Cramming for LA's 'Hamilton,' Shakespeare's problematic "Me" plays

Michael-Luwoye-&-Isaiah-Johnson---HAMILTON-National-Tour-(c)-Joan-Marcus.jpgMichael Luwoye and Isaiah Johnson in the national tour of "Hamilton." Photos from Hamilton by Joan Marcus.

In the fall of 1931, the grand opening of "Alexander Hamilton" was in Los Angeles.

The debut of the Warner Bros. biopic about 2017's-most-fashionable Founding Father was the initial attraction at the brand-new Warner Western palace, now known as the Wiltern -- at, yes, the corner of Wilshire and Western. Back then, the Wiltern had 2,344 fixed seats (now it has flexible configurations). A title card in a newsreel about the star-studded opening night claimed that "the most tremendous crowd that ever attended a theatre opening any where [sic] in the world was present."

Next month, "Hamilton," the acclaimed stage musical about the same Founding Father, will open its first Los Angeles engagement. Lin-Manuel Miranda's creation will be performed eight times a week from August 11 through December 30, at the 2,703-seat Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. It's likely that more Angelenos will see "Hamilton" this year than any other theatrical production.

I haven't seen the 1931 movie or Mary Hamlin's 1917 play on which it was based, nor have I yet seen the contemporary "Hamilton." But I've listened to "Hamilton" online, and I've watched excerpts from the filmed "Alexander Hamilton" on YouTube.

What a difference 86 years can make.

George Arliss, the English actor who played Hamilton in the movie, was 63 in 1931, even though Hamilton was in his 30s during most of the events the film chronicles. If you're wondering why so few of the actors on stage in "Hamilton" are white, when their historical characters were white, consider that the stage actors are at least more age-appropriate than was Arliss.

Solea-Pfeiffer,-Emmy-Raver-Lampman-&-Amber-Iman---HAMILTON-National-Tour-(c)-Joan-Marcus.jpgOf course neither of these productions aimed for a photorealistic or an entirely accurate representation of the historical characters and events. The larger goal of the "Hamilton" casting policy is to make the political events in the late 1700s matter to the diverse young people of today's America. The larger goal of the movie's casting of Arliss was probably to take advantage of his celebrity. Two years earlier, he had won the best-actor Academy Award for playing another historical political character, Benjamin Disraeli.

Before I see most musicals for the first time, I try to avoid reading the script or listening to the songs. I like to be surprised by the drama and the music as they unfold in the moment, in their original context. Normally it's only after I see a show that I want to have the script and/or a recording handy, so I can fact-check what happened, as I consider my own recollections of what I just saw.

Earlier this year, however, I decided to violate my usual policy for "Hamilton."

The show is already swimming in the cultural mainstream. Hordes of people who have not seen "Hamilton" have already listened to its score. The cast album rose to third place on the Billboard 200 list and first place on the Billboard rap chart. "The Hamilton Mixtape," a compilation of covers of "Hamilton" songs (and songs inspired by the show) debuted in first place on the Billboard 200. Even more important, anyone can listen to the "Hamilton" cast album free of charge on the Genius website -- and read the spelled-out lyrics and notes on each song.

The sounds of "Hamilton" have created a modern version of a pre-rock phenomenon, when songs from hit musicals often appeared on the pop charts and radio playlists, becoming easily accessible to millions of people who hadn't yet seen the actual shows.

Meanwhile, "Spamilton," a parody revue from "Forbidden Broadway" creator Gerard Alessandrini, is running about a block away from the Broadway production of "Hamilton." And Center Theatre Group will open an LA version of "Spamilton" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City next November, while "Hamilton" is still playing in Hollywood.

Going into the show, I didn't want to be less acquainted with "Hamilton" than so many other people who also haven't seen it. And so earlier this year I embarked on a pre-"Hamilton" syllabus.

First, I read the Ron Chernow biography "Alexander Hamilton," which inspired Miranda to write the musical. Yes, it's long, but it's completely engrossing for anyone who has the time and inclination. If you can't afford to buy the book, the Los Angeles Public Library and other local libraries offer many copies, in hardbound and electronic formats, although you might have to wait in an electronic line for a copy to become available, especially as "Hamilton" draws closer to LA.

After finishing the book, I listened to the cast album on Genius, reading many of its notes as well as the lyrics. This might well be the most valuable pre-"Hamilton" step anyone can take.

"Hamilton" has a lot of words, often rapped very quickly. According to Leah Libresco on the FiveThirtyEight website, the recorded "Hamilton" word count reaches 20,520 - 144 words per minute over the 2 hours, 23 minutes of its cast-album running time. Libresco compared that to seven other cast albums of musicals that might be seen as similar in one aspect or another, and "Hamilton" easily outscored all of them in words per minute.

