The Great Comet, Digressions, and The Nature of The Epic Novel

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It’s been over two weeks since I saw Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet Of 1812 and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the implications of something like, adapting a few chapters of an epic novel into an Avante Garde rock opera. I was listening to the OBC yesterday and started thinking about how epic novels in general play with subplots.

The digression is a staple of the epic novel, and sometimes they can be a delight, and sometimes they can be a slog, and sometimes completely forgettable.

I’ve never read War And Peace the epic from which the digression that inspired The Great Comet is drawn but I’ve read others. (Les Miserables, Great Expectations, Gone With The Wind, The Lord of The Rings, hell at the moment I’m working through The Stand, which, whether it was Stephen King’s intention to write an old school epic or not, certainly reads like one.) And not all digressions are created equal. I know now that when I read War And Peace that this one will stand out to me, but whether it would have done anything without The Great Comet is hard to know.

Some digressions I love? The extended flashback to Waterloo in Les Mis where Thenardier saves Marius’s father’s life, which leads to Marius becoming the protector of Eponine and Gavroche (oh, did you not know that Gavroche is also a Thenardier child? Well, he is.) and deep guilt at their deaths. Scarlett and Rhett’s trip to New York & Saratoga in Gone With The Wind (Where Scarlett gets pregnant with Bonnie.) Anything where Pip was at school in Great Expectations.

Some digressions I can’t stand? Tom Friggin Bombadil, anything about Marius’s family history not connected to the Thenardiers, anything about Ashley Wilkes that isn’t directly illuminating how Melanie Wilkes is The Bomb Dot Com.

Anyway, that’s been in my head lately. As for actually reviewing the show? I don’t think that I understood enough of it to that. I really enjoyed The Great Comet, it’s a remarkable piece of theater and I’ve fallen very in love with the cast album, but it’s also strange and more than a little bit odd and deeply overwhelming in certain ways.

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No Day But Today

Sometimes I have to make myself very strict rules, when it comes to my media consumption. It’s usually for my own good, sometimes it’s completely arbitrary and it’s often for a reason that would seem nonsensical to an outsider.

A big one, that some people might think is very strange, started a few years ago. “I’m not ever going to encounter Rent on purpose.”

I won’t listen to it.

I won’t watch the movie. (Not that I’d want to, ugh, it’s so awful)

I won’t watch the filmed closing night performance. (Much better than the movie and still includes Tracy Thoms’s transcendent Joanne. With JV Elphaba Eden Espinosa as Maureen no less!)

This rule is in place for a few reasons. It keeps me from swirling down a bizarre hole of nostalgia, disappointment and obsession. It keeps me from poking holes in a piece of art that meant a lot to me once, means less to me now and which I know is DEEPLY, DEEPLY flawed. And mostly, it keeps me from boring the people around me with conversation about Rent. Because, and I mean this kindly, most normal humans ran out of things to say about Rent in either 1998, or when they turned 19. Whichever came first.

I could talk about Rent forever. I could talk about the original cast and how I still clap with raucous joy every time I see any of them in anything. (Remember on Smash when Daphne Ruben Vega and Jesse L. Martin were on it?) I could talk about how the replacement casts shaped Broadway talent for a generation and are still shaping it in certain ways. (Not least of all because of Hamilton and Lin-Manuel’s admitted affection for the show and it’s style.) I could talk about Jonathan Larson, the stranger than fiction circumstances of his death, the good work done by his family in his name, and speculate about what theater would look like if he’d lived. (My guess? A lot fewer revivals & movie adaptations. A lot more rock operas about gay people.)

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that on Friday, I half broke the rule. I was listening to my Spotify “Weekly Discovery Playlist” and the first track off of Anthony Rapp’s Without You: A Musical Memoir, his recreation of his audition for Rent came on. I then spent my lunch hour listening through Without You, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, since the book Without You is one of my all time favorite memoirs. (It’s about his mom dying as much as it’s about Rent and it.is.stunning.) And as Anthony recreated his memories of the show, my own came rushing back and I knew that I needed to at the very least listen to the OBC again.

