Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

American Stories #10: Hamilton

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

On August 6, 2015, Hamilton opened at the Richard Rogers Theatre in New York, where it has played to full houses ever since. It marked the moment at which Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical exploded into the popular consciousness, and it also means that we’re approaching an important crossover point. In about three weeks, Hamilton will have spent more time on Broadway under a Trump presidency—either prospective or actual—than it did under Barack Obama. And its reception has been so inseparable from the historical era in which it happened to reach a vast audience, after spending more than five years in writing and development, that this fact seems more than simply symbolic. To a greater extent than any other recent work of art, this musical has engaged in a continuous dialogue with its country, and its most Shakespearean quality is the way in which it always seems to be speaking about current events. Its Broadway premiere occurred less than a month after Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency, and although his announcement is remembered mostly for equating Mexican immigrants with rapists, the words that he uttered a few seconds earlier were even more revealing: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you.” Among other things, Hamilton is a story about who “you” and “we” really are in America, and while its answer to that question has remained consistent, the culture in which its echoes are heard has changed with bewildering speed. During the campaign, I found it almost physically painful to think about the line “Immigrants—we get the job done,” which was received so enthusiastically by its listeners that Miranda had to add a few beats of silence to absorb the applause. I wanted to believe it, but I was also afraid that the job wouldn’t get done after all, and it didn’t. But it wasn’t the fault of our immigrants, who have found themselves back at the center of our politics even as they remain marginalized in other ways. And we might all be better off now if it really had been up to them.

Like many people, I haven’t stopped listening to Hamilton since. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a live singalong at the public library in Oak Park that drew hundreds of adults and children over the course of two days—they had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate the crowd. It was unbearably moving. Yet it’s also undeniable that Hamilton plays so well in part because it leaves so much unsaid. As the Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro has written:

The idea that this musical “looks like America looks now” in contrast to “then,” however, is misleading and actively erases the presence and role of black and brown people in Revolutionary America, as well as before and since…Despite the proliferation of brown and black bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. For the space of only a couple of bars, a chorus member assumes the role of Sally Hemings, but is recognizable as such only by those who catch Jefferson’s reference to the enslaved woman with whom he had an ongoing sexual relationship. Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.

I don’t think that there’s any question that Monteiro is basically right here, and that the diversity of Hamilton’s cast allows it to absorb America’s racial legacy into the overwhelming charisma of its performers, rather than confronting it explicitly in the text. (A song that addressed it directly, “Cabinet Battle #3,” was cut from the finished show, although it appears on The Hamilton Mixtape.) Unless you happen to actually be Mike Pence, it won’t make you uncomfortable for even a fraction of a second, which may have been necessary for it to reach its present cultural status. I’m grateful for what it does accomplish, but its success also points to how many stories have yet to be told. And perhaps it was more important that it gave us a chance, through a beneficent sleight of hand, to take pride in our history one last time.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2018 at 9:18 am

Revise like you’re running out of time

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Lin-Manuel Miranda's drafts of "My Shot"

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 17, 2016.

It might seem like a stretch, or at least premature, to compare Lin-Manuel Miranda to Shakespeare, but after listening to Hamilton nonstop over the last couple of years, I still can’t put the notion away. What these two writers have in common, aside from a readiness to plunder history as material for drama and a fondness for blatant anachronism, is their density and rapidity. When we try to figure out what sets Shakespeare apart from other playwrights, we’re likely to think of the way his ideas and images succeed each other so quickly that they run the risk of turning into mixed metaphors, and how both characters and scenes can turn on a dime to introduce a new tone or register. Hamilton, at its best, has many of the same qualities—hip-hop is capable of conveying more information per line than just about any other medium, and Miranda exploits it to the fullest. And what really strikes me, after repeated listens, is his ability to move swiftly from one character, subplot, or theme to another, often in the course of a single song. For a musical to accomplish as much in two and a half hours as Hamilton does, it has to nail all the transitions. My favorite example is the whirlwind in the first act that carries us from “Helpless” to “Satisfied” to “Wait For It,” taking us from Hamilton’s courtship of Eliza to Angelica’s unrequited love to checking in with Burr in the space of about fifteen minutes. I’ve listened to that sequence countless times, marveling at how all the pieces fit together, and it never even occurred to me to wonder how it was constructed until I’d internalized it. Which may be the most Shakespearean attribute of all. (Miranda’s knack for delivering information in the form of self-contained set pieces that amount to miniature plays in themselves, like “Blow Us All Away,” has even influenced my approach to my own book.)

