Why Do Non-Theatre Fans Like Hamilton?

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

If you’re reading this I assume you have at least an inkling of knowledge about Hamilton and its massive popularity. Based on Ron Chernow’s biography of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, the smart, innovative, Pulitzer Prize and 11 time Tony winning rap musical has garnered thousands of fans and celebrity visits (as well as launching a sit-down production in Chicago and a national tour in San Francisco) since it’s open in August 2015 – and become infamous for not being able to get a ticket to it.

Personally, I had my eye on Hamilton since it’s Off-Broadway run at The Public Theatre in early 2015. With a score by Tony-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda and coming out of a theatre with such a great track record, I knew I was going to have to learn more once it made its inevitable Broadway transfer. I stayed up until midnight to get the cast album when it came out in September later that year. After that first listen, I couldn’t stop talking about it to friends, begging them to listen so I could have someone to talk about it with. I tried to coerce many of my friends who I’ll describe as “non-theatre people” (for purposes of this post, I’ll define as “people who don’t typically like theatre”) into listening by explaining, “It’s all rap, I swear it’s not boring! You learn about this in APUSH!” to no avail. Fast forward a couple months later – it seems like everybody from classmates, celebrities, and people I’ve never seen get excited about theatre in general, owns a T-shirt with the words “Young, scrappy, and hungry.” printed on it and has captioned at least one Instagram post with a lyric from “Wait For It”. How come no one believed me when I said it was good the first time? More to the point of this post, just how did Hamilton explode in popularity so fast?

I’m not sure if anyone else is dying to know the answer to this like I am. And of course, there’s a ton of factors that contribute to Hamilton‘s success. There can’t be just one definitive answer, as we saw with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Despite this, to aid in my quest of finding a plausible and believable answer at the very least, I created a Google Form that some of you might have taken to see if there’s any correlation between being a theatre fan and a Hamilton fan. The short answer to that is a definite yes. The long answer requires a bit more thought.

Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 5.14.41 PMScreen Shot 2017-04-11 at 5.14.56 PM

Let’s start here. As you can see, 37.3% of people responded “to an extent” when asked about being a theatre fan in general, but when asked about being a Hamilton fan, there was a significant drop, decreasing to 29.9%. Obviously, way more people enjoy theatre in general compared to enjoying Hamilton specifically – a result which was expected, since no one who likes theatre is bound to like everything. But with the people who answered “yes” and “to any extent” to being a Hamilton fan, that’s 76.2% of people who, at the very least, like the show.

When asked to explain their answer choice, those who said they are, or to an extent, a Hamilton fan, cited things like the shows innovative use of rap and the actual history behind it. This I can understand, as younger people who are my age and never really figured they would enjoy stereotypical musicals (as in, golden age musicals that are “long and boring”), but then are introduced to a musical that not only encapsulates a genre of music they find entertaining as well as subject matter that a lot of high schoolers and young adults have to learn about in school, their views change. What better way to study for your AP U.S. History exam than listening to a musical? From here, teens who are new to theatre can continue learning by getting into more contemporary and relatable musicals, like Dear Evan Hansen or The Book of Mormon.

All this can certainly apply to adults and older fans, too. By presenting musicals as something that’s genuinely entertaining, but are still serious enough to make one reflect on their life, it opens the door for new theatrical discoveries outside of Hamilton.

It’s not all in the numbers, though. I believe Hamilton’s popularity was definitely influenced by timing as well. By analyzing Google Search Trends, we can gain some insight.