Since I had a 2 hour drive to Juli’s that night, I had the perfect opportunity.

It’s funny, the things that come back to you with music. Seeing Rent for the first time with my brother. Parking lot and diner renditions of “La Vie Boheme,” with my summer stock friends after rehearsals. Learning the alto line to “Seasons of Love” with at least 3 different choir directors. Screaming with joy as my name got called for the front lottery when Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp were back in the show for a few weeks. My friend Ali and I dressing in our bohemian best to go see the movie on opening night. (Cannot reiterate it enough, DO NOT WATCH THE MOVIE. Do however, listen to the movie versions of “Seasons of Love,” “Out Tonight,” and “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” Jesse Martin, Tracy Thoms and Rosario Dawson make those songs worthwhile.)

And then there’s the show and the album itself. The beauty of the music, the emotions of the story, and the urgency and earnestness of the whole thing. Looking at it as an adult, “One Song Glory,” and both versions of “I’ll Cover You,” feel much more at the heart of the whole thing than “La Vie Boheme” and “Seasons,” though as an adult, I’ve also come around on “Seasons of Love,” which while overused and misused as it has been, is just a beautifully composed choral number and achingly melancholy in a way that a teenager could never in a hundred years understand.

But there’s also an oddness to the show now. It was written when Idina Menzel’s wailing belt was trangressive and edgy, when thinking about Angel’s gender identity was taboo and confusing, when the New York I know didn’t exist, and gentrification wasn’t yet a foregone conclusion. That gives it a time capsule quality that makes it hard to evaluate outside of it’s moment.

Idina’s probably the most interesting case of the original cast. Rent made her a star theatrically, and Wicked cemented it, and while I love that I now live in a world where she and Lin-Manuel Miranda are household names, it’s weird, and half the time when people talk about Frozen, I really really want them to listen to “Over The Moon.” Not just because making people listen to “Over The Moon” out of context is hilarious, but because the image of Elsa shouting, “NOT IN MY BACKYARD UTENSILS GO BACK TO CHINA!” breaks a lot of people’s brains. The rest of the casts’ evolution makes more sense. Adam Pascal is still a theater guy, Anthony Rapp and Daphne Ruben Vega became working character actors, who it is always a joy to see. Jesse Martin became everyone’s favorite cop/dad (Sometimes both!). Taye Diggs was swallowed into Shondaland. (I actually think Taye should be a much bigger star than he is, but you know…whatever.) But Idina as Disney Supernova still baffling to me, in a very good way.

As you can see, I could keep babbling for ages about this. Which is why I have the don’t listen to Rent rule.

 

Cosplay Corner: WORK!

Hey all, Renn Faire got bumped again. (I was able to take pictures this time, but, well, something came up.)

What did happen this week was that I saw Hamilton. So, I decide to pay tribute to it via my closet cosplay this week, and…because of Lora, I’ve very much felt the need to up my game.

I decided the Schuyler sisters were the best way to go, so let’s start.

Angelica Schuyler


This is what I wore on Tuesday to the show. So, I went with a black flippy skirt, a pink tank top with some macrame on top.

I decided to do some focus on jewelry for these in a big way. Angelica got some Tory Burch style earrings (You just know that the Schuyler sisters would be preps.)  and a necklace that was a gift from my friend Cha that says, “Nothing is impossible to a determined woman.”


I wore my riding boots (again prep!) because they also look straight out of the Hamilton costume closet.

Eliza Schuyler


Eliza felt the need to be softer and a little more traditional than Angelica. So, I went with a breezy blue crop top and my pencil skirt, super feminine and very sweet. I also did combat boots though, because she’s sweet but also tough as nails.

Eliza’s jewelry is my oversized pearl earrings and a small necklace with a blue stone and pendant that says “ma soeur” (my sister in French) that my sister got me for Christmas a few years ago.


