I’m writing this letter from the battlefield. It’s Wednesday—well, early Thursday now—of Tech week and the show I’m working on opens Friday. I’ve slept 8 hours in the past 3 days. The paint in my hair is at least a couple of days old and I haven’t changed my clothes in a week. I can’t remember the last time I saw the costume designer without some sort of sewing in her hands. At least I’ve seen her—I asked the props designer to go find gaff tape a couple days ago and I haven’t seen her since.Read More
There’s an old saying that behind every good man, there’s a good woman. In terms of the real world—where there’s less sexism, more theatre—that means that behind every good theatre person is a community theatre. It doesn’t have to be a good community theatre, just someplace to do theatre on a non-professional level for a while. Maybe it’s the first place you get to be on stage or maybe it’s the place you retreated to after the professional theatre world burned you. The point is that when I say ‘your community theatre’ you know exactly what I mean.Read More
Twitter and theatre make an unlikely pairing. With theatre’s ability to only exist in one time and one place and Twitter’s ability to capture the way someone feels in a particular moment, they go together like rama lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong. Theatre people use twitter to spark conversations about theatre with people that they wouldn’t have been able to communicate with otherwise. Twitter’s primary service to the theatre community is interaction, not promotion.
The problem with being a fan of live theatre is that it can be hard to share your excitement over a show with other people. While you can tell whoever you went to see the show with about how wonderful you thought the lead actor’s performance was and you can let your theatre friends know how the show was later, it’s hard to let the world at large know how excited you are about something in the moment it happened to you. Twitter allows that. Twitter gives people a medium to share their experiences and feelings with other fans who could be sitting on the other side of the world. Which has the added bonus of striking up interesting—and important—conversations.
2 AM Theatre (#2amt) is probably the most tangible example of this. Started in 2010, when several individuals were tweeting interesting questions about the nature of theatre, the project serves to be a “gathering place for theatre ideas,” and has branched out into other mediums such as blogs and podcasts. The whole project, however, wouldn’t exist without Twitter. Ultimately, Twitter allows these conversations to take place independent of location, so people can voice their opinions and multiple points of view can be heard. And while people consistently make fun of Twitter’s hashtag system, it allows people to find others interested in discussing the things they want to talk about—which can turn out to be some surprisingly large names, such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Anna Kendrick, or Jason Robert Brown, all of whom run active Twitters.
Maybe it’s because everyone in the theatre community plays the duel role of both spectator and participant, but theatre celebrities are happy to join into the conversations Twitter is sparking, making the social media site unique in its ability to immediately put fans in contact with the people who inspire them.
And the thing about Twitter is that it’s participating in these conversations too. Twitter is the social media closest to live performance—people tweet something and receive an immediate reaction. Artists have just begun to flirt with the idea of using Twitter as theatre. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Such Tweet Sorrow, for example, told a modern day Romeo and Juliet through tweets. In a five week period in 2010, six actors used the classic story as the perimeter for their Twitter accounts and improvised the rest online. The NY Neofuturists have attempted something similar, asking their audience to tweet them one-sentence plays. Twitter, in and of itself, is a type of performance. And theatre people love any type of performance.
Only 18% of musicals in the past 30 years have been wholly original. To some people, this is a sign of the decline of musical theatre. It’s proof that outside forces are intruding on the Great White Way and taking everything we hold dear with it. They act as though if we loose originality, we loose all the things—good lyrics, amazing visuals, breathtaking performances—that make musicals great. However, this mindset is based off the flawed assumption that original musicals are inherently better than other musicals. The truth is, original musicals are not God.
When I talk about an “original” musical, I mean musicals that are not based off another work in any form or fashion, musicals whose story lines only exist onstage. As previously mentioned, this is a small percentage of musical theatre overall. Since the very beginning, musicals have been inspired by other works. Whether you consider Oklahoma! or Show Boat to be the first musical, the former is inspired by the play Green Grows the Lilacs while the later is based off the Edna Ferber novel of the same name. And they certainly aren’t alone in the list of musicals that have changed musical theatre while still maintaining their status of un-original, among them powerhouses like Rent, Sunday in the Park with George, and Chicago.
Most of the musicals cited as causing the downfall of Broadway are based off movies, so maybe our negative outlook on unoriginal musicals is a result of us disliking the idea of Hollywood encroaching on the Great White Way. We want theatre to be for theatre’s sake, not for a few extra dollars that can be made off an existing franchise; We don’t want our artists to have ulterior motives. This mindset, however, blatantly ignores the fact that all art has ulterior motives. No artist wants to starve. More importantly, judging a musical based on the reasons it was created and not by it’s content is unfair to the artists who created it. Sometimes a good idea can produce bad art and vice versa, given the talent of the people working on it. When we discuss musicals only in terms of being original or unoriginal, people allow that distinction to cloud their judgement—and suddenly Legally Blonde: The Musical isn’t a real piece of musical theatre, despite the fact it was nominated for 7 Tony Awards in 2007.
