A skep­tic finds more to cher­ish in the lib­er­at­ing mu­si­cal with each stag­ing

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Charles McNulty charles.mcnulty@la­ Twit­ter: @charlesm­c­nulty

J ump­ing on band­wag­ons is my least fa­vorite ac­tiv­ity. Don’t force me to tell you all the must-see movies I’ve skipped (“For­rest Gump” is all you’ll get out of me), the No. 1 best­sellers I’ve by­passed (I dis­cov­ered the world of “Harry Pot­ter” only af­ter it be­came a play) or the plat­inum records I’ve turned a deaf ear to (Bieber who?).

Some might in­ter­pret this as snob­bery, but I see it as a form of self-pro­tec­tion. You are what you cul­tur­ally con­sume, and I trea­sure the free­dom of serendip­i­tous dis­cov­ery. Emily Brontë, in the poem “Stan­zas,” speaks for many of us who in­stinc­tively steer clear from the madding crowd: “I’ll walk where my own na­ture would be lead­ing:/ It vexes me to choose an­other guide.”

As a critic com­pelled to re­view shows I prob­a­bly wouldn’t have both­ered with as a civil­ian, I can’t help bring­ing a gim­let eye to block­busters. “The Pro­duc­ers” and “The Book of Mor­mon” were fun, but they didn’t con­vert me. All those juke­box mu­si­cals — “Jer­sey Boys,” “Mamma Mia!” — that have en­ticed baby boomers to siphon funds from re­tire­ment ac­counts have yet to turn this Gen Xer into a prodi­gal.

But “Hamil­ton” has some­how eluded my nat­u­ral de­fenses. I’ve seen the show in three lo­ca­tions (Of­fBroad­way, Broad­way and San Fran­cisco) and can’t wait to see it a fourth time at the Hol­ly­wood Pan­tages, where the mu­si­cal has its much-an­tic­i­pated Los An­ge­les pre­miere on Wed­nes­day.

This doesn’t mean that I think the show is above crit­i­cism or can with­stand some of the hy­per­bolic com­par­isons that have been thrown its way. Cre­ator Lin-Manuel Mi­randa is a prodi­giously gifted mu­si­cal theater artist, but “Hamil­ton,” which im­presses most in its mu­si­cal sto­ry­telling au­dac­ity, in the way it trans­lates into a modern id­iom the tale of Amer­ica’s birth, isn’t helped by claims that it rep­re­sents the sec­ond com­ing of Shake­speare. (To be fair, Shake­speare is no Mi­randa when it comes to rap mu­si­cals.)

I have quib­bles with the book, which suf­fers a few mi­nor dips in its re­tread­ing of Alexan­der Hamil­ton’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary life story. And I’ve ques­tioned the rel­a­tive gen­tle­ness of Mi­randa’s take on Hamil­ton’s com­pli­cated eco­nomic legacy and the Found­ing Fa­thers’ per­sonal re­la­tion­ship to slav­ery.

“Hamil­ton” could prob­a­bly have done more to con­nect the framers’ par­ti­san squab­bles with our own. But each time I see the show, I ad­mire Mi­randa’s achieve­ment more. The power of the mu­si­cal’s grand po­lit­i­cal point about Amer­ica as a coun­try built on the backs and minds of im­mi­grants is con­veyed as much by the con­tent of the show as by its mode of pre­sen­ta­tion.

The cast­ing of ac­tors of color as the Found­ing Fa­thers is lib­er­at­ing. The driv­ing hip-hop and R&B score en­er­gizes the book mu­si­cal with the in­ten­sity of a con­cert in which Bey­oncé and Jay-Z might very well be sway­ing in the au­di­ence. And the show’s in­clu­sive em­brace feels like an act of love at a time when politi­cians are work­ing ma­lignly to ex­ploit dif­fer­ences and re­sent­ments.

One of the un­for­tu­nate as­pects of the suc­cess of “Hamil­ton” is that it has made tick­ets for­mi­da­bly ex­pen­sive. For those on the lower end of the in­come scale, the show ex­ists as a tan­ta­liz­ing yet elu­sive dream. The drown­ing me­dia cov­er­age and the chart-bust­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the cast record­ing (the al­bum went triple plat­inum this year) have at­tracted in­ter­est well beyond Broad­way’s cus­tom­ary au­di­ence. But many of the show’s new fans are grow­ing frus­trated that they are un­able to ex­pe­ri­ence the work in the theater.

I know this be­cause I’ve been get­ting mail from read­ers who are up­set that a show that speaks di­rectly to them has been priced beyond their reach. “Hamil­ton” has a $10 lot­tery, but the de­tails were be­ing worked out when I con­tacted a press rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the Pan­tages — and a lot­tery usu­ally in­volves a wish and a prayer.

