Hamilton (2020) Tag

Can Live Theater Thrive Online?

Inside "Forbidden Broadway"

In Part One, I talked to Tony-winning writer/director Gerard Alessandrini about the genesis of Spamilton, his highly acclaimed spoof of the megahit musical Hamilton. Here we discuss the challenges of getting his show in front of the massive audience that was introduced to Hamilton when it appeared on Disney+, the prospects for touring the latest edition of his legendary revue Forbidden Broadway, and the impact the pandemic is having on the theater world in general.

—Michael Gaughn

It seems like a missed opportunity that you can’t have Spamilton on tour now that everyone’s seen Hamilton.

We’re a little disappointed that theater isn’t happening around the country, because we did have a tour of Spamilton out that was going to many of the cities where Hamilton had already played. Now that Hamilton has been on Disney+, I’m sure we 

would have been getting a lot of bookings and having a lot of fun touring.

 

One thing that bodes well is that Hamilton will probably remain in cycle on Disney+ or elsewhere, so there will still be interest in the show when you do get a tour out.

I absolutely think that’s true. It’ll still be there and everybody will know it from the point of view of the original cast, which is how I wrote Spamilton. So, yes, hopefully down the line, it’ll really make Spamilton more accessible and topical.

 

There is an interesting dynamic now in that Hamilton will still be prohibitively expensive to see when it gets to go back on tour—balcony seats were selling for more than $700 for the Atlanta dates—but you now have a mass audience that’s been exposed to the show through Disney+ that would probably be eager to see Spamilton live—partly because your ticket prices aren’t stratospheric.

That’s exactly right. But, of course, Hamilton is on hiatus, too—there’s no Hamilton in New York; there’s no Hamilton on tour. I’m sure they must be frustrated also.

 

Which of the other recent Broadway shows would lend themselves well to a broader audience via video?

The only show that followed Hamilton that sort of had a freshness and depth to it was Dear Evan Hansen. But I don’t know if they’ve done a video of that. The Hamilton video was done well because they had the money and the opportunity. The show was already a huge, huge hit. But 

most shows don’t have the budget to do a high-quality video production. Rather than record a performance, most producers were probably thinking in the old tradition of “Oh, this will be made into a movie.”

 

But a few other shows besides Hamilton have done high-end videos that are enjoying broadcast. One I saw was SpongeBob: The Musical on Nickelodeon—don’t laugh—and they did an excellent video of it. It was very fun.

You also had a cast for Forbidden Broadway all ready to go out on tour when this hit, right? So, now you’ve got two shows that are sort of sitting in limbo.

We had three or four individual productions of Forbidden Broadway planned for the summer. I know we had one in San Diego, and the San Francisco Gay Men’s

Can Theater Thrive Online?

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical

Chorus was going to do a special and hysterical version.

 

There’s a wonderful regional theater down the street from where I live in Connecticut that’s been celebrated for decades—The Ivoryton Playhouse. We were all ready to do Forbidden Broadway Comes to Ivoryton. I was directing it and writing special material for The Playhouse. We got right up to dress rehearsal. Then we had to stop. All those productions got either postponed or are indefinitely up in the air. So, we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen.

 

What’s your guess about how this is going to play out for those productions?

I think it’s going to be a long time. They’re going to have to have a vaccine before people go back in the theater. Even if the government lets us open these theaters, who wants to risk their lives to see any kind of musical comedy or even a good play? I think theater has been sort of damaged and may have to reinvent itself from the ground up.

 

But I do want to make a guess that the smaller, Off-Broadway theaters and smaller shows like Spamilton and Forbidden Broadway will come back first, because to make a big show work financially, you have to pack a 2,000-seat theater, whereas with Off-Broadway, believe me, we can run with a small audience and make it work. We can even take away seats and make

room.

 

I think the tourism of theater is pretty much going to be on hold for a long time in New York, but New Yorkers are actually going to want to go see something. Ergo, Off-Broadway may have a resurgence.