But this doesn’t happen by accident. A while back, Manuel tweeted out a picture of his notebook for the incomparable “My Shot,” along with the dry comment: “Songs take time.” Like most musicals, Hamilton was refined and restructured in workshops—many recordings of which are available online—and continued to evolve between its Off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations. In theater, revision has a way of taking place in plain sight: it’s impossible to know the impact of any changes until you’ve seen them in performance, and the feedback you get in real time informs the next iteration. Hamilton was developed under far greater scrutiny than Miranda’s In the Heights, which was the product of five years of unhurried readings and workshops, and its evolution was constrained by what its creator has called “these weirdly visible benchmarks,” including the American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center and a high-profile presentation at Vassar. Still, much of the revision took place in Miranda’s head, a balance between public and private revision that feels Shakespearean in itself. Shakespeare clearly understood the creative utility of rehearsal and collaboration with a specific cast of actors, and he was cheerfully willing to rework a play based on how the audience responded. But we also know, based on surviving works like the unfinished Timon of Athens, that he revised the plays carefully on his own, roughing out large blocks of the action in prose form before going back to transform it into verse. We don’t have any of his manuscripts, but I suspect that they looked a lot like Miranda’s, and that he was ready to rearrange scenes and drop entire sequences to streamline and unify the whole. Like Hamilton, and Miranda, Shakespeare wrote like he was running out of time.

As it happens, I originally got to thinking about all this after reading a description of a very different creative experience, in the form of playwright Glen Berger’s interview with The A.V. Club about the doomed production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The whole thing is worth checking out, and I’ve long been meaning to read Berger’s book Song of Spider-Man to get the full version. (Berger, incidentally, was replaced as the show’s writer by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who has since gone on to greater fame as the creator of Riverdale.) But this is the detail that stuck in my head the most:

Almost inevitably during previews for a Broadway musical, several songs are cut and several new songs are written. Sometimes, the new songs are the best songs. There’s the famous story of “Comedy Tonight” for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum being written out of town. There are hundreds of other examples of songs being changed and scenes rearranged.

From our first preview to the day Julie [Taymor] left the show seven months later, not a single song was cut, which is kind of indicative of the rigidity that was setting in for one camp of the creators who felt like, “No, we came up with the perfect show. We just need to find a way to render it competently.”

A lot of things went wrong with Spider-Man, but this inability to revise—which might have allowed the show to address its problems—seems like a fatal flaw. As books like Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat make clear, a musical can undergo drastic transformations between its earliest conception and opening night, and the lack of it here is what made the difference between a troubled production and a debacle.

But it’s also hard to blame Taymor, Berger, or any other individual involved when you consider the conditions under which this musical was produced, which made it hard for any kind of meaningful revision to occur at all. Even in theater, revision works best when it’s essentially private: following any train of thought to its logical conclusion requires the security that only solitude provides. An author or director is less likely to learn from mistakes or test out the alternatives when the process is occurring in plain sight. From the very beginning, the creators of Spider-Man never had a moment of solitary reflection: it was a project that was born in a corporate boardroom and jumped immediately to Broadway. As Berger says:

Our biggest blunder was that we only had one workshop, and then we went into rehearsals for the Broadway run of the show. I’m working on another bound-for-Broadway musical now, and we’ve already had four workshops. Every time you hear, “Oh, we’re going to do another workshop,” the knee-jerk reaction is, “We don’t need any more. We can just go straight into rehearsals,” but we learn some new things every time. They provide you the opportunity to get rid of stuff that doesn’t work, songs that fall flat that you thought were amazing, or totally rewrite scenes. I’m all for workshops now.

It isn’t impossible to revise properly under conditions of extreme scrutiny—Pixar does a pretty good job of it, although this has clearly led to troubling cultural tradeoffs of its own—but it requires a degree of bravery that wasn’t evident here. And I’m curious to see how Miranda handles similar pressure, now that he occupies the position of an artist in residence at Disney, where Spider-Man also resides. Fame can open doors and create possibilities, but real revision can only occur in the sessions of sweet silent thought.