Peggy Schuyler


Peggy’s the yellow one! Anyway, for Peggy I wore a yellow peasant top and jeans and my frye boots. Again, I’m pushing the prep factor.

Peggy’s jewelry is a pair of stone set earrings and a blue a yellow colored glass pendant that my uncles gave me for Christmas one year and a yellow wooden bangle.

Anyway, that’s what I did this week. I had a lot of fun with it.

 

The Room Where It Happens

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So, nearly a year exactly (give or take a few days) since I first sat in my office and listened in awe to the Hamilton original Broadway cast album, I found myself sitting a seat in the Richard Rodgers Theater, sipping on a “Dueling Sangria” (I got the white, Mom got the red…) inhaling sharply as Brandon Victor Dixon ran onstage and began to recite Alexander Hamilton’s life story.

A million thoughts crossed my mind.

“Oh God, I’m finally here!”

“I can’t believe I missed the OBC.”

“That doesn’t really matter. You’re here, live in this moment.”

“What if it doesn’t live up to what’s in my head?”

“What if I’ve been hyping this up for a year and my family doesn’t like it?”

By the time Javier Munoz declared that there were “a million things he hadn’t done,” that was long gone. I was entranced. To crib from an early review, “yes, it really is that good.”

I was really excited to see Mandy Gonzales as Angelica. I was lucky enough to see her as Nina in the original cast of In The Heights, and a few years back, when I took my cousin Bobby to see Wicked, she was our Elphaba. She killed as Angelica as well. Honestly, I don’t want to single out any single cast members, the show is so thoroughly an ensemble piece.

I do want to talk about costume design. HOLY SHIT DO I LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT THE COSTUME DESIGN OF THIS SHOW. I mean, it helps that I was raised by a costume designer, but I love the whites on the ensemble, I love that each character gets their own color scheme, I love that the duels are fought in black cloaks. I love that James Madison is wearing a prototypical Confederate uniform. (The rise of The Confederacy can be linked almost directly to the rivalry personified by Hamilton and the Southern Mother Fuckin’ Democratic Republicans!) It’s all fantastic.

The staging isn’t revolutionary, which is actually preferable. There’s enough revolutionary about this show, the music, the casting, that a straightforward (though still incredible) staging grounds the show in the musical theater tradition, in a bigger way even than the many theatrical references in the libretto do. (Easy call outs, Burr stating that, “You’ve got to be carefully taught,” from South Pacific, Hamilton stating that “nobody needs to know” about his relationship with Maria Reynolds, from The Last 5 Years, the best cheating song ever written, and of course Hamilton calling out “Sit down John,” as a criticism to John Adams.)

I cried, a lot, though not as much or as hard as I thought I might. It’s hard not to get choked up during “It’s Quiet Uptown,” but I also found myself swelling with pride and unable to stop the tears during “One Last Time.” If nothing else this is a deeply patriotic show. Lin-Manuel Miranda clearly loves this country deeply, and it comes across beautifully.

I could keep gushing, (honestly, I could!), but I think Joe’s comment at intermission is the best think that could describe the show, “I just want to stay in my seat and wait for them to do the whole show again.”

Cosplay Corner: Give My Regards To Old Broadway!

Because the Tonys I decided to focus this week on Broadway Cosplays! (Hooray!)

Con Ready Cosplays

I don’t have any strictly Broadway cosplays (I threaten to do Galinda every year and always wind up backing off)

But I do have Belle and Beauty And The Beast was a Broadway show. So we’ll talk about that.


This was the simplest costume ever (except maybe Captain America…), I owned the blue dress as a 50’s costume for years, and the white long sleeved shirt is from my Princess Leia costume from last year. I bought the apron on Amazon, threw on a pair of black flats, tied my hair back and voila! Belle! (If you’re interested in Kristi’s Jedi Sleeping Beauty costume, check out her great post about it!)