 

And it’s a lot easier to shoot a smaller show for streaming than a big Broadway show.

We do have some good video of Forbidden Broadway and Spamilton. In the old-school tradition, we also have terrific cast albums that are very professionally done. Cast albums are still viable entertainment.

 

If there’s one good thing for me about Broadway ending or freezing it’s that now neither Spamilton or Forbidden 

Can Theater Thrive Online?

Broadway: The Next Generation are dating in any way. They’re still right up to date.

 

One of the problems with New York theater being closed through at least early next year is that the talent is dispersing out of economic need. It’s too expensive to stay hunkered down in Manhattan. Actors traditionally make money as waiters but the restaurants only have limited service.

Right. Restaurants are attached to theatergoing in New York. And you’ve got to remember that an actor’s range of talent is time-dependent. In other words, you want to see young, beautiful people in a show—and in the movies as well. A lot of talented younger actors are missing their window of opportunity.

 

For example, they were planning to do that big revival of The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. But now the stars might be too old for the parts by the time they get around to doing the show. The same is true in sports. Even with the most talented player, that physical prowess and ability to do those wonderful things only lasts a few years where they’re at top peak. By the time they’re in their thirties, they’re too old.

 

There might be a similar problem with hanging onto movies to release them in theaters instead of taking them straight to streaming. Given how quickly everything is changing in society, they could feel out of date by the time they’re released.

How true! I saw a questionable post online that said even Hamilton is out of date because it’s from a different, pre-coronavirus era. I don’t know if that is exactly true but all this has sort of put the kibosh on me as a writer because I write topical humor. So, how do I know something’s going to be funny in six months? I don’t. So, there’s no sense guessing. In the meantime, I’ll stay home and enjoy watching Hamilton and Disney+, and TCM On Demand.

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

How “Hamilton” Became “Spamilton”

the original cast of Spamilton (l to r):
Nicholas Alexander Rodriguez, Nora Schell, Chris Anthony Giles, Juwan Crawley, Dan Rosales

Nothing is sacred for Gerard Alessandrini. The various editions of his Forbidden Broadway have been skewering New York theater’s best and brightest for more than 30 years. So of course Hamilton—the most successful Broadway show by far in decades—was way too big a target for him to pass up. But rather than take a single jab at it as a number within Forbidden Broadway, Gerard decided to turn his affectionate but incisive lampoon into an entire show. And thus Spamilton was born.

 

The full-length Hamilton parody was not only a success in New York but spawned both national and international productions. In Part 1 of this interview, I talk to Gerard about Spamilton’s genesis and reception. In Part 2, we’ll discuss the challenges the pandemic poses for getting his acclaimed show in front of the vast new audience created by Hamilton’s airing on Disney+ and about how theater in general is faring in a locked-down world.

—Michael Gaughn

As a parodist, what was your initial reaction to Hamilton?
Hamilton was the biggest new hit show to arrive in New York since I’ve been here, so I thought, “Well, I have to spoof this.” I quickly jumped into learning the show and learning more about Lin-Manuel, who was just an acquaintance at that time.

 

Not really knowing him very well, I thought, “I’ll make this a complete fantasy of what might have been going through his mind at the time he wrote Hamilton.” It was a silly but effective idea. I then mixed in my ideas regarding the show’s effect on Broadway. One of the main thrusts of Spamilton is showing you how Hamilton changed Broadway forever. What would new 

musicals be like? What about all the older divas like Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters and Liza Minnelli? Would they be able to work after Hamilton?

 

Now that they’ve shown the video of Hamilton on Disney+, people know what it was like to see the show with Lin-Manuel and the original cast—which, of course, is what Spamilton is spoofing. So it makes Spamilton more relevant or topical, and it remains topical even though things have changed on Broadway in the performance or monetary sense.