The will to walk onstage

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About a year ago, I picked up a copy of the book Actors at Work, which consists of interviews with fourteen stage and screen professionals by the casting director Rosemarie Tichler and the playwright Barry Jay Kaplan. It’s an engaging, informative read, openly modeled on the legendary interviews on craft conducted by The Paris Review, and its subjects include the likes of Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, and Patti LuPone. By accident, however, it ends with chapters devoted to two actors whose legacies have been profoundly changed in the intervening decade. One is Kevin Spacey, whose career seems effectively over in the aftermath of revelations about his sexual misconduct; the other is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose partner, Mimi O’Donnell, provides an account of their life together in an autobiographical essay that appeared last week in Vogue. Spacey and Hoffman never appeared onstage or onscreen together, and they don’t seem to have spoken of each other publicly while both were alive, but they were linked in the minds of many fans. In his entry on Hoffman in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson even wrote: “Meanwhile, search him out, as you might Kevin Spacey. There is the same very dangerous talent at work—astounding, yet so pronounced it could help make its own prison.” Yet it seems clear now that they were profoundly dissimilar—and not just because Spacey was a born character actor who systematically transformed himself into a leading man, while Hoffman was manifestly a star who was pigeonholed for too long as a character actor.

There are moments in Actors at Work, in fact, when they seem to be engaging in an unintentional dialogue. Here’s Spacey speaking of his two years at Juilliard:

What I learned more than anything else—and which I am enormously, enormously grateful for—is technique. What I learned was how do you get up every night for eight weeks, or twelve weeks or fourteen weeks or six months, into a run of a play and always be alive and always be there and always have your breath and always be energetic and always be ready to respond even on those nights when it doesn’t hit you, and somehow the performance, the audience—you just feel it’s not happening. It is technique that gets you through it. It is what you can do technically even if it’s not connected emotionally on that particular night.

To be honest, I find this fascinating, but it represents a very different approach from what Hoffman describes, in which he sometimes seems to be addressing Spacey himself:

You have tools at your disposal. You have a mind that you’ve soaked up with as much information as possible, and all those things help you get inside it. But the ultimate execution of it is something that is almost ninety-five percent will…I remember an acting teacher saying, “Eventually, you gotta decide to do the play every night.” It’s one of the best pieces of teaching I ever got. If you don’t decide to do it—and sixty percent of actors don’t decide to do it—they go do it anyway. The minute you decide to do it, it’s you doing the work to create the will to walk onstage.

This philosophical contest between technique and will can also be seen in their performances that have been preserved on film. Spacey always seemed to be pretending, however brilliantly, while Hoffman had a way of disappearing into even the tiniest parts—you could rarely catch him “acting,” while much of the pleasure of watching Spacey lay in our conspiratorial sense of his choices from one minute to the next. (There’s a scene in L.A. Confidential in which he does little else except make two phone calls, in a single take, and I can never watch it without marveling at how he handles the receiver of the telephone.) You can also see it in how they planned their careers. Spacey recalls: “I did cotton to the idea that if you were as specific in your choices of what you did as you were as an actor in a role, then you might find things that were right for you, that would challenge you and be interesting to do…I had made a very clear decision ten years earlier to start focusing on film and see if I could carve out a career. I had done it. American Beauty was out, and I thought, it just doesn’t get better than this.” Hoffman, by contrast, was far more intuitive:

The next role I want to play is the next role I want to play, I guess is the answer. I don’t know what that is until I actually see it. It has to be in the moment. Life has to flow. If you don’t let life flow, it’s hard to create. You can’t control creation. The minute I try to control what I’m going to act, what parts I’m going to play, they become something that I don’t want to act. It becomes a heady thing. It becomes, if I just play that part, then I’ll play that part, and then I’d better be over there. It becomes something that’s just structure and math, not creative.

Yet when you look at their filmographies, you can see the difference at once. Hoffman almost never took on a role that wasn’t fascinating, while the last fifteen years of Spacey’s career consisted largely of a series of dead ends. So much of an actor’s career is out of his hands that instinct often counts for more than cleverness.

