Editor's note: Welcome to the fifth column dedicated to reviews and discussions of theatrical recordings: original cast recordings, solo records by theater and cabaret greats and anything else we think fits. The Music Men is written by James McQuillen, a locally well known music director and arranger, and Jay Gardner, an actor, vocalist and potter. Together, they run the Front Line Cabaret series.
This month, in honor of the year anniversary of the cast recording for Hamilton, a show they both saw a few months ago, they discuss The Hamilton Effect. Jay explains:
This month's column is perhaps a bit of a departure for both of us. For those readers who may not know, since mid-August James McQuillen has been on the faculty at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York, as Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre. This Fall, he will be teaching Song Interpretation and Music Theory, and music directing and conducting their Fall production of Bells Are Ringing. NO, he has not MOVED to New York state as many have asked and/or suggested. This is a one semester visiting professorship ONLY! It's not forever! Rest assured he will be back in December.
In the meantime, our latest Music Men article has grown out of a series of emails we have been sending back and forth during the month of August. In this Year of Hamilton we are discussing the phenomenal success of both the Broadway production and Original Cast Recording, its impact on the 2015-16 season, and its implications for future seasons.
James McQuillen: So, we’ve heard it, we’ve seen it, we’ve LITERALLY GOT ALL THE T SHIRTS. How do we love Hamilton? Shall we count the ways?
Jay Gardner: Well, I don't know that I'd say I LOVE Hamilton. I certainly enjoyed it when we saw it but I gotta say, in a way it was a little hard to follow. I blame the sound design which made the actors sound muffled in a show where clarity is of the upmost importance, especially when the words are coming rapid fire at us. BUT, we're not here to discuss the live show, are we? We're here to discuss the recording!
I made it my policy a long time ago to avoid listening to a cast album before I see its corresponding show. I want to experience the entire show all at once. Many people told me to listen to the recording first because the words went by so quickly but I didn't take their advice and now I think that would have been helpful.
JM: Should we have to do that? Study up on a theatre piece like when people would read the libretto of an opera before seeing it?
Or is it an issue of the piece revealing itself to us? We can’t stand in front of a painting by one of the great masters and, on first glance, see all it has to show us. Can we expect that of a theatre piece?
For me, this cast album is a wonderful record of the show because it continues to reveal itself. I keep hearing new things, new musical bits, new echoes of something, new lyrical detail.
JG: Good point. Any piece of art should be able to reveal its complexities to us over time. I'm reminded of the many, MANY cast recordings on LP I listened to in my childhood. I got to the point where I knew every skip and scratch as well as I knew the lyrics and melodies. There was a reason I wanted to listen to them over and over.
Having said that, repeated listenings have impressed upon me how brilliantly and succinctly this story is told. Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to illuminate the inner lives of these characters, push the plot forward, and infuse the material with a very specific viewpoint all within a three- or four-minute number. I’m thinking specifically of Angelica Schuyler (Renee Elise Goldsberry) in "Satisfied", Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) in "Wait For It" and Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) in "What'd I Miss?" You don’t always see this in contemporary musicals and, as a result, it can be almost impossible to follow the plot of many new shows when listening to their cast recordings.
For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of Hamilton is Miranda’s use of hip-hop, rap, R&B and soul. One could say that pop music in general isn’t a good medium for musical theater as it is too rhythm-based to affectively support a narrative. If that is true, then Miranda has “cracked the code.”
This certainly comes through in the recording. He chose to use various pop music styles to tell this story because he saw a parallel between our Founding Fathers and today’s young people. Rap, hip-hop and R&B are the musical language of our youth. Why wouldn’t it be the language of Hamilton, Jefferson and Washington if they were alive today? Do you think the use of pop music serves the story or do you think this is a gimmick? Now that we are a year into the run of Hamilton, what kind of impact do you see the show having on teens aspiring to be actors, writers, directors, etc?
JM: That's an interesting point about rap and hip-hop. (I think it's also important to note that this is two white men in their 40s talking about rap and hip-hop.)
To me, the style functions as the show to some extent. And that's for everything. If this was a 1776-esque score, it wouldn't work. That's not how the characters he wrote would communicate.
I'm not sure that rap/hip-hop is a perfect storytelling medium, though. Part of the style is speed and cleverness, but not all characters are clever. There's a reason the Witch raps in Into the Woods and the princes don't. The characters in Hamilton are erudite PEOPLE, so they can get away with it. It's like Shakespeare. He knew the way the characters would speak and wrote for them as people.
George Washington's style of language in Hamilton is so different from Angelica or Jefferson. I think that's really crucial and intentional. Even the way Angelica speaks versus the way Eliza speaks provides major information about these characters.
I wonder, though: Theatre writing is meant to be heard once and understood. Sondheim writes a lot about this. That's why perfect rhymes are so important in musical theater lyrics. Your ear, and thus your mind, isn't jarred by a little puzzle you have to figure out. Does Hamilton have TOO much that requires repeated listening to catch?