 

Is this the first time you’ve parodied a complete show?
The closest thing I ever did by way of spoofing a whole show was Les Misérables. When it opened in 1987, I immediately included it in Forbidden Broadwaybecause what better thing to spoof than a serious musical about one of the French Revolutions.

 

So, from 1988 to 2015, I kept adding different spoofs of Les Mis. Christine Pedi—a dear friend who was in Forbidden Broadway and has a radio show about Broadway on Sirius/XM—kept saying, “Oh, you have so many Les Misérables parody numbers, you should put all of them together in one evening.” It’s true, and that may happen yet.

 

Other full-length parodies I mounted were a show I created with Robert Hetzel called Madame X—The Musical, which was performed at NYMFThe New York Musical Festival. It was a very clever spoof on the genre of “women’s pictures.”

In 2010, we presented The Singing Nutcracker with a book by Emmy-winner Peter Brash. Since then, I did a parody of La La Land, which I think has a lot of potential as a spoof of movie musicals through the decades.

 

When Spamilton opened, did people get what you were doing out of the gate or did it have to develop an audience? And did the show appeal to more of a Hamilton audience or more of a Forbidden Broadway audience?

Well, I must say, our timing was perfect. I said, “Let’s do this in July 2016, after the Tonys are over and Hamilton has won all the awards.” It was also the second anniversary of the show premiering downtown, so I thought that gave them plenty of time to celebrate the great thing they’d done. So, by July, it was time to make Hamilton and Lin-Manuel a comedic target. It seemed the All-American thing to do. So, voila! Spamilton: An American Parody.

 

We first presented it in a cabaret, which was small and informal. We didn’t even take out an ad, but as soon as we just put a poster in the window of the Triad Theater, we completely sold out. The audience was full of Hamilton lovers—and, believe me, they clearly knew what we were doing. Everybody already loved all the songs, because the Hamilton cast album was out. So, it was a bullseye, based on timing and place.

 

By the end of 2016, we moved to the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater on West 47th Street—a block away from the real HamiltonIn total, we ran for over a year and a halfan amazing run for a parody show. Our producers included John Freedson, the producer of Forbidden Broadway for the past 30 years, and David Zippell, the great Broadway and film lyricist. They also mounted a production in Chicago.

 

After that, we had a wonderful and lauded production in LA at the Center Theatre Group in Culver City. Next came a spectacular production in London at The Menier Chocolate Factory. David Baboni and The Chocolate Factory had mounted three very successful productions of Forbidden Broadway before. So doing Spamilton went very smoothly and was delightful fun.

 

Then, we came back and launched a national tour, hitting the cities where Hamilton had already played. Of course, Hugh Fordin of DRG Records also recorded an excellent cast album, which is still very popular.

 

I would say more people who love Hamilton are interested in Spamilton than Forbidden Broadway fans. It’s Hamilton lovers who are coming to hear the songs they love turned inside out.

How "Hamilton" Became "Spamilton"

What was Lin-Manuel’s reaction?

He’d come to Forbidden Broadway to see In the Heights spoofed twice, and that was very flattering. He’s a good sport and he’s got a great sense of humor.

 

I think he had been a fan of Forbidden Broadway since he was young. He told me once that, in 1996, he got up very early in the morning to run down to

Sam Goody’s, the record store, to buy the first release of the Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back cast album. He was excited because it contained an extended spoof of Rent, which he loved.

 

So, when we were doing Spamilton, I emailed him and said, “Come see it.” And he came with Tommy Kail and Alex Lacamoire, his superb director and fabulous musical director. It was such a thrilling evening. People knew who they were, so the audience was psyched. And the cast knew they were there because the Triad is only 30 feet deep, so you can see

everybody in the audience.

 

That’s got to be intimidating.

