mind, for a show that has been touted as emblematic of everything that is great about being American, and that, by extension, every American should see. It’s wonderful that blocks of tickets were reserved for NYC public school classes, and we believe that the show’s creators have a social conscience, because of its themes and the multiracial cast and the register-to-vote drive that took place this fall at the Richard Rogers. But I also remember reading in The New York Times, the day after Snowmageddon last January, stories about people who had dipped into their savings to travel cross-country to see Hamilton on Broadway, only to learn their tickets would not be refunded. It seems that as the show’s value as an extremely lucrative entertainment product eclipses its artistic and social measures, that the emblematic American experience being celebrated through Hamilton is the one of enormous socioeconomic inequality. Is a seller’s market the only operative model for fixing ticket prices for a show that “everyone should see?”

Ben Brantley wrote in the Times that you could consider “leasing your kids” to see Hamilton, but such hyperbole just fans the flames, and for what? My daughter really liked it, but it couldn’t live up to her expectations after wanting to see it for so long. As Nicole said earlier of her own experiences with the show over time, hype kills.

On the subject of taking kids, there was a parent at the performance I saw, just ahead of us in the orchestra seats, who got up twice in the middle of key scenes, to crawl across all the spectators in his row with his fidgeting 3-year old and came back, twice, to stumble over everyone again (one time, right in the middle of “Burn”). I mention that not just as a maddening anecdote (remember, I said orchestra seats); it feels indeed like Hamilton has become a phenomenon that even toddlers are supposed to see for their “education” (because somehow the hip-hop moves and grooves are going to make it accessible to kids of all ages…). It’s a medicine show touting a miracle elixir that makes you well and smarter and rights all wrongs.

But I think what Hamilton shows us above all is how far we’ve come from really appreciating the risks and challenges and negotiating and ingenuity that went into birthing the nation, or we wouldn’t be treating our democracy so flippantly in this election cycle. The real story of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and their particular context, is far more fascinating than the one Hamilton tells in such broad strokes; we just couldn’t sit through the history lesson anymore. Similarly, our bulimia for entertainment at the expense of serious thinking about issues has completely shaped our current election cycle. That seems more of an indictment of who we are as a country rather than a celebration of anything more than a great example of musical theater.

 

 

 

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