Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: #Glam4Ham: A Review of the Hamiltome

Marissa Skudlarek had some pressing (but glamorous) business yesterday so her column is coming to you on Friday this week!

I used to think that those accounts of how crazed people became over theater in the olden days — you know, stories about how hit plays created new stars, launched trends and fads, had their tickets become the hottest commodity in New York — were overstated, but then Hamilton came along. Hamilton mania is everywhere: Lin-Manuel Miranda is on the cover of Rolling Stone, half of the people I know have a crush on a Hamilton cast member, the show has won nearly every possible award and is about to take its victory lap at the Tony Awards (or, as we must call them, the #Hamiltonys).

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It’s the Hamiltome! Work!

I’m kicking myself for not having bought Hamilton tickets and planned a NYC trip to see it as soon as I felt the beginnings of this mania happening, so in the meantime, like thousands of other Americans, I’ve had to experience the Hamilton craze from afar. First by listening to the cast album, then by teaching myself how to play “You’ll Be Back” on the ukulele (try it, you guys, it is a GREAT ukulele song), then by reading the Hamiltome, the new behind-the-scenes coffee-table book. (Yeah, its official title is Hamilton: The Revolution, but no one is calling it that.)

So let’s discuss the Hamiltome. First of all, know that it’s a beautiful object, with a design inspired by Revolutionary-era pamphlets and typography. Because Lin-Manuel Miranda is a huge nerd, there are even occasional images of the historical documents that formed part of his research. And there is a rich supply of photos from the show itself, depicting just about every scene, unafraid of spoilers. I was absolutely mesmerized by a shot of Eliza (Phillipa Soo) at Philip Hamilton’s deathbed, with a single perfect tear trembling on her lower eyelid. There are handsome black-and-white daguerreotype-style photos of all the lead actors. There’s a candid shot of Daveed Diggs in his underwear (Page 151).

In terms of content, the book features the full text of the show, with annotations in the margins from Lin-Manuel Miranda, interspersed with chapters by Jeremy McCarter describing Hamilton’s creation, collaborators, and the first months of its impact on the world. One of the nicest aspects of this is how much attention the authors pay to Hamilton‘s design elements, praising the contributions of the behind-the-scenes personnel just as effusively as they praise the work of Hamilton’s iconic original Broadway cast. Clearly, the creative team has considered every detail and gesture and prop, and their meticulousness gives us all something to aspire to.

For those of us who downloaded Hamilton‘s cast album and still appreciate physical media, it’s great to have a full copy of the show’s lyrics, instead of having to look them up on Genius.com. Miranda’s annotations are full of enthusiasm, gratitude, and good humor. He’s open about the parts of the show that make him cry, the lines he’s proudest of, the parts that are challenging to perform. Additionally, if you are interested in writing stories based on historical events, the Hamiltome provides a lot of food for thought about how to shape history into a rich and thrilling drama.

Indeed, Hamilton is intimately concerned with historiography and the process by which facts become legends: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” As such, it’s important to look at what the Hamiltome is trying to do, how it is trying to shape the narrative that surrounds this already-legendary show. Really, Hamilton’s reputation doesn’t need any more burnishing, but the Hamiltome tries to do that anyway. It’s a blatant piece of historical myth-making that tips into hagiography. Jeremy McCarter’s chapters try to put Hamilton‘s achievements into a historic context, but sometimes overreach. Describing how Alex Lacamoire listens to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s demo recordings, creates orchestrations, and then discusses what he’s done with Miranda, McCarter writes “It’s a very American pastime, this interpreting and discussing. Our musical culture is built on standards, songs meant to be reworked endlessly, such as ‘Blue Skies’ or ‘Summertime.’ And it’s not just our music: Think of the blood we’ve spilled looking for the best expression of ‘All men are created equal’ or ‘Congress shall make no law…'” Lacamoire is a very skilled orchestrator, but this seems like a ridiculously overblown way of describing what he does in his job.

