I have a friend who’s fairly new to the musical game. Every time I show him something and he likes it, he attaches to it and listens to it or watches it over and over again. And when I try to show him other performers or a different interpretation of it, he doesn’t like it. After watching the trailer for FOX’s live production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he mentioned that he didn’t know abut how he felt having a woman as Frank-N-Furter. He’s true to the original. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Usually.
Yesterday, three of Hamilton‘s original Broadway cast members left the show: Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr., and the show’s creator and spokesman, Lin-Manuel Miranda. This is pretty much how any successful show works. Performers come, they set the standards, they sweep the awards, and then they choose not to renew their contracts after a year. It’s rare that actors in featured roles choose to stay longer than that (especially if they were fortunate enough to be in Hamilton and no doubt have offers flying in from every which way). It’s like if you had a job that you liked, and you were good at it, and you enjoyed it, but you did the same thing every single day. You would probably want to leave before the first three features of the job got stale and you started to resent the job.
Alex Brightman (currently starring in School of Rock, which earned him a Tony nod) has discussed this problem when he played lovestruck munchkin Boq in Wicked for two years. To paraphrase, he said that one night, he looked out onto the stage to connect with another actor, and got nothing in return. Everyone’s eyes were dead. He was offered a contract extension, but chose not to, for exactly the reason I stated above.
There’s nothing wrong with loving or being interested in an actor’s performance and wanting to see it. But Hamilton has become such a cultural phenomenon – possibly more than any musical has ever done, thanks to the perceived one-on-one communication that social media provides users – that it has so many new followers that maybe haven’t ever even seen a musical before. And as exciting as that is, that the family is growing, that’s also scary, because most of those new fans are teenage girls. To borrow from the great leader of the Black Parade, teenagers scare the living shit out of me.
Listen. I was a teenage girl. I was a young girl when *NSYNC was still a thing. I know what it’s like to love a band or an actor passionately. I know what it’s like when that band breaks up and you feel like your world is being torn in two. I distinctly remember listening to Justin Timberlake’s first solo album Justified on my combo FM radio/CD player before the *NSYNC split wondering if the other band mates knew that he made the album. I was seven or eight and didn’t have a great grasp of the record industry. But as much as I liked the music and liked Justin, it felt like he was cheating on them. Do teens and youngins still feel this way about their favourite artists? I’d love to know.
I’ve said on more than one occasion that teenage girls rule the world and I’m certainly standing by that statement. Teen girls decide what pop culture trends are going to be on the radar – The Beatles, One Direction, Snapchat, and apparently, Hamilton. They decide what they like and start a fanbase, and then in order to sell their own respective products, the media follows. Because when teens like something, their parents buy it. And unfortunately, teen boys aren’t encouraged to strongly express their feelings like girls are. So here we are. Please the teen girls, have a massive success on your hands.
This sounds great. A genuinely wonderful, quality show is popular and getting all the attention and success it deserves. So what’s the deal, Diana? Why is this blog post so long? Well, reader, teen girls are just that: teens. They haven’t quite learned how to operate socially yet. They don’t realize that the internet is forever and even if they’re comment number 1400 on an Instagram post, sometimes it still gets read by that celebrity. They don’t realize that celebrities are people, and they are not people you are friends with. And now, these unsettling trends are moving over to Broadway.
People are calling Lin or Daveed Diggs “daddy” on posts (that’s gross, y’all). Lin got literally chased by running fans after a show. The cast are harassed on social media when they don’t show up to sign Playbills at the stage door. People make “fan accounts” and use actors’ names as their usernames and post pictures that they don’t always want posted, which was the case when a Phillipa Soo fan account posted a family picture that wasn’t previously public.
This likely doesn’t happen (or at least, not to the same extremes) with other Broadway shows. But shows that have the privilege of a long run do all have one thing in common: the original cast leaves, and new casts come in. For me, this is the most exciting part of theatre. Every year or so, we get to see new actors interpret the story in their own way. That’s the whole point of creating a show. It’s like George Washington says (in the musical. Maybe in real life too, I’m a blogger, not a historian) when Hamilton is penning his farewell address and begging him to serve past his eight years: “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I’m gone.”
This show in particular is all about interpretation and re-interpretation. Lin picked up a book and read the first treasury-secretary as Tupac. Do you really think the real Alexander Hamilton pictured a hip-hop musical about his life 200 years after his death? Probably not. (Like Lin says, Hamilton would probably be more occupied with electricity than a musical if he was transported to the modern era). What teens don’t understand is that Broadway is not about cementing a production and keeping it that way for years and years to come. Eventually, there will not be a single person onstage at the Richard Rodgers that there was at the start. And that’s the point.
The point of Hamilton is that once we’re gone, our story is not in our hands anymore. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” The real Hamilton had no idea what would happen after he died before his 50th birthday. He had no idea that one day his story would be reimagined and be spread out across the world to people who had no interest in American history before. Hamilton is going to be in new hands soon, and we’ve got to remember that interpretation and re-invention is what makes it so great.
Sondheim writes, in Sunday in the Park with George:
Just keep moving on.
Anything you do,
Let it come from you.
Then it will be new.
Give us more to see.