Hamilton soundtrack

I don’t usually review music around here, but I’m making an exception for this double-album soundtrack because a) it’s a preview of the actual musical I’ll get to see in about a month’s time (squeal!), and b) it’s highly narrative, so it feels like it belongs.

We’ve all by now heard about the musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, right? Based on the biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (which I may need to read next). I had heard of it, but hadn’t paid much attention until I heard Miranda interviewed on my favorite podcast, Another Round (rest in peace). (That episode is here.) Once I started paying attention, I knew I had to see it. So I got tickets! to go with my friend Jacinda (talented author of Saint Monkey) next month in Louisville, and we can’t wait. (Sadly, I will not see Miranda perform, himself, but I will trust that they’ve chosen a good replacement.) My parents recently saw it performed in San Francisco (still waiting on their guest review[s]!), and my mother sent me this soundtrack.

And it’s phenomenal. The music is impressive in itself – that is, as music, you want to lean it, turn it up, nod along with the beat. There is such a full story communicated in its lyrics – all of which are perfectly legible, rare enough with any genre of music. I can immediately hear that Hamilton’s life was full of drama and inspiration, and I can imagine Miranda reading Chernow’s book and being captured by the wild true story of one man’s experience in and out of American politics. That he took that story and put it into varied and captivating song… is another inspiration in itself. I can hardly believe people are this talented.

My impression is that the entire play is available in these songs – leave it to be seen how true that is, but this double-album is quite a complete narrative in itself. It has everything: compelling, dramatic story; catchy beats; wildly crisp, awesome, technical execution; feeling, voice, and talent. I am deeply excited to see it live.

I’ve listened to the whole thing exactly two times through before writing this review, but of course I’ll be going back through it over and over before the show. So far, my favorite tracks include the introductory opener, “Alexander Hamilton,” and the following “Aaron Burr, Sir,” in which Hamilton meets this central character; the pairing “Helpless” and “Satisfied,” which offer parallel love stories with two Schuyler sisters; and the Cabinet Battles, #1 and #2, which are rap battle versions of the stand-offs between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. This is so exciting! This is how you get the kids (and me) excited about history. I’ve written before about the importance of interdisciplinary studies; I think rap-battle-meets-history-lesson might be the best yet. Also the “Ten Duel Commandments,” and “The Reynolds Pamphlet” for its sheer drama, and the final two numbers, “The World Was Wide Enough” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” And, well, I love every track.

I also appreciate the threads that tie these songs together: for example, the repeated refrains of helpless and satisfied (in regards to Hamilton’s love life and ambition). I admire the narrative artistry of the song “Satisfied,” in which we rewind to see a scene and story just told in the previous track, from a very different point of view. This is some fine storycrafting.

I’m afraid of going in circles now – or of creating expectations that are too high to satisfy for the live show. So I’ll stop with this high praise.


Rating: 9 shots.

Main Street Theatre presents Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (2018)

My lovely Houston friends – the same ones who rented Rent for us – took me to see the sweetest play at Main Street Theatre. Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is, of course, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. It takes place at Pemberley after Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, and Jane and Mr. Bingley, have been married a few years. Jane is pregnant; Lydia is still married (not entirely happily) to Mr. Wickham; and Mary and Kitty are still at home. The entire family is now converging on Pemberley, along with an unexpected guest or two: Mr. Darcy’s unpleasant Aunt de Bourgh has just died, and a distant cousin Arthur de Bourgh will be arriving for Christmas as well, having just inherited.

The Miss Bennet of the title here is Mary, the middle sister, whose life has begun to chafe. She loves to read, study, and practice her pianoforte. No one she knows understands her interest in a life of the mind; and while she loves traveling between the pages of books, she aches for a wider-traveled life in the real world, too. At Pemberley, amidst the giddy happinesses and dramas of her sisters, she wishes for more. And more may be in the cards for her just now, to start the new year…

Romantic? Sweet? Rather predictable? All of these things, yes, but so enjoyable. It’s clever and funny and plays at my emotions adeptly. I think it’s really saying something to tell you that while I saw each plot move, more or less, coming, I was still on the edge of my seat, because I had such sympathy for each character. What can I say. Buying into fictional plots might be a specialty of mine.