Par­tic­u­larly galling to some is the ex­is­tence of pre­mium seats that can run as high as $750, with prices on the sec­ondary ticket mar­kets more than dou­ble that amount. I’m of two minds about the is­sue. On the one hand, I’m glad to see an artist like Mi­randa get­ting his shot at “mak­ing bank,” as the kids back in the day used to say. Matt Stone, Trey Parker and Robert Lopez are still print­ing money from “The Book of Mor­mon.” Why shouldn’t a show with a sharper so­cial con­science en­joy the fi­nan­cial re­wards of such a rare artis­tic tri­umph?

On the other hand, I can also re­late to those who com­plain that “Hamil­ton” ex­em­pli­fies the eco­nomic in­equal­ity of our so­ci­ety. It would be un­duly harsh to call it a mu­si­cal for the 1% that pays ne­olib­eral lip ser­vice to demo­cratic val­ues, but the rhetoric can get heated when ticket prices soar above the $200 thresh­old.

Eco­nomic fair­ness mat­ters to Mi­randa. He was in­stru­men­tal in an agree­ment that led to the orig­i­nal cast and sev­eral other par­tic­i­pants get­ting a share of the show’s prof­its. He has been out­spo­ken on the is­sue of the sec­ondary ticket mar­ket in which in­sane sums end up in the cof­fers of ticket agents who have noth­ing to do with the cre­ation of the work. He made the daily lot­tery of $10 tick­ets a com­mu­nal event in the theater district in New York. And he has fos­tered an al­liance with the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion, other donors, and the Gilder Lehrman In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can His­tory that will bring 250,000 school kids around the coun­try (in­clud­ing L.A.) to “Hamil­ton.”

I shared with Mi­randa an email I re­ceived from an ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant who was sad and up­set that “Hamil­ton” was in L.A. but ticket prices were mak­ing the show seem as dis­tant as the moon. I felt bad about adding to his store of guilt but won­dered how he’d re­spond to a note from some­one who would seem to be the kind of the­ater­goer the work was writ­ten for in the first place. Con­sid­er­ate as al­ways, he wrote back:

“Charles, thanks for reach­ing out. The dif­fi­culty of ob­tain­ing tick­ets to Hamil­ton for the av­er­age the­ater­goer is of course my great­est source of frus­tra­tion. The hon­est an­swer is we fight the bat­tle on as many fronts we can. I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times and met with Congress to fight against BOTS, which is an elec­tronic tool scalpers used to scoop up scores of tick­ets while hard work­ing folks are still typ­ing in their CAPTCHA codes. We were able to pass leg­is­la­tion to this ef­fect in New York and Congress also passed an­tiBOTS leg­is­la­tion that Pres­i­dent Obama signed into law in 2016. We con­tinue to pri­or­i­tize stu­dents through our EduHam ini­tia­tive on ev­ery tour stop and over 25,000 stu­dents have par­tic­i­pated thus far. We’ve dou­bled the num­ber of $10 tick­ets avail­able through the lot­tery on Broad­way, and now of­fer ap­prox­i­mately 45 tick­ets at that price for ev­ery per­for­mance in ev­ery city we play in. We can’t con­trol the sec­ondary mar­ket, which is the source of that stag­ger­ing $1500 ticket price in the let­ter you re­ceived. That’s not what we charge. This is a long way of say­ing I share your reader’s frus­tra­tion. But we’re chip­ping away at it in all the ways we can, all the time. Siem­pre, Lin-Manuel”

A mu­si­cal can’t be ex­pected to save cap­i­tal­ism from its worst ex­cesses, but I’ve seen the way “Hamil­ton” is able to open hearts and minds. Not ev­ery­one who wants to at­tend this first L.A. run will be for­tu­nate enough to ob­tain a ticket, but the mu­si­cal has al­ready ex­tended its reach through stream­ing mu­sic ser­vices, the doc­u­men­tary “Hamil­ton’s Amer­ica” that was shown on PBS, “Hamil­ton: The Revo­lu­tion” (the im­pres­sive book Mi­randa co-wrote with Jeremy McCarter an­no­tat­ing the li­bretto and doc­u­ment­ing the pro­duc­tion’s cre­ation) and of course all those thrilling awards-show num­bers.

When I was at the open­ing of this na­tional tour pro­duc­tion at San Fran­cisco’s SHN Or­pheum Theatre in March, I was as­ton­ished that nearly ev­ery­one around me knew most of the words to the songs. The joy that was in the house was like an elec­tric cur­rent trans­form­ing a com­mer­cial show palace into a com­mu­nal nexus.

“Hamil­ton” will no doubt be one of those mu­si­cals that re­turn reg­u­larly like a fa­vorite old friend. My re­flex re­ac­tion to run­away hits of this mag­ni­tude is to duck and cover, but I am proud to join the cho­rus wel­com­ing this land­mark show to L.A.

Charles Sykes In­vi­sion / As­so­ci­ated Press

CRE­ATOR Lin-Manuel Mi­randa’s block­buster mu­si­cal is a hot — and high-priced — ticket.

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