The real problem lies when original and unoriginal become synonyms for good and bad and starts to stifle the conversations we have about Broadway. Originality is an admirable quality for a musical to have, but it is not as important to the quality of a musical as good character development, memorable music, or a coherent plot. Ultimately, talented artists have worked on both original and unoriginal musicals. Praising originality is a misunderstanding of the artistic process. After all, all art is based off other art in some form or fashion—we shouldn’t demonize musicals that are simply less subtle about this leap.
All I want out of life is a sweatshirt that says, “Color & Light” on it. Or one that has any other reference to Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim’s 1984 masterpiece and my most favorite of things, on it. With the rise of Etsy, a website that connects crafters with people who want to buy their products, I figured finding a Sondheim sweatshirt wouldn’t be a problem.
Sure, it’s the type of thing you can’t find in a regular store, but Etsy is a community of fans selling things they made to commemorate their favorite fandoms to other fans. It specializes in things you can’t find in a regular store. My assumption was that the theatre community—a community filled with people who frequently hand-make things—would have a large presence on such a site.
I was wrong. A surprisingly small amount of theatre products are available for purchase on Etsy. Sure, you can find people selling old merchandise, but there isn’t a wide variety of handmade stuff. I couldn’t find a single Sondheim sweatshirt. For a community that has to craft costumes and sets, theatre fans are not well represented on a crafting website.
Originally, I figured this was due to copyright issues. But after spending more time on Etsy, l realized that doesn’t seem to be the problem. The site thrives on selling products commemorating copyrighted material. I bought a Back to the Future t-shirt Warner Brothers definitely doesn’t approve of. Whether or not it’s because copyright doesn’t apply to situations like this or because the powers that be don’t care enough to stop people from selling stuff on Etsy, the law clearly isn’t what’s getting in the way of me obtaining a Sondheim sweatshirt.
What’s strange is that theatre is the only storytelling medium that doesn’t have a strong Etsy following. If I wanted a Terminator tee or a Supernatural sweatshirt, I’d have no problem getting my hands on either. Avid television fans have created all sorts of different merchandise to celebrate their favorite primetime shows. Movie zealots have customized everything from stickers to fashion to high-end replicas. Even book series and video games have a noticeable presence. Every other art form has used Etsy as a way to celebrate their favorite stories.
But then again, the theatre fandom doesn’t need to create things to celebrate our art form. We’re too busy creating the art form itself. Unlike in other mediums, there isn’t a distinction between the people creating the art and the people consuming it. Yes, there are people who go to the theatre who are not, nor have ever been, connected to the theatre world—and those people should be treasured—but a large portion of the people who love theatre are theatre people. It’s precisely because the theatre community is filled with people who spend a lot of time crafting their art that I can’t find a Sondheim sweatshirt. Theatre fans are spending their energy creating their art rather then creating something to celebrate it.
Which means that, while there might be a lot of great theatre happening around the world, I’m going to have to make a Sunday in the Park with George sweatshirt myself.
We’ve all been there. You ask your friend to take a break and blow off a little steam with you, but they turn you down because it’s “not their thing.” You tell them they’re being a square—you’re just trying to spice up the evening—and they pointedly tell you they don’t do things like what you’re offering. The argument escalates until they’re calling you an addict and you’re criticizing their conservative lifestyle. You cut your loses and attend the musical without them.
Some people refuse to see musicals on principle, citing the musical theatre genre as being one they don’t enjoy. For these people, it’s best to start them off with a gateway musical. These are musicals that utilize other music genres to tell a story, and are useful for getting people hooked on theatre before starting them on the harder stuff (like Sondheim). Introduce your friends to a musical written in the style of their favorite music genre—like the ones listed below—and before you know it they’ll be going to the theatre two or three times a week.
If your conservative friend is a fan of bands like The Avett Brothers or The Decemberists, Once is the perfect musical to start off their descent into theatre. The musical’s blend of irish folk music and character-focused story will be a hit with any folk enthusiast. Besides, it’s an easy sell since they’ll probably already know the musical’s signature “Falling Slowly” from it’s stunt on the Billboard Top 100 a few years back.