I loved every bit of this evening. The clever references to Austen’s original (including the genius line about “a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune…”), the heartfelt acting, the sweetly familiar setting and simple, charming set. I believe Main Street Theatre qualifies as amateur theatre, but it was very professional. Mary’s piano playing was no small accomplishment in itself; no one broke or stumbled over a line for the whole thing; it was excellent all around. Overall, I think this production accomplished everything intended by the play (by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon). It made appropriate reference to the inspired original and made playful use of my emotions. It was at every turn sweet, and (the idea goes) ’tis the season for sweetness. Here’s to the latest Miss Bennet.


Rating: 7 books with blue covers.

movie: Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway (2008)

I first saw Rent when I was in high school. My dad and I traveled to New York City to investigate that city among a few others where we thought I might go to college. He got us tickets to see Rent at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway. I already knew that I loved musical theatre at that time, but this production really changed something for me. It was the first time that I cried at a stage production or at any piece of art other than a book. The subject matter felt especially meaningful and timely for me, as I had friends still discovering their sexuality and coming out to their parents. It was an event that resonated. I immediately bought the soundtrack and it still makes me cry today, twenty years later.

The friends I am visiting with now expressed an interest, and so we rented this version: a live taping of the final performance of the Broadway production, after a twelve-year run. The actors are almost entirely different (every major role was filled by a different actor in this version, from the one I saw). And I guess I had really invested in the first cast; but I have to say, this one was admirably close to the original, so even someone like me was able to be open to the new. Most cast members were very close in physical details as well as in talent; I was able to settle into this production and feel at home.

It’s still everything I remember, after all these years. Musical theatre does tend toward the theatrical (go figure) expression of emotions, but for the few moments of somewhat self-conscious hand-wringing that I might skip, there is such raw power… and the singing and dancing is amazing. I still find this play to be full of all the love, drama, angst, grief, rage, and passion I found there in the first place. It made me cry, again.

As a production, too, I think it works well – that is, both as a stage production (filmed live, with audience and applause) and as a cinecast. Unlike The Wiz and more like National Theatre Live, the camera angles varied and moved around, working for perspective and providing close-ups as appropriate. I don’t recall noticing that the cinematography in itself was extraordinary (as I often do with NT Live), but it was plenty serviceable. Since the chance to see Broadway’s version of Rent has passed, I’d strongly recommend this version.

It’s interesting to think about the extent to which an experience like this is about that original experience. I was probably 16 years old (maybe 17, but I think 16) sitting in the upper rows of the Nederlander Theatre, far from the stage. The words and lyrics and music and dramatic portrayals, the singing and dancing and kissing, took me so powerfully. I’ll never forget; I’ll also never have the same experience again, but every time I hear a song from Rent or see another production (even the 2005 movie, which I remember finding a disappointment), it refers to that original experience just enough to tap into some of those emotions. Still gets me.

In contrast, I have a friend and fellow writer who strongly dislikes Rent. He calls it a singing telegram to AIDS. Dave’s a few years younger than me, and I believe has never seen it live. I’d like to dismiss his opinion on these counts, but think I should give him a little more credit than that. Dave’s also a gay man, and some part of me feels I should defer to his opinion as being a part of a certain demographic – the play is about the AIDS crisis and has more queer characters than cis-het ones. (Another part of me knows that my own opinion & tastes remain worthwhile here.) At any rate I find it interesting, since I respect Dave’s approach to art and we often share interests and tastes. I wonder if he had gotten to see the play live at age 16 how it would have affected him… Then again, maybe the concern is that this is too serious an issue to get all song-and-dance about. That would be a position worth considering.

Local issues aside, Rent remains an important part of my personal understanding of art and value. I’m still hooked. Keep singing.


Rating: 8 samples that won’t delay, for its value in my personal mythology.

movie: Annie (1982)

annieCaught this one on television just by accident, and it served as a good reminder – that nostalgia or sentiment can count for so much, and is entirely relative and individual in its effects.

I recently reviewed Stand by Me, which I found just so-so. I watched it to better appreciate a book (review still forthcoming) about the author’s attachment to that movie, and I found that the movie did less for me, although I could imagine how it might have felt to see it for the first time at twelve, or nine, or so. Well, perhaps for me that movie is Annie. I was born in the same year that this film was, and it’s the first musical I remember seeing, and I recall its impact well. I probably sang these songs 1,000 times, and I’m pretty sure I sang one or two (“Maybe”, “Tomorrow”) in show choir, as well. I knew every line as it was spoken.

