“Hamilton” Has Got
“Something Rotten!” It’s Not.
by TONY VELLELA
Great to be back. Had some time to let this summer’s buzz dust settle.
Speaking of ‘back,’ back in 1959, the incomparable Sam Cooke, sang “Don’t know much about history; Don’t know much biology; Don’t know much about a science book; Don’t know much about the French I took.” In those days, just about anyone under the age of nineteen nodded in recognition of that “Wonderful World.” Today, it’s a good bet there’s still a very large slice of the American population on either side of nineteen who still don’t know much about history. Also today, there ‘s a wonderful world performing its heart out eight times a week in a musical that does know about history. It’s called “Hamilton,” and it does not expect you to know your history.
What it does expect is that you bring a kind of open-mindedness when you settle into your hard-won seats at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. This true gem of creative accomplishment packs more types of potential prejudice-prompting elements than anything else on Broadway, and that includes the rollickingly incendiary “Book of Mormon.” Be prepared to re-assess your views on the legitimacy of rap and hip-hop as musical forms that can carry the burden of complex story-telling, the ascendancy of color-blind casting to its highest application yet, the mythologies surrounding the presumed sanctity of America’s Founding Fathers, whether a variety of street-based dance moves can be created to sustain an almost non-stop flow of a sung-through libretto and, well – just show up, shut up, watch and listen.
Lin-Manuel Miranda took on the same responsibility that a painter, a sculptor or a poet would, which is to say, he chose to do the whole thing. Like creators of those other art forms, Miranda conceptualized his vision all of a piece – and it’s his words, his music, his lyrics, his vision and his performance in the title role that come together to give birth to this creation. He was wise enough to gather round him superior, iconoclastic talents in the other areas needed to make a musical show, and it shows.
By now the tale of Miranda picking up Ron Chernow’s ginormous biography of Alexander Hamilton at an airport bookshop, and digesting the tome with fascination, has taken on the level of near mythological standing that the pained birth of “Rent” following the demise of its creator Jonathan Larsen has achieved. It’s vital to imagine how all the distinct pieces it takes to make up a musical have emerged separate but equal, and in some cases, have been improved upon from their original appearances. Those of us who did not grow up or try to grow hip listening to rap or hip hop can readily recall how we reflexively would recoil whenever an example of those musical styles would flow into our unwelcoming eardrums whenever someone younger than our, oh, favorite houseplant, would glide by us on the street. Yet, throughout this show, the score has solid melody lines that recline without conflict, beneath the rap line. A student since pre-teen years of Broadway standards and the internal structure of their story lines, where the lead character must belt out his/her “I Need. . .” song, Miranda accepts the importance of such a song in building his tale. Here, Hamilton force-feeds us the declaration of his goals and objectives, in the chilling secular anthem “My Shot.” The double meaning of the title in regard to Hamilton’s final moments of life, ended by a bullet in a duel with Aaron Burr, does not override the song’s power. And he makes graceful use of hip hop’s inherent reliance on internal rhyme, a fading art that is resurrected.
[History of another sort lives on in this production. Almost half a century ago, The Last Poets burst onto the musical scene, with their stinging rhymes recited to/with a percussive beat, a penetrating voice of the African-American civil rights movement. Two versions of that group’s name emerged, drawing from the talents of Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain, David Nelson, Jalaluddin Masur Nuriddin and Umar Bin Hassan. Their insistent spoken-word poems are often cited as among the earliest, and certainly most legendary influences on the birth and growth of hip hop. Miranda did his homework; he knows his history.]
Hamilton forces his presence and will on the canvas of the era with his canny talent for dropping himself into the center of the action, and then letting anyone within hearing distance take in all his verbal self-referential encomiums. Meanwhile, a man who becomes at the same time a soul mate and an adversary, Aaron Burr, also wends his way into the place where core principles are being shaped and adopted. It is mostly Burr’s POV that supplies the narrative through-line.
No musical theatre artist can do it all – all. And champions in key areas layer their brilliant choices on top of the elegance of Miranda’s formulations. The very real danger of a kind of stagnation could certainly have swallowed the story whole, what with the suggested interior of a wooden and iron tavern interior. David Korins overcomes that threat with the simplest of set design choices – a large round turntable that can move people and things from place to place, silently yet decisively. The action, like the story, ‘moves.’ The hip hop music provides, because of Miranda’s language[s] propensity, plenty of ‘room’ to pack in loads of information. However, the other use for a musical’s music is to underlay the patterns for its choreography.