Smooth choruses and a killer piano combine to form a look at the world of 1950’s newspaper operation in The Sweet Smell of Success. Written by A Chorus Line composer Marvin Hamlisch in 2002, this show makes it impossible for any jazz lover to deny how beautiful musical theatre can be. How can any jazz aficionado hate an art form that gives them songs like, “I Cannot Hear the City”?
Rock n’ Roll
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a perfect beginner musical for everyone who loves rock n’roll. The soundtrack’s upbeat take on the Broadway genre sounds identical to some of rock’s biggest singles. If that’s not enough to convince your friend, there’s a myriad of Hedwig covers from rock icons like Cyndi Lauper and Meat Loaf that should do the trick. Plus, there’s a kick-ass move adaptation.
Lots of musicals utilize country music to tell a story. Violet is a good first time musical to get Dolly Parton fans interested in the world of Broadway musicals. The show has a decidedly country feel, and the twang in Sutton Foster’s voice make it hard to tell if she’s a country singer or a Broadway star.
Heathers offers a series of disgustingly catchy songs to please pop lovers. It’s impossible to listen to “Candy Store” without the song getting stuck in your head. The fact the musical is an adaptation of the cult classic film of the same name should also help to convince your friend to give it a shot.
If you want an edgy, punk-esque musical to show your friend, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is the show you’re looking for. It’s the type of in-your-face music Green Day fans will love. Plus, it’s based on the life of founding father Andrew Jackson, which will make it even edgier and more interesting in the eyes of punk music fanatics.
For rap lovers, In the Heights offers a unique way of looking at their favorite genre. Featuring a storyline that’s unmistakably in the musical theatre style and music that’s unmistakably not, this musical is the perfect way to show your friends how similar rap and musical theatre are. Fun, catchy, and touching, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece will make a musical fan out of every rap zealot.
Over labor day weekend, I made a pilgrimage from Atlanta to New York for the sole purpose of seeing Hamilton. Ok, maybe not the sole purpose—I also attended a couple of improv shows, walked around the city, ate lots of food, and participated in the general shenanigans that accompany going on vacation with some of your best friends—but it was the crux of the trip, the fuel behind our 866 mile drive. To a lot of people, traveling 26 hours to see a 2 hour performance sounds crazy. To me, it was a small price to pay to see the hottest show of the season.
It should go without saying that I’m a huge musical theatre geek;I jump at the chance to see any show on the Great White Way. But I live in Atlanta, so watching Broadway shows usually isn’t feasible. It takes a special show, with a few key ingredients, for me to make it feasible. Hamilton met all of the requirements.
It’s by an artist I love.
I’d be lying if I said that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the driving force behind Hamilton, wasn’t the main reason I made the trip up to New York City. I’ve been an adamant admirer of Miranda since I first saw In the Heights, and I’ve been following Hamilton since the video of him rapping the opening number at the White House was posted on youtube in 2009. However, my love of Lin-Manuel Miranda wasn't enough to make me travel to New York City. After all, I didn’t travel that far to see Bring it On! Hamilton still had to meet my other requirements. If it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have made the trip, and would’ve instead waited to see it on tour or watched a crappy bootleg online. I love Lin-Manuel Miranda, but his name on the poster wasn’t the only factor that went into my decision to drive across 9 states.
I described the show to my friends as the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton’s life told through rap and hip-hop. That had enough of a WTF? element in it to peak their interests and convince them to spending 26 hours in a car with me. Hamilton’s built upon an idea so different from what we’re used to seeing in a theatre setting that people attend if only to see how the show could possibly pull it off. It’s incredibly satisfying to be in the audience of a performance that’s breaking boundaries, that’s doing things people haven’t tried before. It makes the audience feel as if they’re experiencing history.
It’s had critical success.
Because I live so far away, most of my information on the good, the bad, and the ugly of the current Broadway season comes from critics. So it was hard to ignore Hamilton when critics started gushing over it. I’d had faith that Lin-Manuel Miranda would pull off a spectacular new musical, but it was nice to hear the voices of critics assuring me that he had created one better than anyone could’ve imagined. When people are saying a show is so good you should mortgage your house to get a ticket, it’s hard not to plan to drive 866 miles to go see it.
This is the big one, the culmination of all of the above factors and the one element without which I wouldn’t have made the trip. Hamilton is exciting. It’s unique, which is exciting. It’s by a talented creative team, which is exciting. It’s had critical success, which is exciting. But mostly, it’s exciting because it’s a unique show by a talented artist that’s had critical success.These are the shows that Broadway needs to watch out for, that people will do whatever it takes to go see. These are the shows that leave a mark on the theatre community, that remind people why they love this art form. Shows that excite people