One song in "Hamilton," "Guns and Ships," has one verse in which 19 words are uttered in three seconds, which tops anything in the famously tongue-twisting "Getting Married Today" from Stephen Sondheim's "Company" -- although Libresco noted that the Sondheim song requires the singer to keep up a rapid-fire pace longer than does "Guns and Ships."

If you need yet another reason to read the lyrics in advance, consider this - because of the extreme popularity of "Hamilton," some of the initial lyrics of certain songs might be drowned out by unfortunate whoops or even applause from avid fans at the "Hamilton" performance you attend. Of course I can't swear that this will happen, but I wouldn't be surprised. If it happens, it would be smart to have an idea of what was drowned out, based on your previous research.

If you don't have time for either Chernow's book or even the Genius website, you could do worse than to turn to Wikipedia. The articles on Alexander Hamilton and "Hamilton" in Wikipedia don't have any of those unsettling warning flags at the top that offer editorial criticisms of what you're about to read. The article on the show offers a useful summary of the historical inaccuracies in the musical, for those of us who want to know that sort of thing.

Still concerned about spoilers? Well, if the only thing you remember about Hamilton from your history classes is how he died, then you already know how the play ends, more or less. If you don't know even that much, so be it. I'm not telling.

"Hamilton," of course, is hardly the only old story that has been infused with a contemporary perspective in recent years. Last Sunday, I saw an "Oklahoma!." produced by 3-D Theatricals, that acknowledges the presence of Native Americans and black settlers in Oklahoma in 1907, when the story takes place. Three Indians (by the way, they're played by actors who offer no clue in their program bios as to whether they're Native Americans) open this version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic with a brief nocturnal scene — but with no dialogue — before the "Beautiful Mornin'" begins. These characters remain as members of the chorus during the rest of the show. Several African-Americans are also among the Sooners, most notably Rufus Bonds Jr. as Jud Fry, the show's lonely villain.

Still, race remains largely an unspoken topic. The goal of the African-American casting of Jud was to make Jud more sympathetic, according to a program note. Yet I've seen other halfway-sympathetic Juds -- and the casting here could also be interpreted as re-inforcing a negative stereotype of a black man who covets a white woman. Whether we're supposed to think that any of these revisions represent what Oklahoma was actually like in 1907 remains somewhat unclear (would no one have mentioned race in 1907?), in contrast to the purely imaginative leap in 'Hamilton" of casting white roles with actors of color.

Still, it's good to see director T.J. Dawson wrestling with these concerns. The production looks and sounds great at 3-D's new second home at Cerritos Center, with especially fresh choreography by Leslie Stevens and strong performances of all the prominent roles.

Shakespeare's thorny 'Me' plays

Measure-for-Measure---2---Mike-Ditz-Photography.jpgEvan Lewis Smith and Kalean Ung star in "Measure for Measure." Photo: Mike Ditz.

LA's two major alfresco theaters have opened their summer seasons with problematic plays by Shakespeare, "Measure for Measure" and "The Merchant of Venice." Not only do these scripts appear side by side on alphabetical lists of the Bard's plays, but they also share momentous concerns - the qualities of justice and mercy.

Of the two, the later "Measure for Measure" is the better, somewhat more cohesive play. Although it has a few loose ends, it lacks the uncertainty provoked by "Merchant" over whether the play is exposing anti-Semitism, embodying it - or both. This concern is somewhat similar to the question hanging over the casting of Jud Fry in 3-D's "Oklahoma!" (see above).

Independent Shakespeare Company's "Measure for Measure," which is offered free of any admission fee at its venue in Griffith Park's Old Zoo area (through July 23), is deftly directed by Melissa Chalsma. As Isabella, Kalean Ung credibly transforms from a tentative novitiate into an impassioned advocate. David Melville's Duke provides a few non-verbal suggestions of the surprising question that he will pop near the end of the play, and his snazzy jacket at the beginning and end suggest that he enjoys his game of subterfuge almost in the manner of a game-show host. The comedy is funnier than usual, thanks to some anachronistic references, expert clowning and bright, imaginative costumes.

Despite the best efforts of Alan Blumenfeld in the problematic role of Shylock in "Merchant" at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, plus a couple of extra-textual touches that attempt to depict Shylock's sense of pain at the hands of his fellow Venetians and his daughter, the play retains an discomfiting awkwardness. It seems simultaneously dated (exhibit A -- Shylock's chosen method of revenge) and unfinished (the way in which Portia ignores her own fine speech about "mercy", the blithe and heedless trivialities of the final act). It's an artifact from history, not a transcendent glimpse into our humanity.

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