Lin-Manuel Miranda obviously loves and admires and identifies with Alexander Hamilton, but because he is a talented dramatist, he also knows that 2.5 hours of a show that goes “This historical figure was so awesome!” is really boring to watch. Therefore, he is careful to give Hamilton flaws that balance his virtues; many of the other characters in the show think of Hamilton as an annoying, hot-headed motormouth. Jeremy McCarter’s Hamiltome chapters lack this kind of nuance; they’re the equivalent of a musical that just wants to tell you how awesome its hero is, a Hamilton without flaws. Their hyperbole becomes predictable. I found myself growing less and less interested in them, and more and more interested in the lyrics and Miranda’s annotations.

Act One of Hamilton is about war, Act Two is about politics, and the show explicitly states that “winning is easy, governing is harder.” It wasn’t easy to create Hamilton; it took six years of effort and the contributions of a lot of talented people. (NB: the battles of the Revolutionary War also lasted for six years, 1775-1781. I’m surprised that Jeremy McCarter doesn’t think to make that comparison.) But what will be even more difficult, and complicated, and interesting, is the effect that Hamilton will have on the American theatrical landscape, and how Lin-Manuel Miranda will possibly follow it up, now that “history has its eyes on him.” I wonder how we’ll be talking about Hamilton in twenty years. With King George, I wonder: “What Comes Next?”

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Her favorite Schuyler Sister is Angelica. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

Cowan Palace: You’re Not a Failure

Ashley’s here today to talk about dreams and moving on.

In case the news hasn’t quite reached you yet, my palace and I will be moving east in a few weeks. Along with me, I’ll be taking my husband and fellow columnist, Will Leschber, our daughter and pets, and all my dreams.

But Ashley, doesn’t moving back where you grew up mean you’re giving up on your dreams and that you’re a gigantic failure?

No. Also, I really don’t like your tone.

You’re welcome to disagree with me here, I’ll try not to take it too personally, but I don’t consider our decision to move to Connecticut a failure. Sure, if you had asked me a few years ago, when I had graduated high school if I ever planned to willingly move back within a fifty mile radius of my small town of Avon, I would have rolled my angsty teenage eyes and pointed to my journal containing a sad poem about the need to get out on my own and follow my dreams.

And I did follow those dreams. I went to New York City and auditioned as much as I could with varying levels of success. My first off, off-Broadway show was kind of an anti-abortion play that I still feel weird feel talking about, I got to be a featured extra covered in blood for the film “Across The Universe”, and I got to sing and dance my heart out a few miles from the Broadway stages in a small church in Queens doing a production of Godspell. But mainly, I auditioned for more projects than I could count and learned new colors of rejection which ultimately led me to a small job posting on Playbill.com for a theater in California.

So I chased the dream across the country to a state I had only ever read about and watched portrayed in the movies and ultimately landed in San Francisco, a Never-Never Land for dreamers. Surrounded by beautiful landscape and passionate people, I said yes to every single opportunity that came my way. Life was messy but delicious, complicated but beautiful.

Along with my grand theatrical dreams, though, I still had more hopes for my life. As much as I wanted to always be on stage, I also wanted to fall in love and one day raise a family. And the San Francisco theater scene gave me that chance! Thanks to an opening night gala, I met Will, fell in love, and (quickly) started to raise my family. It was a dream come true.

And it’s still a dream. But life after ever after is really hard. While I love living in a creative city, it became a lonelier place as a working mom. To afford our one bedroom apartment and cover childcare, Will and I had to split our schedules so that we couldn’t have a day off together. We kept acting and writing (though, we had to take turns) and we kept fighting for our dreams. But we were missing a lot of the joy and happiness that had once come so easily to us. We were endlessly exhausted and I found myself much sadder than I wanted to admit. How dare I be unhappy when life had been so kind? But, I wanted more! I longed to be closer to my family and many lifelong friends. The people that had known me the longest and had encouraged me to follow my heart and believe in myself, the forever dreamer.

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After months of daily tears and pros and cons lists, we made the difficult choice to say goodbye to our life in San Francisco for now. We’ll never know a love like the one we have for this city and our time here. But we’re confident it’s the best choice for our future.