Closet Cosplay

I had a lot of fun with these this week. Thinking of shows that I love and characters I like and embracing those aesthetics and figuring out what in my wardrobe would work to bring it across.

Eponine – Les Miserables


I wore this on Sunday for the Tonys, but I didn’t actually wear the whole thing because it was too hot to wear the coat and hat. BUT I know that I can do that for colder weather.

Les Mis is my favorite musical ever and Eponine is my favorite character in it. So it’s nice that approximating her look is so freaking simple.

Anyway, the outfit is simple, jeans, a grey tunic, a brown jacket and a cap. Add a distracted forlorn look and you’re a perfect Eponine!

Hamilton


I didn’t zero in on a specific character here, I just wanted to put forward a general feel for the show’s aesthetic as I understand it…having not actually seen the show yet. You know what? That’s OK. I think so at least.

Anyway, the white leggings come from my Princess Leia costume, the riding boots from my life as a preppy girl, and a blue shirt that I’ve always felt looked vaguely historical, an invokes the color of the Patriot Army. I’m all set to be in the room where it happens…

Galinda – Wicked


After Les Mis, comes Wicked when it comes to my favorites. And I’ve related to the character of Galinda/Glinda from the moment I met her.(You know, through the OBC, as played by Kristin Chenoweth)

A simple costume, pink fluffy skirt, white V-neck and pink jewelery! It helps that I’m blonde!

Something They Can Never Take Away: Hamilton: The Revolution

Welcome to the first post of The Hamilton Reading List.

We begin our exploration with the purest distillation of Hamilton-ness, with Hamilton: The Revolution or as Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s co-author, and the Internet are calling it #Hamiltome. The book consists of the full libretto of the musical, featuring informative and entertaining footnotes by Miranda. Also featured are a series of analytic and informative essays by Hamilton ally and theatrical critic, Jeremy McCarter.

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One of the first things that I want to discuss is the book itself which is gorgeous. Leather bound, aged pages and full of stunning pictures of the production and back stage and the size of a text book, I was very glad I picked up the physical book rather than read it digitally. It’s worth it.

One of the things that’s been acutely fascinating as Hamilton exploding is how documented this phenomenon has been, thanks to the internet and the relative youth of it’s creators, so between the amazing early leak on NPR of the cast album, the #Ham4Ham shows, the fan art, the endless pairing of lyrics with other forms of media (#Force4Ham and #Parks4Ham being my favorites, of course.), we get a level of engagement that I only could have dreamed of when I was a dreamy twelve year old playing the London Cast Recording of Les Mis on my discman curled up in a corner of my middle school band room.

The Hamiltome chronicles this, as well as the show’s unique evolution from Miranda’s daydream of “The Hamilton Mixtape” initially meant to be a concept album chronicling the life of the ten dollar founding father to the full blown theatrical phenomenon it is. And it is a journey, an excellent and interesting and tortuous one.

What I love about back stage looks in general is that they demystify the magic of theater. There is magic in it, that spark that ignites is real, but before you can get to that spark there’s hundreds of hours punctuated by sweat, tears and a ton of work and The Revolution gives us those moments in often excruciating detail. It would have been easy to keep Hamilton mythic, birthed like Athena, fully formed from the mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda, but that isn’t how theater works, and McCarter makes it clear that Hamilton had many fathers, going in detail about direction and costume design, and set design and choreography and even, bless my heart, what a producer does. (Most people don’t understand this. Hell, I barely understand it and I am a producer.)

The one thing that the book doesn’t get into, or at least not enough, is why this show? I mean as much as you can explore why pop culture phenomenon happen, but I do wonder. We were long overdue for a Broadway block buster and even longer overdue for a mainstream crossover success. Were we primed for it? Young people are hungry for revolution in every generation, but seem particularly vocal about it in the moment. So is that it? Broadway music hasn’t incorporated pop music in a new way since 1996, so is that it? (Well, actually since 2008, but you know, everyone seems determined to ignore In The Heights, so I guess I will too.)

