The Wrecking Ball Business: "Hamilton", Pulitzers, and Low-Hanging Fruit

Alright, housekeeping stuff out of the way first. I'm Rob. I write plays. You're on my website. This is a blog, and I'm don't want to say anything more than that.  I'll tell you now that I've written blogs in the past and I've set schedules for myself that I could never keep not for lack of trying but for lack of discipline. I don't want to make a promise I'm frankly not confident I can keep. Especially not on the Internet, this place holds grudges and never forgets. So I'm Rob, and I write plays, and I have a blog that I will write in from time to time, and that's the end of that.

 Chubby li'l me with Furio Fucking Giunta

Chubby li'l me with Furio Fucking Giunta

Even though I'm definitely a novice at journaling - and an unmotivated novice at that - I do know that when a story or an idea falls in your lap you better get both hands on it quickly. What I'm trying to say is that I'm starting this thing off with some low-hanging fruit, that low-hanging fruit being Hamilton winning the Pulitzer. Low-hanging fruit: the same nutritional value as high-hanging fruit.

 This will never not be Alexander Hamilton to me. From HBO's  John Adams.  Click for source.

This will never not be Alexander Hamilton to me. From HBO's John Adams. Click for source.

Hamilton represents everything I love and everything I hate in theatre. It is undeniably impressive. I might even go so far as to say it's undeniably good. I'm not sure because I haven't seen it. Like most people, I probably will never see it. I can't afford most Broadway tickets on my salary and the line goes around the block past Times Square and all the way to next Fall.

It's in that dichotomy that I find everything good and everything bad about live performance art. On the one hand, how amazing is it that this piece of live theatre has captivated the entire country? When is the last time that something like that happened? Let's play a game: find a stranger on the street and ask them who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2015, and then ask them if they have heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda, then come back here and tell me you didn't just get a blank stare followed by a big smile. I think that's fantastic. That gives me hope that the theatre will be dying for just a little longer. That gives me hope that a new audience of theatre-goers is being created.

Unfortunately, there is a very good chance that new audience won't be able to actually do the business of audience-ing, at least not for a leviathan like Hamilton. Broadway prices are a barrier that most people cannot cross. The fact of the matter is that most of the population will never be able to afford a ticket to Hamilton, and that to me is disgusting. A ticket to a performance should never be more than $50 in my opinion. Granted, my day job is as a fundraiser in the non-profit sector. Low-hanging fruit.

Of course, Hamilton is not alone in selling tickets at 500 a pop, but it doesn't change the fact that so many people - myself included - will not be able to ever experience Hamilton the way it was meant to be experienced. People who have seen the show call it a life-changing experience. Michelle Obama called it her favorite piece of art - of art. I've read so many think-pieces calling Hamilton the most revolutionary piece of theatre ever conceived, and I just don't understand how that can be possible just from listening to the soundtrack.

Ultimately, I can't shake the feeling or the hunch or the whatever you want to call it that Hamilton isn't an amazing piece of theatre but instead is a really great concept album. After all, Miranda himself said he originally conceived this project as a hip hop record. It's not the show that's crossing boundaries and bringing people together, it's this great album with some pretty fantastic lyrics and a clever conceit. This doesn't change the fact that in a way Hamilton terrifies me, because here we have this amazing opportunity to change how we make theatre - mainly Broadway, but certainly theatre in major markets - more accessible to everyday folks who want to see plays, but we're squandering it. This must be the most culturally relevant theatre piece in decades, and most of the show's fans won't get to experience it in it's full form.

You can make the argument that Hamilton's producers are doing the best they can by way of putting tickets aside for lotteries and donating tickets to school children. The fact remains that winning those lotteries is becoming more and more of an improbability as more and more people are shut-out from reserving tickets the old fashioned way. And as for donating tickets, yes that will widen the audience, but ultimately it's putting a ladder over a barrier and highly regulating who gets to climb that ladder. Meanwhile the general public is getting the wrecking ball ready to go because the barrier of price should never keep somebody out of a theatre. There is a very simple solution to this problem, but an even bigger problem is that ultimately the producers of Hamilton are very good at their job. They just don't happen to be in the wrecking ball business.

 The non-profit theatre industry, seen here in it's natural form.

The non-profit theatre industry, seen here in it's natural form.

That's the good thing about festivals and non-profit and community theatres; they're in the wrecking ball business. Unfortunately, it would be a lot easier if they were just a wrecking ball; they are businesses themselves and have problems ranging from development to a lack of interest. Hamilton could and might have the lack of interest issue covered, but speaking as a development professional raising money is soul crushing and, especially for small orgs without Magwitches to help them out, often more trouble than it's worth.

My career is only possible when non-profits like FringeNYC take risks on my work. Fortunately for all of us, there is nothing on paper or on stage about Hamilton that screams risk-aversion. Yes, Hamilton started out at a non-profit, but no one was under any obligation to bring the thing to Broadway, the barrier to end all barriers. Nevertheless, a couple of ballsy people earned their descriptor and gave Hamilton a home on the Great White Way. In fact, a lot of shows on Broadway may seem like crazy investments at first. Three Alison Bechdels singing songs surrounded by dead people in a funeral home? Liberian children being repeatedly raped? Hasa Diga Fucking Eebowai? I guess the real question is whether or not the cost of risk is really $500 per seat. If you ask Michelle Obama - or anyone who has seen Hamilton and not just listened to the soundtrack - they'll probably say yes. In the meantime, we'll always have the wrecking balls.