And what’s even stranger is that I’d forgotten all about it til it came on television. I often read or do other things while Husband has the television on; but this movie brought my head up, and took me back. I hadn’t thought about it in years! but every word still echoed in my head. They’d been there all along.

This isn’t a movie review at all, is it. I’m just considering what a funny thing memory is – that we can forget we have them, but still store hours of dialog and lyrics in our heads; that associations with time and place and formative events can make us love a movie regardless of its objective worth. (And what is that, in art, anyway?) Annie didn’t get great reviews (only a score of 52% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I’m not even insulted when Roger Ebert writes, “It’s like some kind of dumb toy that doesn’t do anything or go anywhere, but it is fun to watch as it spins mindlessly around and around.” (That is one of the kinder lines in his review, actually.) Because I get that it is just the nostalgia that does it for me. (Although, to answer your wondering, Mr. Ebert, kids did like this movie. At least one did.)

More objectively, I find this movie a little saccharine, a little stiff and unrealistic in its characterizations, and a little flip about the real concerns of its Depression-era setting and treatment of children, etc. These are some of the standard criticisms, and they’re not wrong. But on the other hand, it’s relentlessly uplifting – if you’re up for that sort of thing – and the songs are undeniably catchy. Carol Burnett’s Miss Hannigan is perfectly wonderful, and she’s one of the characters I remember best. Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks gives a fine performance as well. It’s a movie not without its charms, although it is essentially sentiment, spitshine and song. But it made its impression on me. I’ve loved many musicals since, but this was the first.


Rating: 8 tap dances, from a purely subjective perspective.

movie: Les Misérables (2012)

You know the title, of course. It began as a novel by Victor Hugo in 1862, with the original (French) version coming in somewhere near 2,000 pages long: fewer in English, but no, I have not read this one. (I listened to the audiobook of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Also long.) It became a sung-through Broadway musical to great success (Wikipedia says it was the second-longest-running musical in the world), and I am now reviewing the 2012 movie, which I saw at home with Husband and Pops, courtesy of our local library.

I was pretty unfamiliar with the story: I read a quick synopsis online just before viewing. It wasn’t hard to follow, though. I’ll make it extra quick for you, since there are plenty of plot summaries out there and you may already know it, anyway. In 1815 France, Jean Valjean is finally released from a 19-year forced-labor sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister, nephew and self. He is, unsurprisingly, resentful. He violates parole and disappears, reappearing to us some years later as a good man, mayor and factory owner who cares about the people he holds power over. Inspector Javert, who knew Valjean as a prisoner, continues to seek him out, hoping to hold him responsible for the crime of skipping parole. Valjean’s continued attempts to do good do him no good. He adopts the orphaned daughter of a local citizen, and goes on the run with his newly formed family. The evil innkeeper & wife who had been fostering the girl repeatedly offer comic relief from an otherwise tragic and horrifying plot. The story’s central conflict crescendos with the Paris Uprising of 1832.

This movie is packed with stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfriend (one of the ditzes from Mean Girls), Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), Helena Bonham Carter, and Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl). Samantha Barks plays a beautiful Éponine. The imagery is gorgeous; all the costuming, scenery, etc., and of course all those beautiful people. I found the story evocative. And the singing! Who knew Crowe, Jackman, Hathaway, et al had such voices on them? The music was rousing and emotive: it’s not hard to see why the Broadway show did so well.

Am I inspired to read ~1500 pages of English-translated Hugo? No, not just yet. But I will gladly see a stage production of this musical story. It was a great and involving time.


Rating: 8 loaves of bread.

Mount Baker Theatre presents Flashdance the Musical

I went with my parents to a local theatre to see this musical version of Flashdance. First I shall confess: I have never seen the movie. But now it’s on the list.

flashdanceThe musical started on Broadway, but I’m a little vague on its route to us. This local performance employed a New York-based company, but not the same folks who performed on Broadway, and the Broadway-associated website states the last show took place almost a year ago. It was impassioned and fun, but not perfect: the sound was surprisingly poor for a theatre that specializes in musical performances, tinny and muffled. The voice casting was probably imperfect as well; several actors were much better in some parts of their range than others. Overall, the sound quality was poor enough to effect our understanding of the songs & story, which is really unfortunate.