But while it’s tempting to read Hoffman’s struggle with drug addiction as a reflection of the trauma that he repeatedly underwent as an actor, while Spacey held it at arm’s length, the truth seems to have been utterly different. As O’Donnell writes in Vogue: “I hesitate to ascribe Phil’s relapse after two decades to any one thing, or even to a series of things, because the stressors—or, in the parlance, triggers—that preceded it didn’t cause him to start using again, any more than being a child of divorce did. Lots of people go through difficult life events. Only addicts start taking drugs to blunt the pain of them.” And she deliberately rejects the notion that acting may have been to blame:

Phil went into rehearsal for Mike Nichols’s production of Death of a Salesman, and he threw himself into it with his usual intensity. Willy Loman is one of the great tragic roles of twentieth-century theater, and Phil gave one of the rawest and most honest performances of his career. It asked a lot of him and it exhausted him, but it had nothing to do with his relapse. If anything, doing seven shows a week kept him from using, because it would have been impossible to do that on drugs. Though he continued to drink after evening shows, he was otherwise clean, and as the days left in the show’s limited run wound down, I began to dread what would happen when it was over.

This couldn’t be less like Spacey, who was engaging in predatory behavior even while serving as the artistic director of the Old Vic, during the busiest period of his creative life. Acting saved Hoffman, until it didn’t, while Spacey appears to have used it as coldly as he did anything else. David Thomson wrote of Spacey years ago: “He can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being.” We don’t need to accept this. But we also need to recognize that even the will to walk onstage may not always be enough.

A choice of forms

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I find I need both forms [the theater and the novel] to satisfy me. Ideas which essentially comment on manners seem to belong in the play form—you need the physical contact with your audience, get them where they can’t miss the direct punch, then let them think about it afterward. Like all forms of satire, it is necessarily unfair, yet quite as fair as the Pollyanna treatment. The form which allows me second thoughts as well as first is the novel—here a character may receive more justice; what he intends to do, what he meant to be, what others think of him are as important as what he does and says; the line he would damn himself with on the stage may be explained by a quick trip through his mind, the novelist’s privilege.

The drama form—far easier and more agreeable to me—appeals to me as achieving its ends more quickly and powerfully. The writer has only to present his one side, the audience and critics do the novelist’s job of filling in, making excuses, seeing the other side, defending whatever characters they feel best equipped to understand. This public willingness to take active part in an artist’s creation seems to make the drama a better medium for social satire. God knows that by the time the various producers, readers, agents, actors, directors, critics, technicians, etc., have gotten a play before an audience the thing practically amounts to a mass movement.

Dawn Powell, in a letter to Barrett Clark

Written by nevalalee

November 12, 2017 at 7:30 am

The variety show

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In this week’s issue of The New York Times Style Magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda interviews Stephen Sondheim, whom he calls “musical theater’s greatest lyricist.” The two men have known each other for a long time, and Miranda shares a memorable anecdote from their friendship:

Sondheim was one of the first people I told about my idea for a piece about Alexander Hamilton, back in 2008…I’d been hired to write Spanish translations for a Broadway revival of West Side Story, and during our first meeting he asked me what I was working on next. I told him “Alexander Hamilton,” and he threw back his head in laughter and clapped his hands. “That is exactly what you should be doing. No one will expect that from you. How fantastic.” That moment alone, the joy of surprising Sondheim, sustained me through many rough writing nights and missed deadlines. I sent him early drafts of songs over the seven-year development of Hamilton, and his email response was always the same. “Variety, variety, variety, Lin. Don’t let up for a second. Surprise us.”

During their interview, Sondheim expands on the concept of “variety” by describing an Off-Broadway play about “the mad queen of Spain” that he once attended with the playwright Peter Shaffer. When Sondheim wondered why he was so bored by the result, despite its nonstop violence, Shaffer explained: “There’s no surprise.” And Sondheim thought to himself: “Put that on your bathroom mirror.”

“The unexpected, the unexpected, that’s what theater is about,” Sondheim concludes to Miranda. “If you had to patent one thing in the theater, it’s surprise.” This is good advice. Yet when you turn to Sondheim’s own books on the craft of lyric writing, Finishing the Hat and Look I Made a Hat, you find that he doesn’t devote much space to the notions of variety or surprise at all, at least not explicitly. In fact, at first glance, the rules that he famously sets forth in the preface to both books seem closer to the opposite:

There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into focus via Oscar Hammerstein’s tutoring, Strunk and White’s huge little book The Elements of Style and my own sixty-some years of practicing the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but they underlie everything I’ve ever written. In no particular order, and to be inscribed in stone: Content Dictates Form, Less Is More, God Is in the Details, all in the service of Clarity, without which nothing else matters.