As far as impact, it's huge. Young people are all over the show quoting it, making T-shirts, engaging with it and with each other through their shared love of the show. I think it's terrific. The last musical I remember capturing the imagination of young people like this was Rent.
And what an amazing opportunity for young people of color to have! Suddenly, here's a musical that engages them in their own musical vocabulary, albeit theatricalized. It's not white people singing in head voice. My friends who teach theater tell me that their students are on FIRE about Hamilton. How terrific!
JG: I think we need to talk about “The Hamilton Effect.” This past year was notable not only for the diversity of the actors appearing in Broadway shows but for the variety of musicals and plays that opened during the 2015-‘16 season. While this is reason to celebrate, the last 12 months have been overshadowed by the phenomenal success of Hamilton. Since it opened on Aug. 6, 2015, it has dominated the entire 2015-16 season, won every major award including the Pulitzer Prize and the Grammy (in mid-June, a week after the Tony Awards telecast, Hamilton's cast album soared to No. 3 on the Billboard 200, one of only three cast albums to do so in the last 50 years), and has forged a very palpable social media presence.
As a result, the word on the street, or the Broad Way (see what I did there?), has been that shows which, in any other season, would have been very successful, have opened and closed relatively quickly, regardless of how well received by critics. The theory is that prospective theatergoers have been thinking, "If it's not Hamilton, it must not be good and, therefore, we don't want to see it."
In particular, I am thinking of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's musical Bright Star which you reviewed in this column, and Shuffle Along which got excellent reviews but closed abruptly when Audra McDonald announced a temporary leave of absence to have a baby. Since the Hamilton cast album is the first contact audience members may have with this show, and Broadway in general, how much of a contribution do you think the Hamilton album has made to these shows closing? For that matter, what kind of effect do you think the Hamilton cast album will have on audiences in future seasons or how new shows will be perceived in future seasons? I have read about how the 1967 Broadway hit Hair was going to revolutionize the sound of the American musical and every show that tried to emulate it in subsequent seasons was a failure. Do you think Hamilton will have an effect on future shows owing in part to its outstanding cast recording and the innovations Lin-Manuel Miranda has successfully brought to the Broadway musical?
JM: Yeah—the Hamilton Effect—it's an interesting situation, isn't it?
Shows like Bright Star didn't really find their audience. But is that because of the cultural juggernaut that is Hamilton or is that just the result of Bright Star being a show that maybe wasn't, at its heart, a BROADWAY show? Should it have had a run off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane or the Laura Pels?
I wonder if what was at first perceived as the “Hamilton Effect” is really just a natural ebb and flow in the season. Waitress is doing good business having won no Tony Awards. Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a performance of the Broadway revival of The Color Purple. It was packed at a Sunday matinee and seems to show little sign of slowing down.
I hope that in reality the "Hamilton Effect" is the result of excellent writing, a thoughtful and intentional developmental process, ruthless editing and an ongoing acknowledgment from the creative and production teams that we are living and working in the 21st century. If writers, directors and producers ever needed an example of what happens when you don't push a show to production too quickly, but instead carefully and thoughtfully develop it, Hamilton is that example. Is it perfect? No. But the entire creative and production team had been working on it for seven years before it opened on Broadway. There's a kind of ruthlessness and lack of sentimentality about one’s own work that must be part and parcel of the development of new shows. Lin-Manuel Miranda is on record as saying that they edited and rearranged and reworked RUTHLESSLY, even after the run at the Public, and that he took all he learned from In the Heights and other projects and applied it to Hamilton.
THAT kind of developmental process, not rushing a show to a commercial run, would be the best “Hamilton Effect” for the future of Broadway. It's like the meme going around that says: "You have the same number of hours in your day as Lin-Manuel Miranda." He was totally intentional with his work, and look where it got him!
» The Music Men runs periodically on TheaterJones. See below for a list of previous installments
» James McQuillen is an award-winning music director, teacher and pianist. He produces Front Line Cabaret with Gardner, and is teaching this fall at Binghampton University in Binghampton, New York.
» Jay Gardner is an actor and singer working in musical theater and cabaret. He is currently taking time out of his schedule to start a business selling his handmade pottery, which can be seen here. He can be seen in the chorus at the Dallas Opera this fall.
February 2016: The Broadway revival of The Color Purple, the Encores! Off-Center revival of William Finn's A New Brain, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs: Life from the Cafe Carlyle, and an album of Lea DeLaria singing David Bowie songs.
March 2016: New York City Center Encores! staging of Lady, Be Good; the 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof; the Public Theater's 2015 premiere of John Michael LaChiusa's First Daughter Suite; and the latest from British cabaret great Barb Jungr.
July 2016: Cast recordings of Bright Star, the revival of She Loves Me, Cheyenne Jackson's solo album Renaissance, and Benjamin Scheuer's Songs from the Lion.
August 2016: James and Jay discuss some of their favorite things, including the cast recording they each first fell in love with.