Some dreams are obtained, some dreams are always chased, some dreams fade, some dreams change. Let them. It doesn’t make you a failure. Allow yourself to keep dreaming and never stop seeking your happiness.

That’s what I tell myself anyway. Maybe it’s just a way to bring me peace from what was a hard choice to make but it keeps me going. Yes, I’m moving to Connecticut and seeking out a different support system to help me but I’m never going to stop writing or auditioning or searching for a community of other artistic folks who fancy dreams. Cowan Palace may be changing locations, but the structure is only getting stronger. Thank you for giving me a home here, a safe space to follow my dreams. For not making me feel a failure. Cheers!

Hit by a Bus Rules: No Mistakes, Just Opportunities

Alandra Hileman’s Theatre Rule of the Month: If you act like it’s intentional, no one will know it’s a mistake.

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I feel like my last couple blogs have been sort of downers, so today I wanna talk about something more fun and positive: mistakes!

I love technical mistakes in theatre. Love them. When they’re in someone else’s show, this is often the schadenfreude of “I’m so glad I don’t have to solve this, but let’s see what their stage manager (or whoever) does.” If it’s in a show I’m not enjoying, technical flubs sometime re-pique my interest in what I’m watching. And if it’s my own show, even though there is sometimes panic, there is also a bit of an adrenaline thrill that comes with trying to solve a problem on the fly.

But my absolute favorite thing about technical mistakes is when they are covered well. Sometimes it’s a mistake that is obvious, but I enjoy the skill of cover as much as I would have enjoyed the actual effect. I was recently at the premiere weekend of a new stage show attraction that plays at a popular theme park run by a giant mouse. This show is based on an animated film, of course, and involved one incredibly specific quick-change for the lead character in which her dress transforms min-song, much like the current Broadway Cinderella dress transformation but with more icicles. The performance I saw reached the big musical swell after the bridge of the song, there was a lot of twinkling and flashing lights, everything blinks to black for not more than two seconds and then the lights popped up – the dress hadn’t changed. I could see that the actress had tried to trigger it, but something hadn’t worked. However, to her credit, the actress just continued to sing the huge final verse of her song, and very simply, at the end of every line where there was a sort of instrumental punctuation, she would subtly tug the release until finally, with two lines of song left and in full view, the release “let it go” and the dress transformed, right at a big musical swell. The actress was relieved, the audience was thrilled, and the show didn’t miss a single beat.

The other best kind of technical mistake is the one covered so well that even someone like me, a veteran SM with years of technical experience and just a generally observant person, doesn’t even realize it’s a cover. Just last night, I was at a show and in the first scene the lead actress is supposed to have a laptop which doubles as a prop and lighting source. In the course of the banter between her and her stage husband, they begin looking for the laptop, until she sent him into another “room” of the house and he returned with it. Realistic married life, right? Nope! I found out from the SM later that the laptop had been left charging backstage, but the actors were so entirely unfazed when they realized what had happened that they created a perfectly in-character scenario that would allow the ASM backstage to hand it off.

Those are just two incredibly recent examples, but I have dozens of war stories about technical flubs, good and bad, and the often ingenious ways in which they were resolved. I’m sure I’m not the only one, so please comment with your own favorite flubs and covers, and let’s find the joy in mistakes!

Read about Alandra’s mistakes on Twitter (@LadyBedivere), and find out about larger projects at ajhileman.com

In For a Penny: Mid-Year Intermission

Charles Lewis III, keeping it together and taking stock.

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“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

So far this isn’t necessarily my favorite year, but it’s been busy nonetheless. Between a full-length show in which my character had the most dialogue, a stint in ShortLived, acting in two Theater Pub shows, and lots of on-camera work I can’t even remember, I should be relaxing. Instead I’m thinking about this evening’s rehearsal for a show that opens in just over a week. Besides, my way of decompressing at the start of summer is to just let my mind run in a million different directions at once. Like so:

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Over the weekend I took advantage of having some time off to see a great show before it closed. It was a last-minute decision and thankfully there were a few seats available. Unfortunately, their Square reader wasn’t working and I had no cash on me. Just as I was about to leave to find an ATM, the director showed up and insisted I be his comp for the evening.