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 1.21.25 PM
Google Search Trends for the phrase “Hamilton

As shown here, there are three main points in time where Hamilton peaked in interest on the Internet. The first being February 14th to February 20th, 2016. In fact, the 58th Grammy Awards where Hamilton performed and won the award for Best Musical Theatre Album took place on the 15th. Due to this, it’s pretty reasonable to assume that that this mainstream exposure is what catapulted Hamilton to recognition outside the theatre community so quickly. The same can be said about the other two spikes on the chart. The highest peak, in the middle, is shown as June 12th to June 18th, 2016; the 70th Tony Awards where Hamilton performed took home 11 awards were held on the 12th. Again, being apart of a mainstream awards show helped to increase talk surrounding Hamilton. Finally, the last and most recent spike in Hamilton interest happened around November 20th to November 26th, 2016. This, as you might recall, was when then Vice President-Elect Mike Pence paid a visit to the show, being booed by audience members and receiving a message from the cast, to which he later responded to. The controversy hit the media hard, even more so when President-Elect Trump tweeted about the event multiple times, rightfully causing people to research the show. While not a surefire way to justify the popularity of Hamilton to theatre outsiders, I think it’s more than possible to believe that some fans were introduced to the show thanks to its moments outside of solely theatre-based news coverage.

Of course, this analysis was an accumulation of the data I collected (which has the possibility of being biased) and search trends, all of which can be interpreted in many different ways. Perhaps Hamilton was just a phase that only briefly raised interest in musicals. Or maybe it did introduce a whole new generation to an underappreciated art form. Whatever you think Hamilton‘s contribution was, there’s no denying it’s a show no one will be able to stop talking about for a long time.


What you do think about Hamilton and its popularity? Did it introduce you or anyone you know to musical theatre? Tell me in the comments!

Composers Who Starred In Their Own Works

Typically, a composer of a musical will leave the task of bringing their music to life to the talented actors and actresses who get cast in their show. But for a few composers, their role in a show goes off the sheet music and onto the stage.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 10.08.36 PM
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton (left), as “Usnavi” in In the Heights (right)

It’s no secret that Pulitzer Prize-winner and worldwide celebrity Lin-Manuel Miranda is a man of many talents. So much so that he wrote and starred in not one, but two original works: In The Heights and Hamilton. Both performances earned him a Tony nomination in 2008 and 2016, respectively.

Sara Bareilles

static.playbill
Sara Bareilles as “Jenna” in Waitress

Well-known singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles made her composing debut last season with Waitress, based on the 2007 film of the same name. Tony-winner Jessie Mueller originated the role of Jenna, but on March 31st earlier this year, she replaced Mueller in the role and will be baking pies and belting out her own songs like the iconic “She Used to Be Mine” until July 11th.

Dave Malloy

4.190242
Dave Malloy as “Pierre” in Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812

Josh Groban made his Broadway in November 2016 as the “bewildered and awkward” Pierre Bezukhov in the innovative electro-pop musical Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812, which is based on a section of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace. But in its earlier Off-Broadway productions in 2012 and 2013, and the subsequent cast album that followed them, composer Dave Malloy and his accordion helped bring to life this complex and beloved character.


Who’s your favorite composer who starred in their own work? Do you have a composer you think should be in their own show? Let me know in the comments!

 

What Went Wrong With Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark?

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

“With great power there must also come – great responsibility!” is the infamous quote spoken by the narrator (not Uncle Ben) in the August 1962 issue of the comic book Amazing Fantasy which first chronicled dorky high schooler Peter Parker’s rise to the now instantly recognizable Spider-Man.

This is also the advice that the creative team behind 2010’s rock musical (based on the aforementioned comics) Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark should have taken into consideration during its difficult inception and subsequent reworkings –  that ended up costing $75 million, the most expensive Broadway musical in history.

Is it fair to call Turn Off the Dark a complete and total flop? Well, no. Not in a traditional sense. It did see a few moments of box office success, such in as January 2012 when it made $2,941,790 in ticket sales – the highest single week gross of any Broadway show. And when Turn Off the Dark finally met its demise in early January 2014, it had played 1,066 performances (including it’s 182 performance preview period, the longest in Broadway history). But there’s no denying that somewhere along the way things went very, very wrong.

