Monday, January 21, 2019

WHAT'D I MISS?

How does a Broadway creation, birthed in a nation
By a rapper-slash-writer, prove to be tighter and brighter than anything that preceded it?
Our country, man, we needed it; in these desperate times we found a message in rhymes

From a show-stopping
Son of an immigrant who was imminently
Positioned to go farther by working harder and being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter, at 35 he avoided becoming just a martyr

Thanks to his rampant creativity, he knew that someday
Across the Great White Way he could make something better
Something more colors of people could bring to life together
He was making cultural history as a trend-setter

The box office got to popping and all the jaws they dropped
Our man saw his future rise, rising high non-stop
Audiences responded, even better yet, they bonded
The message corresponded with what they didn’t know they wanted

Well the word got around, they said
“This show is insane, man!”
Saved money for tickets knowing it was off the chain, man
Won all the awards, critical and popular acclaim
And the world now knows his name. What’s his name, man?


LIN MANUEL MIRANDA is now embedded in our cultural conscience by virtue of his signature composition, the cultural phenomenon HAMILTON. It’s a work that now needs no introduction or explanation; even those who still have no interest in experiencing any of its myriad forms understand some semblance of the musical’s power. A rap-infused Off-Broadway musical about one of the Founding Fathers of this country, the very idea of its success was absurd. This is a show that, in a relatively short period of time, has gone from being an eyebrow-raising curiosity with no hallmarks for mainstream success, to occupying a place in musical theater so definitive some people already speak of Broadway in before-and-after-HAMILTON terms.

It’s a show that explores the White Patriarchy while featuring virtually no White men in the cast. (The one that’s present, as King George III, has the most comic-relief of any character, inverting long-standing American narrative traditions of the Funny Token Black Character.) HAMILTON is the Barack Obama of Broadway: a smart, Color-infused, paradigm-shifting signifier of great new expectations. It’s changed the game just by existing, but proved its merit by also being quick, funny, thoughtful and endlessly quotable. The exuberance from its supporters further supports the comparison.

It remains to be seen the full extent of HAMILTON’s lasting theatrical effect on everything from creative choices and voices, to hiring practices for performers, to marketing shows featuring casts of Color as something more than niche entertainment options. The promise is there, but HAMILTON still looms so large, it’s an intimidating act to consider following. For now, most people want to witness it in person while it’s still a standard bearer for arts-and-cultural evolution. This doesn’t mean that those who see it automatically appreciate the subversive nature of its premise and execution. (It’s debatable if Vice-President Mike Pence went to see HAMILTON out of curiosity, appreciation, or spite, or some untwistable combination of all three.) Rather, I suspect that most folks are flocking to see it because, even with its feet planted solidly in mainstream sensibilities, it’s still the Hot New Thing.

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HAMILTON is a success in a way that makes it almost beyond reproach. It’s won Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, among scores of others. For his door-busting achievements, Miranda has won a MacArthur Fellowship, a.k.a. The Genius Award, and a Kennedy Center Honor. With success come criticisms, and a big one for this musical has been the price tag of getting into the room where it happens. Due to the way our country has evolved over the centuries since Alexander Hamilton established our national banking system – for White people – cost precludes many (possibly most) People of Color from attending HAMILTON on Broadway, in Chicago, or any of the host of cities its touring company is now bringing it to. The theoretic possibility of going to see it is tempered by the limits of expendable income. While Miranda is now a mutli-millionaire dozens of times over, it’s entirely possible that, if Alexander Hamilton were alive now, earning a wage equivalent to what he did during his lifetime but also shouldering similar expenses, he might not be able to take his family to see it either.

There are other more cost-effective options, of course, such as the soundtrack. This is how most people experience HAMILTON the first time, and most of the folks I know who are fans are devotees. That’s an easy thing to become, and I count myself as one. I first learned of it while watching Jimmy Fallon enthuse about it on The Tonight Show with ?uestlove and The Roots (who produced the album recording) in 2015. The premise of the show sounded weird and at one point the audience laughed at the description. It also sounded intriguing.

A very good friend and superfan convinced me to listen to the soundtrack, and I found it to be a bewitching thing, so dense with lyrical content you almost have to listen to it non-stop to unpack all the layers of meaning. Nearly the entire show is on the soundtrack, so it’s easy to visualize the performances by the phrasing and cues. It’s a confidently complete work that makes you feel as though you’ve seen it even when you haven’t. That’s good because, every time I looked up prices, not to mention the long wait for tickets, I knew that actually attending this show was for me a distant dream.