I accepted, but I admit that I felt guilty about getting in free for an indie show. I have no problem taking advantage of comps or discounts from big houses, but I always feel a bit uneasy doing so for smaller venues and companies; I’m far too conscious of the fact that the money I’m saving is being denied to people in the production. Even using Goldstar or discount codes can make me feel like I’m shoplifting at a store struggling to pay property fees.

But I’m less adamant about this than I’ve been in years past. Back then, I thought taking advantage of a discount or comp from an indie theatre company was me giving the finger to said company; “Goldstar spite” I called it. (Some shows I only saw because I knew someone in production who’d comp me.) But I also don’t have endless money to throw around, so now I think of comps and discounts less a commentary on the theatre and more me not worrying about my account balance all the time.

Besides, I like that even before I began writing for this site I’ve been offered industry comps. It allows me to simultaneously take an active part in the local theatre scene AND make sure all of my bills are paid at the end of the month.

Field of Streams

If you read Playbill as often as I, then you probably saw the news that Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening, American Psycho) is creating a new musical that will be made available exclusively through a mobile app created by Verizon. The musical, Pulse, will feature a libretto by Kyle Jarrow and “[follow] a group of American expatriates living in Berlin who find themselves immersed in the city’s vibrant, kinetic dance scene. The series tracks one year of the characters’ lives telling the story as a lush and provocative EDM musical.”

Synopsis aside, the internet-first approach reminded me of Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog, which debuted on the internet in 2008. It also reminded me Alyssa Rosenberg’s recent Washington Post piece about how the price of Hamilton has become so prohibitively expensive that perhaps a film adaptation is now in order.

Ah, the age-old question of how to get audiences to the theatre. We indie folk often have to drag them kicking and screaming, but shows like Hamilton and Spring Awakening have to turn people away at the door. The question for both is how to get the show to people who won’t be there. As I’ve mentioned before, technology can be our friend in times like this. Streaming apps – Periscope in particular – have grown in popularity over the past year and it’s brought the live performance to new audiences. Just last year, I was part of a PianoFight audience as they livestreamed a production of Don’t Be Evil over YouTube. I remain convinced that it’s a great way to share theatre work with those who can’t be there in person. Whereas “Tweet Seats” still strike me as distracting to live performance, livestreaming is integrative and the very type of incorporation more live venues and companies – indies in particular – should research.

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Recently I agreed to direct the staged reading for another writer of this year’s Olympians Fest. I then went to look over the material I currently have for my own script. As it continues to both shrink and expand, I found one particular verse that I knew would be the first to go. I’d written a pretty off-color joke that was unnecessary to the story proper and would definitely be taken as offensive to audiences that heard it (hell, it offended me).

I immediately 86’d the joke for the latest draft, but I was left wondering what corner of my subconscious spawned it to begin with? I’m not fond of shock value and don’t think highly of those who rely on it too much, but I also wondered if I was needlessly self-censoring my own work so as to not offend an audience that exists only in my mind? Would it be so bad if I occasionally embraced the more “uncouth” areas of my psyche during the creative process? I remember attending Tourettes Without Regrets a year or two back and watching this brilliant routine about how the Game of Thrones franchise is really just George R.R. Martin doing an extended version of “The Aristocrats”.

I actually liked writing the joke originally – done more or less during a stream of consciousness writing session – but editing is just as important to creativity. The joke didn’t add anything to script, so it was excised. Sorry, Dead Baby Joke – maybe some other play.

A few other theatre-related thoughts crossed my mind, but I decided to silence them with a nice jog. As this is my 35th year (yes, midyear of my mid-30s), I find it healthy to take a little mental inventory. I recently got news that I might not even be living in the Bay Area this time next year, so I’ll try to make the most of it while I am here. First-half of the year was busy, second-half looks intriguing. Let’s see what’s in store.

Charles Lewis III would like to assure you all that he does NOT have a collection of discarded death jokes just lying around. He’s much more of a “Knock-Knock” guy.