It’d be impossible to cover everything that led to Turn Off the Dark‘s place in Broadway infamy, because there’s honestly too much to even begin to wrap your head around. Glen Berger, one of Turn Off the Dark’s co-writers has a great memoir out called Song Of Spider-Man that tells his side of the story – it’s where much of the research for this post comes from and I’d highly recommend it if you’re interested in learning more.

A glaringly obvious issue with the idea of a Spider-Man musical you don’t need a book to lay out for you is this: it’s a brand. One of the most recognizable brands in the world. And when you’re as big as Spidey, you have some people to please: Marvel execs, the fans, and most importantly, a general Broadway audience. Director of Turn Off the Dark, the acclaimed Julie Taymor (best known for her innovative work on the Broadway adaptation of The Lion King), had a vision – she wanted to break ground with Turn Off the Dark‘s abundance of aerial tricks, all while turning up the edge factor of the traditional Spider-Man story to 11, and throwing in a bit of Greek mythology for good measure. With music by U2’s Bono and The Edge, Taymor was convinced it’d be a hit. Needless to say, Marvel execs didn’t agree with many of the team’s creative choices. When word got out about what the Broadway elite was doing to their beloved Peter Parker and company, neither did the fans. And come the show’s very first preview in November 2010, the Broadway crowd made their thoughts clear – when after the show had to be put on hold for the fifth time due to tech issues (such as an awkward moment near the end of the first act when Reeve Carney (as Spider-Man) was literally left hanging over the audiences’ heads), the crowd erupted into boos.

Poor audience response and technical glitches akin to what happened at the first preview continued to plague the show, so much so that it forced the show’s official opening night to be delayed six times, finally opening on June 14th, 2011. Despite all the external issues of Turn Off the Dark, the internal issues were arguably the root of all its problems. Glen Berger, book writer, and others on the creative team had come to the conclusion that revisions to the story desperately needed to be made. Previews were closed for about a month from April to May of 2011 in an attempt to repair the show. Unhappy with how her vision was coming to life, Julie Taymor left the project altogether sometime in March. This, on top of the five accidents causing injuries to actors and stunt doubles before the show had even opened, created a ton of bad publicity for the show among both critics and fans. The average review rating was a F+, with the revised incarnation of the show getting a slight bump up to a C-. But no matter the revisions or the reviews, Turn Off the Dark‘s fate was sealed before opening night. The unprecedented amount of negativity surrounding the show that had previously been much anticipated had taken a toll, and although the show had played for a solid two and a half years, losses were estimated at $60 million by its closing.

The opening scene from the musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" during a rehearsal in New York.
A scene of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark that caused many issues during production.

Did Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark become the next huge Broadway hit like Julie Taylor had wanted? Obviously, no. Was it ambitious? That’s a definite yes. Mostly to its own fault. But you can’t really blame someone like Julie Taymor and her fellow Turn Off the Dark creatives for having that ambition, right? On page 139 of Song of Spider-Man Glen Berger asks: “Really, what wasn’t ridiculous on a stage?”. And he’s right. In 2017, the biggest musical on Broadway features founding father Alexander Hamilton rapping through early American history for a full two hours. Perhaps Turn Off the Dark would have done better if it had ran now, when people could actually accept and respect an idea like it. Maybe it would’ve had consistent ticket sales if the media weren’t so harsh on it. Or maybe comics just don’t translate on stage like books and films do, and nothing could have saved poor Peter Parker and company. It’s hard to come to a definitive answer aside from “It was just doomed from the start”.

Whatever combination of factors that prevented Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark to “rise above”, the show (and all its mishaps) has left an impact on theatre. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I’ll leave up to you – I’m not really sure what I think. You could interpret it as a cautionary tale; a reminder that not all visions need to be fully realized. Or you could think of it the other way; you’ll never know where an idea will take you unless you pitch it.

Later on page 139 of Song of Spider-Man, Berger says, “Art does voodoo, and we buy it. Except for all the times that we don’t”. Whether or not you buy the messy tale that is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark? That’s for you to decide.