Anyone who has spent seven or eight minutes during the last couple of decades on the sidewalks of most major cities can attest to the dancers’ acrobatic dexterity. By minute number nine, though, it begins to look like there are about ten or eleven ‘steps,’ at most – result: admiration, but boredom. In one of the wisest decisions among so many that define this collaborative endeavor, the selection of choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler provides an almost miraculous accomplishment – his choreography, which ranges from his pairings and triplets of characters who come together and drift apart, to full-stage formal couples-making-stage patterns that illustrate special events, require fancy dress and honor strict movements. And the miracle is that, during the show’s entire, lengthy two acts, nothing looks repeated. And the greatest compliment any stage director can receive is for someone to note that the director’s work seems invisible. That’s the case here, where Thomas Kail has kept all the balls in the air, all the stories happening organically, and every moment doing its part to lead us into the next one, which we anticipate eagerly.
What boldly overrides all the predictable chatter and slush about color-blind casting is the power of great performances. All these people, these history-book names and models for oh-so-many statues, portraits, paper currency likenesses and elementary school namesakes – all these people are up there, and what we should be taking in is not the color[s] of their skin. What we notice, and then cannot not fixate on, is their facial expressions. Who they are, what they are doing and undoing, feeling and inflicting – it is all there, behind the eyes.
This is truly a production that draws from American [and world] history, to forge its own historical theatrical event. The night I attended, my seat was three rows behind Meryl Streep. I couldn’t help fantasizing how, when Miranda ends his run in the title role, she might entertain the notion of replacing him. It could happen.
Now that “Hamilton” assures the future of musical theatre [see also “Fun Home”], one ponders its origins. Fortunately, John O’Farrell and the Kirkpatrick brothers [Karey and Wayne] have graciously emerged with a most unlikely answer, being conveyed eight times a week at the St. James Theatre. Under the dazzling direction of Casey Nicholaw, who did splendid double time devising the eye-popping choreography, “Something Rotten!” lifts the veil on the birth of the musical.
Seems another pair of fraternal literary practitioners, back in 1595 London, found themselves forever overshadowed by a grandiloquent gent name of William Shakespeare. Try as they might, Nick and Nigel Bottom could not get a break having their plays produced or appreciated. Then, as legend would have it, a conveniently-placed soothsayer [name of Thomas Nostradamus] foresaw the emergence of a new style of theatricality – the “musical.” And we are all so much better off because he was right.
This rollicking romp asks very little of you, except a little patience, as it spills itself out over the footlights relentlessly, tirelessly, almost ceaselessly. One can imagine the giddiness that must have pervaded the creative and rehearsal processes, as sly reference after blunt parody from great musicals of the last sixty or so years get dropped into dialogue, lyrics, and even dance moves, as “West Side Story” gang choreography hits you, cheek-by-jowl with echoes of “Les Miz.” From the opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” the exuberance levels of all concerned make for great good fun. Familiar practitioners of the art of the musical fill out the cast beautifully, including Christian Borle, Brian d’Arcy James, Brad Oscar and David Hubbard.
Best of the best is Heidi Blinkenstaff, as Nick’s fierce spouse, spouting centuries-ahead-of-their-time feminist dictums, such as “This is the ’90s! We’ve got a woman on the throne!” Ever since she shook the rafters in [title of show,] Blickenstaff has delivered 110% in every role, including memorable turns in “The Little Mermaid” and “The Addams Family.” If someone’s got a script with a mother-daughter pairing of two outrageous, fantastic dames, call Heidi and Debra Monk.
Throughout the telling, “Something Rotten!” benefits from its well-matched creative team. The skill of the writers mining bits and bobs from Shakespeare, the glorious costume designs from Gregg Barnes [codpieces that house scraps of poetry], and above all, Casey Nicholaw’s inspired direction, come together to almost make you believe that it really happened this way.
Did it happen that way? The question hangs like a dark cloud over “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkay.” Count me among those who felt confident they could recall many of the salient details of the gruesome homicide that claimed the life of an exuberant , effusive, gender-defiant fourteen-year-old New Jersey boy, whose missing persons case led to the discovery of his murder, and formed the basis for James Lecesne’s riveting solo piece “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.” Then, after seeing the play at the off-Broadway Westside Theatre/Downstairs, include me among those audience members gob-smacked to learn that it’s a total work of fiction.
Lecesne has crafted a noteworthy career built on three elements: advocacy in the ever-present universe of LGBTQ youths facing serious obstacles from others and within their own minds; producer/writer of an Oscar-winning short film [“Trevor”] that exposed how prevalent suicides are among that population, and creating captivating multiple-character stories he brings to life, playing all the roles. This latest project, which gestated from adapting his 2008 young-adult novel into a simple stage piece originally seen at the Dixon Place, showcases all of his talents, and still delivers the kind of unique theatrical entertainment those who cherish great theatre are grateful for.
