Why Do Non-Theatre Fans Like Hamilton?

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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?

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“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.

I need your help with an upcoming post!

Hi everyone! As the title says, I need some help! I’m currently working on a post that’ll most likely be coming out in two weeks after my spring break – I won’t be posting during that week – and I need to collect some data for it. So I made a Google Form! It’s pretty straightforward (I hope) and shouldn’t take too long. There are a few written questions, but don’t feel pressured to write a whole lot if you don’t want to. I wanna keep the subject of the post this data is for a bit under wraps right now, but I can promise you it’s gonna be great. Make your guesses on what it is in the comments! I’m really excited for it.

Well, that’s all I have. Again, here’s the Google Form link – after you’ve taken it, share it with your friends too! And if you haven’t already, check out Friday’s post on The Public Theatre and how it’s influenced Off-Broadway theatre over the years. Tons of your favorite shows started out there. Of course, I’ll be back on Tuesday with another post as always. It’s a review of the extraordinary “Come From Away” cast album – the show opens tomorrow at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre!

Thanks again and have a great day!

 

Auditions: What You Need to Know

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In the theatre world, auditions are essentially like job interviews. If you don’t do well in the interview, you won’t get the job. And just like with any job interview, people are always seeking out tips to optimize their audition experience. Practically every theatre blog, forum, and actor under the sun have attempted to give their advice in the past, so today I’m going to try my hand at it and cover some audition advice you’ve probably heard before and some you might not have even considered.

Before the audition

If you aren’t given specific audition sides by the director, chances are you’ll need to pick a song and monologue yourself. Generally, it’s best to pick a song and monologue that are similar in style to the show you’re auditioning for. For example, if you’re auditioning for a Sondheim show, it’d be best to pick song from another one of his shows that isn’t the one you’re auditioning for. It’s widely accepted that you should stay away from overdone songs that hail from popular, more recent shows like Wicked, Rent and Les Miserables. Make sure you can cut both your song and monologue to the length specified by the director. Start studying up on the show and your song and monologue to the point where you’re comfortable enough you can show the directors you’re the right choice for the part. Starting practicing at least three weeks before the audition to ensure you have everything memorized and your interpretation of the character you’re auditioning for is solid. Keeping your vocal health in check during the weeks leading up to your audition is also a must.

During the audition

As soon as you enter your audition, you should be aware of yourself. One thing that I feel a lot of people forget but find incredibly beneficial is being nice to everyone you meet, from others who are also auditioning, to the accompanist. If the directors see you’re particularly personable towards everyone, this tells them you’d be easy to work with. If your nerves start to get to you during the lead up to you going in front of the directors, let them. While this seems counterintuitive, feeling nervous can actually contribute to your adrenaline skyrocketing, which can be used to your advantage to channel into your performance. After your performance, make sure to thank everyone before you leave. Don’t stress too much while waiting for the cast list! Just know that you did your best and even if you don’t get the exact part you want that that’s okay. That just means the directors saw something in you that you didn’t! If you don’t get cast, don’t worry. Not every show is meant for everyone. Keep auditioning and practicing. Now get out there and break a leg!


What are your audition tips?  Let me know in the comments!

The Impact of Next to Normal

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In life, I feel that most people eventually come across a piece of art – a musical or otherwise – that they can say definitively changed their life. It can change their world outlook or inspire them to make a change in themselves. In my case it did all of the above and more. I discovered that piece of art when I was thirteen years old: the 2009 rock musical Next to Normal.

In short, Next to Normal, created by composing team Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, focuses on the character of Diana Goodman (originated by Alice Ripley), a mother with worsening bipolar disorder due to the loss of her infant son many years ago, and how her family is affected by her actions, her disorder, and their attempts to alleviate it through the help Diana’s doctor (originated by Louis Hobson). Moreover, Dan, her husband (originated by J. Robert Spencer), their teenage daughter, Natalie (originated by Jennifer Damiano), and her boyfriend, Henry (originated by Adam Chanler-Berat) must struggle and comes to terms with their situation all while dealing with their own underlying anxiety and depression, manifested in Diana’s hallucination of her and Dan’s son – now a teenager as well – Gabe (originated by Aaron Tveit).

To say Next to Normal is the first musical to deal with a topic like mental illness is an exaggeration. It’s simply not true; musicals like A Light In The Piazza and Spring Awakening have done it before. But I’d argue that Next to Normal has done it best, leaving audiences with a real, raw, and honest portrayal of what it’s like to be dealing with an illness that is all too often not taken seriously in media, despite the fact it affects so many seemingly “normal” families in real life – about 2.6% of the U.S.

Along with mental illness, dysfunctional families in media akin to the Goodmans in Next to Normal are typically pigeonholed into some kind of stereotype, i.e. “the crazies”. But in Next to Normal, this isn’t the case. Instead of a stereotypical portrayal, it’s a truthful one. Anyone who’s ever experienced a tough family situation – not necessarily in the dysfunctional sense – can relate to the Goodmans way of life, with already teen angst-riddled Natalie feeling like she’s been cast out into the background by her parents who are more focused on Diana’s disorder, and Dan attempting to keep his family together when things are certainly not as they should be.

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Jennifer Damiano (left) as “Natalie” and Alice Ripley as “Diana” in the original Broadway production.