Obviously, these guidelines can be perfectly consistent with the virtues of variety and surprise—you could even say that clarity, simplicity, and attention to detail are what enable lyricists to engage in variety without confusing the listener. But it’s still worth asking why Sondheim emphasizes one set of principles here and another when advising Miranda in private.

When you look through Sondheim’s two books of lyrics, the only reference to “variety” in the index is to the show business magazine of the same name, but references to these notions are scattered throughout both volumes. Writing of Sweeney Todd in Finishing the Hat, Sondheim says: “Having taken the project on, I hoped that I’d be able to manage the argot by limiting myself to the British colloquialisms [playwright Christopher] Bond had used, mingled with the few I knew. There weren’t enough, however, to allow for variety of image, variety of humor, and, most important, variety of rhyme.” He criticizes the “fervent lack of surprise” in the lyrics of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, and he writes emphatically in his chapter on Gypsy: “Surprise is the lifeblood of the theater, a thought I’ll expand on later.” For his full statement on the subject, however, you have to turn to Look, I Made a Hat. After sharing his anecdote about attending the play with Shaffer, Sondheim continues:

[Shaffer said that] it had many incidents but no surprise. He didn’t mean surprise plot twists—there were plenty of those—but surprises in character and language. Every action, every moment, every sentence foretold the next one. We, the audience, were consciously or unconsciously a step ahead of the play all evening long, and it was a long evening…[Surprise] comes in many flavors: a plot twist, a passage of dialogue, a character revelation, a note in a melody, a harmonic progression, startling moments in staging, lighting, orchestration, unexpected song cues…all the elements of theater. There are surprises to be had everywhere if you want to spring them, and it behooves you to do so. What’s important is that the play be ahead of the audience, not vice versa. Predictability is the enemy.

So if surprise is “the lifeblood of the theater,” why doesn’t Sondheim include it in the preface as one of his central principles? In his next paragraph, he provides an important clue:

The problem with surprise is that you have to lay out a trail for the audience to follow all the while you’re keeping slightly ahead. You don’t want them to be bored, but neither do you want them to be confused, and unfortunately there are many ways to do both. This applies to songs as well as to plays. You can confuse an audience with language by being overly poetic or verbose, or you can bore them by restating something they know, which inserts a little yawn into the middle of the song. It’s a difficult balancing act.

The only way to achieve this balance is through the principles of simplicity and clarity—which is why Sondheim puts them up front, while saving variety for later. If you advise young writers to go for variety and surprise too soon, you end up with Queen Juana of Castile. It’s only after clarity and all of its boring supporting virtues have been internalized that the writer can tackle variety with discipline and skill. (As T.S. Eliot pointed out, it’s better to imitate Dante than Shakespeare: “If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.” And Samuel Johnson, let’s not forget, thought that the great excellence of Hamlet was its “variety.”) Miranda had clearly mastered the fundamentals, so Sondheim advised him to focus on something more advanced. It worked—one of the most thrilling things about Hamilton is its effortless juxtaposition of styles and tones—but only because its author had long since figured out the basics. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The third thought

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[Improv teacher Del Close said] to always go to your third thought. Sounds really simple, but when you’re onstage, your first thought is knee-jerk. Your second thought is usually okay, but not great. Del would make you stay in a scene until you found your third thought, which was a little above and beyond what most other teachers would suggest. Basically, he wanted your third thought for your character choice, your third thought for your premise or your scene, your third thought for your heightened move…Another lesson was to always play to the top of your intelligence. If you treat the audience like poets and geniuses, that’s what they will become.

Adam McKay, in an interview with Mike Sacks in Poking a Dead Frog

Written by nevalalee

October 14, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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You are good in boats not alone from knowledge, but because water is a part of you, you are easy on it, fear it and like it in such equal parts that you work well in a boat without thinking about it and may even be safer because you don’t need to think too much. That is what we mean by instinct and there is no way to explain an instinct for the theatre, although those who have it recognize each other and a bond is formed between them. The need of theatre instinct may be why so many good writers have been such inferior playwrights—the light that a natural dramatist can see on a dark road is simply not there.

Lillian Hellman, Pentimento

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2017 at 7:30 am

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