The writer/actor presents this tale with only a small table littered with a handful of disparate props [a dirty sneaker built up from gluing the sole-pieces of colorful flip-flops to its bottom, a silver money clip, a tube of lipstick, and more], and backed up by thoughtful projections courtesy of designer Aaron Rhyne and animator/photographer Matthew Sandager. The clever composer Duncan Sheik supplies spot-on incidental music. With just these elements to aid him, Lecesne relates the heart-rending details of young Leonard’s life and death, the impact this fearless gay young man unknowingly had on those whose lives he touched and the soul-searching his brutal homicide prompted. One-person shows that feature actors gliding in and out of various personae have burgeoned into a healthy category of theatrical event, but few practitioners equal Lecesne’s abilities. Lily Tomlin’s masterful performance in Jane Wagner’s “Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” comes to mind. Perhaps the fact that here, the actor is also the writer accounts for how smoothly he makes all the transitions. His finely-tuned ear for voices and life-lines also may come from the fact that another of his accomplishments was serving as executive producer of the documentary film “After the Storm,” which follows the lives of a dozen teen-agers struggling to survive in post-Katrina New Orleans. Any good reporter takes in the rhythms, slang and cadences of how people talk, along with what it is they are saying.
“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” offers an opportunity to see and hear, up close, one of the masters of this performance style, because Lecesne has joined that very small coterie of talented folk who can seamlessly segue from one story to another, weaving the chronicle of a crime resulting in one young man’s death, that forced others to call into question their own lives.
Whether you’re a Manhattan Baby, or plan to be in town for a stage-happy weekend, check out the return of the Off Broadway Alliance’s bi-annual celebration of all things O-B’way, with the return of its popular 20at20 program. Between September 14th and October 4th, the Alliance will make available $20 tickets [cash only] to more than forty [40!] plays and musicals, twenty minutes before curtain. The list is too extensive to, well, list, but the range and variety = impressive indeed, from, “MotherStruck,” the next addition to Cynthia Nixon’s directorial career, and “The Berenstein Bears,” to a pair made for each other: “In Bed with Roy Cohn” and “Naked Boys Singing.” Visit www.20at20.com for the whole story . . . not to be outdone, The Broadway League, partnering with about a dozen other organizations, is still running its two-for-one Broadway Week event, until September 20th. Two dozen Main Stem tuners, plus “Old times,” “Hand to God” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” are part of this line-up, from A [“Aladdin”] to, not exactly Z, but W [“Wicked”]. Details for this fest are at nycgo.com/broadwayweek . . . and musical theatre phenom director/choreographer Susan Stroman gives puts the orchestra on hiatus when she returns to the Vineyard Theatre to helm her first straight play, Colman Domingo’s “Dot,” later in their 2015-2016 season.
If you’re determined to best the Bottom boys from “Something Rotten!” and take your own swipe at the Big Bad Bard, check out a marvelous entry in the Helm Information Ltd.’s Icons of Modern Culture series titled “That Man Shakespeare.” This comprehensive edition walks you through Will’s life and career, and then zeroes in on each of his styles. For a different view, purloin your own copy of Ken Ludwig’s “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare” from your middle school kid’s backpack. It’s a thoughtful, thorough-going overview that makes those speeches accessible . . . And if acting in one of his comedies is on the horizon, Janet Suzman’s four decades of experience performing the classic female roles has given her the best perspective on how to tackle some of those grand dames. She authored “Acting with Shakespeare: Three Comedies,” one of the superb editions in the Applause Books Acting Series. Maria Aitken served as general editor . . . Now that all eyes [and ears] have turned to “Hamilton” for the foreseeable future, let’s take a few moments to re-examine the past. If you’d like to understand where all that finely-honed craftsmanship came from, you can see where it was nurtured in “In the Heights: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical,” also from Applause, its Libretto Library series. There’s so much to uncover, so much to marvel at, when you slow-walk yourself through the pages of this compendium of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s christening,
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.” His play “Admissions” received three New York productions, concluding with its win as Best Play at the New York International Fringe Festival. He has covered the performing arts for nearly fifty years, in a variety of publications, including Dramatics Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Parade, Rolling Stone and Readers’ Digest. He currently teaches theatre-related sessions at the 92nd St. Y, and will next conduct his “Tony Vellela Talks Theatre with . . ” series there, interviewing James Naughton, on Monday, October 12.