Moreover, the show’s Tony performance in 2009 was introduced by none other than the late actress and writer, Carrie Fisher – who was an active mental health advocate and bipolar disorder sufferer herself. The show has also spawned many, many international productions after its Broadway closing in 2011. The most well known of which is Casi Normales (directly translates to “Almost Normal”), the Argentinian production, which ran from January 2012 to April 2015. The show is so popular in Argentina that original cast members from Casi Normales and Broadway came together in Buenos Aires in 2015 and 2016 to perform songs from the show in both English and Spanish.

At the Tony Awards, Next to Normal walked away with awards for three of its eleven nominations – it’s the opinion of many that it was robbed of the Best Musical award by Billy Elliot. In 2010, Next to Normal was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama – a high honor that’s rarely given to musicals, the last of which at the time was in 1996 for Jonathan Larson’s Rent, a show dealing with similar heavy subject matter.

During a lighter moment in the show, Henry asks Natalie to a spring formal dance that’s set for March 1st in the song “Hey #1“. She eventually agrees, showing up late to the dance. Henry claims she looks “like a star, a vision in blue” in the song “Hey #3/ Perfect For You (Reprise)“. The date in real life has become somewhat of a symbol for Next to Normal fans, as many take to wearing blue to signify their connection to the show. And although the fans often remember each year, two original Next to Normal cast members – who have since moved on to bigger and better projects – only acknowledge the date on Twitter. Without fail, every year on March 1st Adam Chanler-Berat (original Henry) tweets Jennifer Damiano (original Natalie) the word “hey”, and within minutes, Jennifer tweets back “hey”, just as things were said in the show.

When viewed at a first glance, Next to Normal is a Broadway show who’s impact might seem insignificant, but in reality is greater than one could ever imagine. To me, the impact of Next to Normal hits you when you truly accept its message: someday, things will be okay. Maybe not now, but someday – with time and support. The March 1st tweets are a sweet, yet subtle reminder of how Next to Normal and its message of mental health awareness have held strong throughout the years, bringing each new listener – and myself – the same words of hope sung in the show’s powerful finale – there will be light.


Do you have a special connection with Next to Normal or another musical or play? Share it with me in the comments!

Spotlight On: Movie Musicals

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The 89th annual Academy Awards are this weekend, and with La La Land – an original musical – being one of the nominated films gaining a whole lot of traction, I figured we should take a look back at movie musicals of the recent past and how they came to be. Some of these films have also been accepted into the Oscar nominated club, and some haven’t. Opinions on these movie musicals vary, from being beloved by people of all ages to being the center of extreme dislike by those who are sticklers for a faithful adaptation. But the truth is, a movie can’t fit the entire two hour or so plot of a musical into its allotted time frame. Film audiences are completely different than theatre audiences in terms of want they want out of their respective medium and the gratification they get from watching it. While we’re on that subject, let me say now that this is a theatre blog, not a film blog. I don’t claim to be incredibly knowledgeable on the craft of film. So let’s dive into some contemporary movie musicals and how they are adapted from their source material.

Les Misérables (2012)

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This beloved musical originating from the West End was already adapted from Victor Hugo’s classic novel of the same name, so the 2012 film adaptation had quite a lot to live up to. Despite the story’s sprawling history, this adaptation, featuring acclaimed actors like Hugh Jackman (Jean ValJean) and Anne Hathaway (Fantine), went over well relatively well with fans and critics alike. The film contains almost every song from the stage production, save for some lyric changes and shorted songs here and there. Director Tom Hooper was commended for his decision to let the cast sing live on set, instead of lip syncing and recording over the take later. This allowed for more emotional and real moments that the audience could connect to. And these efforts didn’t go unnoticed by the Academy, either. The film was nominated for eight Oscar awards in 2013 and ended up taking home four. Musical or not, this goes to show the true testament of Les Misérables‘s cathartic take on hope and the human spirit.

Rent (2005)

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First premiering Off Broadway in 1996, Rent was a musical that changed the game. It is credited for making the pop/rock style musical popular, a sub genre that is certainly no shortage of in musical theatre today. It was provocative enough for people to pay attention to it and its subject matter that dealt with LGBT characters, drugs abuse, and AIDS/HIV. The 2005 film adaptation was able to satiate its legions of fans by bring back almost the entire original Broadway cast to play their same roles. Despite quite a few songs being cut or shortened – such as “Goodbye Love” and “Halloween” – long time “Rentheads” still keep coming back to this one.

The Last Five Years (2015)

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Based on his personal life, Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years chronicles five years of the relationship of a young couple: Cathy (played by Anna Kendrick in the film), an aspiring actress, and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), an aspiring writer. In the musical, Cathy’s songs start from the end of her and Jamie’s relationship, and Jamie’s songs are vice versa, allowing for a brief moment in the middle where the two’s respective paths truly cross. This interesting way of storytelling was kept intact for the 2015 film adapation, and it definitely adds another layer of depth to the interactions Cathy and Jamie have. With gorgeous shots and costumes, I’d say this movie musical adaptation is worth a watch.


What are your thoughts on movie musicals? Was there anything I missed? Let me know if I should do a part two on movie musicals in the comments!