But when the singers hit their areas of confidence and belted it out, they were generally stellar. The dancing was great fun. (Pops reports that he remembers more street-style dancing from the movie, where he found more burlesque here, for what that’s worth.) It’s a cute story. Musical theatre necessarily involves some cheesiness, so the audience is required to make some allowances there, but I’m on board. And I really like the premise, that our protagonist is a welder by day and exotic dancer by night: I love the juxtaposition and the acknowledgment that shit, we’re all complicated beings. This one is based on a true story, you know.

Not perfect, but good enough for me. Movie next, please.


Rating: 7 high kicks.

NBC’s The Wiz Live! (2015)

I missed round one, but got to see NBC’s encore showing of the remake of The Wiz, a 1974 retelling in turn of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, set in an urban and African-American cultural context. It has been much talked about and enjoyed, and I’d heard a little bit about Shanice Williams, who plays Dorothy: she’s just 19 and has never been involved in anything this big before, which is its own underdog story. And who doesn’t love that story?

wiz

First, let me admit that I am unfamiliar with the 1974 show (though pretty familiar with the 1900 original), so I can make no comparisons there. I approached this as a happily enjoyable, entertaining remake on a well-loved classic, with a twist, and with a young new star. It was all of those things. There were some changes made for the stage – like, Toto is only present in the opening and closing scenes, in Kansas, and doesn’t make it to Oz. I guess it was too hard to get a dog’s cooperation for the whole. The journey from the house-dropping scene in Munchkinland to the Emerald City was much compressed, and I was sorry about that. The magical slippers are returned to silver, which is how L. Frank Baum wrote them, rather than Hollywood’s red. There was a new mini-storyline, wherein Dorothy is actually from Omaha, only recently living with Aunt Em after her parents’ deaths. Thus, in her searching for home she has to parse which of these places really is home, which I thought was a nice addition for depth, and which I identified with personally, too. The original story is very much about a concept of home, but even more complexly so in this rendition. I approve. Oh, and of course: the Wiz is a woman this time around! “His” false public character is still male, but the ballooned-in accident from Omaha is female. I found this a welcome twist.

Overall it was far from a flawed performance, though. There were some rough spots: imperfect synchronization of effects, the Wiz tripping on “his” robe. Though star-studded, the acting was a little uneven. I thought the Tin Man (Ne-Yo) was genius; the Lion (David Allen Grier) was a little underplayed, a little blank. The Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley) actually became a little unlikeable to me, as a character, for the first time ever. Queen Latifah as the Wiz was a great casting idea, but fell a little short: it felt like the songs she had to sing were a little below her usual register, and she didn’t get to belt out like we know she can do so well. Once she stepped out of her Wiz costume, though, and became the woman behind the mask, she hit just the right notes – in portraying her character, that is. I did appreciate Stephanie Mills as Aunt Em – and also appreciated the nod to her role as the original Dorothy in 1974. Shanice Williams herself is beyond complaint, though. I found her engaging and heartfelt, fully committed to song, dance and acting.

As a filmed stage production, I found The Wiz thoroughly disappointing, but that’s because National Theatre Live has got me so spoiled. The work NT Live does is unparalleled excellence: I actually remember myself as being at those shows, rather than in a movie theatre. The camera angle changes: it shows the whole stage (including the front edge, so we can see it’s a stage), different parts in medium-close-up, and close-up angles on individual characters. We see all the set changes (no commercials), so we get the feeling for a real, live stage show. The Wiz clearly took a very different approach. We saw no stage settings (commercial breaks!), and the angle never cut so widely as to give a feeling for the stage itself. For that matter, NT Live shows shots of the audience before and after the show and during intermission, so that I feel like I’m with that crowd in London (or wherever). It remains unclear to me whether there was an audience present for The Wiz. And if not, what a shame for the players. Filming of a stage show is clearly not NBC’s strong suit here.

Uneven performances (but some of them were stellar!), some very fine singing and a classically loveable story make for a pleasing experience, if you didn’t expect too much coming in.


Rating: 7 winged warriors.
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