Sunday, August 20, 2017

Stuffing a Play Down Your Boot

As a writer how can I possibly condone the theft of intellectual property? Facilitated or not by the digital age, taking advantage of piracy is scarcely different than walking into a store a ripping an item off the shelf. There is no question bootlegging is wrong. It is not the same as stealing, it is stealing.

Hamilton was a Broadway smash success of unprecedented levels
The Playbill for Hamilton, perhaps
the greatest play to come out
in decades
Here is the point in this blog post where I make a stunning, reckless admission: I recently enjoyed a bootleg (gasp!).

A Criminal Justifies His Crime

Today, I will attempt something I've not yet undertaken in my blog: review a play. That’s right. This post is a review/criticism of the venerable, multiple-Tony-award-winning, Pulitzer-Prize-for-Drama-snatching, once-in-a-generation mega hit Hamilton.

Obtaining tickets to Hamilton is nearly impossible. Its intense popularity combined with its single-venue production effectively restricts attendees to the wealthy and/or fortunate few.

In another lifetime (when I was 11 years old) I was lucky enough to attend a Broadway production. It was an unparalleled experience which I still recall in vivid detail: the glistening lights, the ambiance of classic grandeur, the jaw-plummeting production value. In more recent years I've been forced to settle on less prestigious venues to satiate my drama fix. That is not to belittle such places, because all of them (from Denver's Buell Theater to anonymous, barely-lit backroad stages) carried their own charm. But no matter how enjoyable these performances are they will always remain a distant second to that greatest of all stages. However, living in Seward, Alaska leaves me about as far from those bright lights as humanly possible. Even with Hamilton now on national tour (and soon to open in London's famous West End), tickets can range from painfully expensive (like $300) to outright insanity (like $1000 or more). in other words, the likelihood of me seeing Hamilton on stage any time in the near future is roughly equivalent to me striking all five numbers and the Powerball in this week's lottery (I didn't even buy tickets).

I suppose I could wait until the hype enveloping Hamilton is tamped down by time, which might take years or even decades. Or maybe just be patient until they get around to making the movie that is rumored to being in production. When I really want something, however, patience is a virtue in desperately short supply for me. So after two years of trying to temper my excitement, I decided to pursue another option: scour the shady corners of the internet in search of a bootleg.

It just so happens, I found one.

Before you spit vileness at me which I probably deserve, allow me a chance to defend myself. First of all, the download was free, so I did not monetarily support the syndication of this illegal taping. Secondly, if I ever get the chance to watch the play or buy the movie, I intend to seize it just the same as if I’d never seen it at all. Also, this grainy, occasionally shaky, video is with the original cast in its pre-Broadway stage. The show's mastermind, Lin-Manuel Miranda, portrays Alexander Hamilton as he originally intended. Since Miranda has moved on and is no longer an actor in the production, I will never have the chance to witness this special moment in theater history. For me, this alone justifies my sin.

So I’ll be my own hater for a moment and spare you the breath. I’m abhorrent. A criminal. I have no excuse. I'm nasty. A thief. Etc. Etc. Etc.

There. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s discuss the play.

Opening Words

Does Hamilton live up to the hype? Is it everything people made it out to be? Did it deserve 11 Tony Awards? The Pulitzer Prize for Drama?

In short, absolutely.

To say Hamilton is "good" is like calling the Sistine Chapel "pretty". True? Well, yes. But a gross understatement. Hamilton is at once brilliant, educational, original, funny, tragic, unique, and entertaining. Music and storytelling are my own outlets for artistic expression, and the way Miranda blends the two is truly a work of genius. Although I'm not typically a fan of hip hop, the nature of the musical score transcends the boundaries of genre. Even someone like me who is more versed in rock/folk can appreciate the depth of the musical mastery.


How can the story of a colonial-era founding father be told through a musical genre not invented until 200 years after his death? In Hamilton, hip hop works to take the mood of the era and translate it into the modern vernacular. In short, the narrative becomes "truer than true." Much like how opera exaggerates emotion to render the moods of its characters more comprehensible, this move to modernize Alexander Hamilton's story with hip hop exaggerates the nuances of his life and makes it possible for today's theatergoer to experience the empathy that makes Hamilton special.

A perfect example of the play's cultural translation is the debate between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in Act II. In a sense, the word-swapping colonialists, who were intensely focused on forming their argument with perfect meter and rhyme, were engaged in the 18th century version of a rap battle. The "Cabinet Debate" scene, therefore, transcribes the historical events into 21st century reality. Not only is the scene highly entertaining, but it represents the character and nature of the time in culturally relevant verisimilitude.


Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Secretary of Treasury's
By modulating the race of the founding fathers, Hamilton once again translates the mood of the time into a contemporary setting. Miranda makes a bold comparison from the plight of the revolution-era colonialists to that of the modern immigrant/minority. The British in the play, including and especially King George III, are portrayed by white actors singing outdated classic-style showtunes. The Americans, however, are always portrayed by racial minorities engaged in much more lyrically complex hip hop.

In the real world of the American Revolution, the British were locked in a traditionalist quagmire, much to their downfall. A perfect illustration was their mode of warfare: wearing bright red coats and marching out into open exposure while hammering on drums for all to hear. Enemies must have known they were coming for miles. While the British viewed such tactics as honorable and civilized, modern military strategists easily recognize their folly. The American revolutionaries, on the other hand, were British emigrants and cultural outcasts. Their war tactics were far more innovative and progressive. The colonialists understood how the world had moved on. Pioneering guerrilla warfare, the revolutionaries were able to defeat the much larger and better-equipped British army by subverting the foolhardy strategy of field warfare. The disparity, between the traditionalist Brits and progressive Americans, is perfectly translated via the race and musical styles depicted in the play.


The story of Alexander Hamilton needs little embellishment. Here was a bastard, orphan, son of a whore (to steal the first line from the play's first song) who goes on to become an American hero, founding father and the country's first Secretary of Treasury. He married into one of the wealthiest families in the burgeoning nation, became George Washington's righthand man, and implemented politics that fundamentally changed the trajectory of our country, the ramifications of which still resonate today. The tragic and dramatic conclusion of his life, in a duel with his once-friend Aaron Burr, seems almost too perfectly suited for drama.

The musical Hamilton fully exploits this incredible narrative, telling the story in an educated, brilliant, and modernly accessible manner. Prior to Hamilton, the ten-dollar founding father without a father, Alexander Hamilton, had slipped into historical obscurity. Thanks to the work of Miranda and others who created this instant-classic, he is likely to be remembered for the ages.


So yes, blame me for being a pirate, but understand how desperately I wanted to see this show. The nature of Broadway limits the demographic that experiences these moments of artistic innovation, and this play needs to be seen by all, now more than ever. Though I understand Miranda was deeply irked by bootlegging of his work, and rightfully so since he donated six years of his life to its creation, part of me wants to believe he would emphasize with my frustration and recognize the necessity to disseminate this incredible work to everyone. And when the play is finally accessible for people like me, whether via a movie or some other avenue, I will gladly support it every way I can and I encourage you to do so as well.

In closing, there is no doubt that even among my favorite musicals (Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, et al) Hamilton stands alone in complexity, intrigue and originality. It is truly spectacular.

For those of you unwilling to procure an illegal bootleg of the full Hamilton show, enjoy this legal clip from the play, a live performance of one song during the 70th annual Tony Awards:


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All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions 

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