It was announced in March 2018 that HAMILTON would be coming to Pittsburgh, which was met with the expected fanfare. I wanted to see it but I knew that whenever the ticket prices were announced they’d almost certainly be out of my price range. This proved to be the case. A friend suggested that, with all of my contacts and acquaintances in the local arts, someone might offer me a ticket. It was an intriguing thought, but not the kind of thing a healthy ego anticipates. I certainly wasn’t entitled to see HAMILTON for any reason and didn’t even seek it out. Then, just before the tickets went on sale, my superfan friend asked a question: Would I be interested in joining a small group going to see it? I was then offered a ticket as a Christmas gift.

Photo by Bill O'Driscoll for WESA
(https://www.wesa.fm/post/broadway-hit-hamilton-makes-its-pittsburgh-debut)

I almost declined, mostly because it was a gift I couldn’t reciprocate any time soon. I relented though -- how could I possibly say no to this? Before long, it was New Year’s Day and I was sitting in the Benedum Theater along with my friends, beside my superfan friend, staring at the iconic stage setting as the sell-out crowd prepared for the house lights to dim. We no longer had to wait for it; this was opening night and it had arrived.

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I THINK THAT most audience members go in to see HAMILTON primed to enjoy it. In all honesty, I did too and found it surpasses its hype and, as suspected, the physical spectacle yields information not suggested by the audio recording. Everything from the lighting and staging, to the intricate choreography, to the body language of performers informs the story in big and small ways. (One small lighting cue during an interlude with King George was emblematic of this.) The rotating stage plays a far greater role in prompting audience attention than you can understand without seeing it. Even after massive exposure, HAMILTON remains something to be seen and experienced in person to unlock yet another level of meaning from the story.

But there was still something else that the recorded soundtrack didn’t capture that was visible in person, something that nagged at me the entire time, an experience I’ve had at the Benedum Center in the past and hoped not to have this time. Remember, I nearly missed this performance because I couldn’t afford it. I heard it remarked that there were probably more People of Color on the stage performing than in the audience watching. In looking around prior to the start of the show, I saw little evidence suggesting otherwise.

I don't speak for all Black people (but I kinda do) when I say that I can't help but notice how many or few People of Color are in attendance at public events like this. It's just an automatic reflex. I'm decades removed from being surprised when it happens, but at certain events its more disheartening than others. The lifeblood of a specific culture was infusing the arts in front of us, but the progeny of that culture was woefully underrepresented. If you don’t see any disconnect there, you’ve got to be out of your God-damned mind.

Did this compromise me viewing HAMILTON? To an extent, yes, but it’s hardly the first time I’ve been so surrounded by White people at a cultural event. I expected it on some level, but it was still disappointing. I should also point out that I'm grateful that I had a chance to go see it, and thankful for the friends who treated me. I just wish more people had been able to see it beyond who I expected to see there. I’ve been pondering the situation since that night, the first night of 2019, and wondering what has to take place so there’s as much representation in the audience as there is on stage for works like this.

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IS ANYONE ENTITLED to see HAMILTON because of their race or fiscal circumstance? No. Many of the folks who have paid to see it scrimped and saved and made it happen because it was important to them. They earned it just as much as the folks who had more available income, and thus didn’t have to save quite as much for quite as long to afford tickets. The only people who can stake an uncontested claim to being entitled to seeing the show are the people who bought tickets…but I have issues with a system that virtually locks people out of a cultural experience, even when that cultural experience benefits from reflecting audiences that can’t actually see the show. Put bluntly, HAMILTON purposefully features a non-White cast and uses Black musical art forms to catalyze a White narrative into one that’s more universal. It doesn't work without People of Color on that stage. It needs to be that diligent about having People of Color in the audiences too.

I say this next part emphatically: I do not support the bootlegging of HAMILTON or any other work of art or commerce. As a working artist myself, it would be hypocritical to do so. That said, my own artwork doesn’t usually exist at a price point that removes it from mass audiences. That doesn’t mean HAMILTON should automatically be cost-adjusted so that the masses can more readily afford it. They don’t have to change anything because they know we’ll keep returning for what they’re offering. They look at the audiences and say, “You’ll be back!” The show’s producers have a right to charge whatever they want, and whatever the market will bear. For this reason, Miranda has a right to dislike bootlegging of his handiwork if people will pay astronomical prices to see it. I don’t approve of it either…but I understand it.