But this is a phenomenon and it’s worth exploring.

Next up on The Hamilton Reading List:

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow which is the book that Miranda read that inspired him to write this musical, which then inspired me to write this series of blog posts. So in a way, I’m also a genius who is changing the face of pop culture.

That Would Be Enough

I remember sitting in the theater and watching In The Heights.

I remember loving it.

I remember being blown away by the talent and charisma of it’s star and creator.

I remember realizing that it was like nothing I’d ever seen before and yet so familiar I couldn’t deny it.

I remember it’s connections to my family, the generation of immigrants before the generation who’s stories it told. I remember thinking about circles and cycles and New York and home.

I remember thinking, “this will change everything.” Pop music had been on Broadway for decades. But the pop music on Broadway didn’t sound like the pop music on the radio anymore, if it ever had.

I remember a few years later, when this man came to us again with something that could barely shine. I remember when someone else tried to bring hip hop to Broadway and everyone ignored it and it went away faster than you could realize it was there.

I remember being sad about it. I had thought that the game would change and instead we got a Les Mis revival.

I remember arguing with friends about him. I remember insisting that he was a genius, that he needed to be more famous.

“Of course, ‘Let It Go’ is important, but…”

“The Book of Mormon is great, I’m sure, but…”

“Yeah, we need to preserve our history, and I’m glad The King And I is here, but…”

I remember conversations with my sister, talking about not seeing in teenagers, even artsy ones, we encountered the fervor for this scene and music that we’d had.

“We need a new Rent,” she’d say, “a new Wicked, a new something that speaks to people on a wider popular level.”

Then we started hearing what he was working on.

I remember talking in hushed tones about “that presidential rap musical.” I remember wondering aloud if it would work. Or was this man a one hit wonder?

I remember the rumblings from The Public Theater when it premiered. I remember hearing and reading the word “masterpiece” over and over again. I remember hearing about impossible to get tickets, and color blind casting of historical figures and a move uptown to Broadway delayed.

I remember a month ago seeing Something Rotten! and Mary and I loving it. I remember looking at each other and sighing, “It’s great but, it’s not the one.”

“No,” I said, “but I think Hamilton might be.” She rolled her eyes. Considering she’s the one who sold me on In The Heights I was surprised.

“Just because you want him to change musical theater entirely, doesn’t mean that he will,” she said. “Hamilton is going to be too intellectual and weird. Too idiosyncratic. If In The Heights couldn’t be that show for Lin, it won’t be Hamilton.”

Still, I was sure that it had to be something really special. I was waiting for a chance to see it. I was waiting for a cast album. I wanted a piece of it to prove that my faith hadn’t been misplaced.

And I got it on Friday.

Lin Manuel Miranda has created something amazing. I don’t know about the show itself, I still haven’t seen it. But the album.

Wow.

This isn’t In The Heights.

In the Heights took hip hop and blended it with traditional Broadway, which made it interesting. This is something completely new. This is a hip hop and pop opera. This is rap battles between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. This is the radio ready “My Shot.” This is framing King George as an abusive and oblivious boyfriend to the US.  This was worth waiting almost a decade for.

Hamilton will save us. Hamilton will remind us that this is a medium that is alive and growing. That it’s a medium that can absorb what’s happening around it and evolve and survive. It did it before. It did it when Rock and Roll showed up and pushed it to the side. It did it when Hollywood decide it was no longer a sustainable investment, so it didn’t have to cater to the tastes of a wider world and it could speak a more sophisticated language. It did it when families came back to it’s thoroughfare. It did it when a new generation of divas was born from that time.

It will do it again. Hamilton is the first shot in a new revolution. It’s a reminder that musical theatre isn’t old, isn’t out of touch, or doesn’t have to be.

I’ve been saying for months that I was pretty sure that Hamilton would be the one.

Now that I’ve heard this incredible musical, I know that Hamilton is the one. Or at least it should be.