There was a routine Jamie Foxx had about seeing Michael Jackson and The Jacksons in the early 1980s during their VICTORY Tour. This was during The King of Pop’s THRILLER-fueled ascendency into the stratosphere, when anything touched by his gloved hand was guaranteed to sell out. Foxx joked about how everyone went to go see the tour when it arrived in town, although Black folks were a little less inclined to do so despite their enthusiasm because “the prices were a little steep.” I remember that part clearly too. Tickets for their VICTORY Tour cost between $30-$40, a large sum back then. (Honestly, I don’t throw that kind of money around quickly even now!) Seeing a Black man reign as the most popular entertainer in the country was important then (and sadly missed now). But it doesn’t matter how important or popular a thing is, there’s a point where it becomes problematic for everyone to participate in it.

It bothers me when creative work steeped in Black cultural experiences becomes inaccessible to Black audiences because of cost. Something about that seems broken to me. I understand why other methods develop to participate in a cultural exchange that large groups are locked out of. I understand bootlegging, even though I don’t condone it. I don’t condone stealing food, but hunger has its own demands, and this particular bootlegging suggests a hunger for arts and culture that’s out of reach for lots of folks.

Part of me is bothered and I say "no" to this. It feels like price gouging. It feels manipulative. It feels classist.

It feels wrong.

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WITH HAMILTON ENTERING its last week of performances here in Pittsburgh now, I can only guess if the crowds for following sell-out shows were any more color-balanced then on opening night. I hope so, but I doubt it and I suspect the crowds will looks the same as it rolls through future venues. I also don’t have a solution. I don’t know everything, and unlike Alexander Hamilton, I’m not going to use my words to try and convince anyone otherwise. (I’m also not accepting any duels at this time. I have absolutely no shots to throw away.) What comes next? I don’t know. The situation makes me feel a little helpless, but not entirely hopeless.

I admire the ability of an individual who was able to commit the power of their mind to shaping a new nation’s economy in a way that’s still potent centuries later. But that fiscal infrastructure was disproportionate in who it benefitted, and the racial gap in generational wealth has to be addressed. It’s one thing for People of Color to not be able to see a musical but, in terms of priorities, more Black people owning their own homes and businesses is where we really need to focus. We’ve got to be stakeholders to stake an uncontested claim to anything.

But I’m not an economist: I’m an artist, so I focus on art and its transformative power in society. It’s not enough for those who have been underrepresented in the arts to suddenly find representation in culture, fine, popular or otherwise, if it doesn’t find purchase with an audience that wants to pay but can’t afford to. It’s like passing a football with no receivers. We have to make sure that our art actually reaches the people it will mean the most to. I know it’s every artist’s dream for that to happen; we have to make this a workable reality for it to matter and have an effect.

I have to believe that someone out there has the untapped potential to put a pencil to their temple to help form a better, more balanced plan for the distribution of our cultural wealth. Hopefully it’ll blow us all away, and I’m willing to wait for it.

Because right now we don’t have a choice.


What'd I miss? If you can think of anything, please let me know.

6 comments:

  1. I agree with you 100%. Very well written, and on time. Bravo!👏👏👏

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  2. Well put, Marcel. Thanks for writing down so many of the thoughts also rumbling around my head as well

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  3. Do you know if they had the $10 seats set aside for the tour in Pittsburgh? In DC, there were 40 orchestra seats set aside for each performance that were distributed via lottery; the New York shows filled the first two rows every night in the same manner. I recognize that it might be easier to win the *actual* lottery than to score cheap tickets this way, but Miranda has been passionate about making great seats available to folks that might not be able to afford them otherwise.

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    1. The lottery for $10 tickets was indeed held here in Pittsburgh too, although I don't know how many seats were made available. I applaud any efforts the producers and venues make to distribute a portion of their tickets in a more equitable fashion. It can't be easy for a show this popular. That said, I'd be curious what the average individual income is for people who managed to get full-price tickets versus $10 tickets. Does their lottery system really help to diversify their audiences, or does it just make a few tickets cheaper for people who'd likely see the show anyway?

      I'm not saying that the producers and venues aren't legitimately trying to have build an inclusive fan base; I do think that in light of the show's massive success, who it courts as attendees, who's depicted in it, and who it features on stage, it's worth reassessing exactly how it engages with audiences and how to make that process more equitable. At least, it's worth it if the bottom line isn't solely making money for money's sake.

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