It was a little intimidating for some of the younger cast members, but everybody delivered an excellent performance. You could just see Lin-Manuel laughing hysterically. After the show, he was very attentive to the cast and me. He said, “How did you know all that stuff about me? Now I have to go to therapy after seeing what you put on the stage. ” And I said, “Well, I didn’t know anything, really. I looked everything up on line and made up the rest!”

How "Hamilton" Became "Spamilton"

Gerard and Lin-Manuel

He was just a doll. They stayed and talked with us for maybe over an hour. The cast—they are very young, talented people—they were just so thrilled to meet him. He was very generous to them. He said, “Have you seen Hamilton?” Of course, none of those kids could afford to see Hamilton. So, he arranged for everyone to see it, including me and my partner Glenn.

 

And Glenn—who was playing King George in Spamilton and was the stage manager—went down to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to pick up the tickets for everybody. When he came back with them, I joked, “That’s $10,000 worth of tickets. Let’s sell them and run away forever to Rio.” Of course, the truth is we would rather stay in New York and see Hamilton!

Lin-Manuel saw Spamilton again a few months later with his wife and in-laws. When he first came to see it in July of 2016, everybody certainly knew who he was, but when he came back the second time, he had just been the host on Saturday Night Live the night before, right? And it was like the Beatles were coming to see the show. There was a huge crowd outside the theater just because Lin-Manuel had walked in.

 

After the show, he was again being nice to the cast, but people were coming up from the street and crowding onto the stage and bothering poor Lin-Manuel and his wife. People who hadn’t even seen the show were asking for his autograph and things like that. He had become a superstar in just six months.

 

I sent him the cast album when we recorded it, and he let us put his quote, “I laughed my brains out,” on the front cover. In order to tour the show, we had to get permission from him and his producers because a good three-quarters of the show is real music from Hamilton. We do have some restrictions. We have to do Spamilton in small theaters—we can’t park it in a huge theater. But we’re happy to do that because it’s the kind of show where you should have a drink in your hand.

 

It feels like a much bigger show than it is. The choreography seems to have a lot to do with that.

I’ve worked with Gerry McIntyre before on Forbidden Broadways and Forbidden Hollywoods as a performer, but he’s also a great choreographer. He’s like top, top notch. He should be choreographing Broadway shows, and maybe he will when theater returns. He did a fantastic job with Spamilton, because he knows all the great Broadway choreographic styles through the decades. Add to that his great sense of humor and unabashed showmanship. Having done Forbidden Broadway and Forbidden Hollywood, he knew it had to be funny as well as really sharp.

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Hamilton

Hamilton

I honestly can’t tell you how watching Hamilton from the comforts of my media room compares to seeing it live. I’d never seen the show before this weekend. On those rare occasions when the touring company made it within driving distance, my wife and I agreed we couldn’t afford to pay upwards of two grand for an evening’s entertainment.

 

We have, however, enjoyed quite a few streaming plays since the lockdown began earlier this year—most notably, the National Theatre at Home’s presentation of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, as well as 

the live arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar starring Tim Minchin. And I can tell you without hesitation that Hamilton is nothing like those productions.

 

During the first few minutes of the Disney+ stream, your brain can’t help but wonder: Am I watching theater or am I watching cinema? The answer is yes and no. It’s both. It’s neither. It’s like experiencing a play from the viewpoint of Mister Mxyzptlk, the impish multidimensional nemesis of Superman from the silliest comic books of that series. Sometimes you’re in the audience. Sometimes you’re onstage. Sometimes you’re hanging from the rafters. And somehow or another, it all just makes sense in the moment.

 

Honestly, though, by the end of the first number, you start to forget all of this artifice. You forget the nearly flawless 

HAMILTON AT A GLANCE

The show that reinvented musical theater gets diverted from its planned Summer 2021 release in movie theaters and bows on Disney+ instead. 

 

PICTURE     

A nearly flawless Dolby Vision video presentation.

 

SOUND

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is expansive and inventive, but a little too reverberant, making it difficult to understand some of the performers.

Dolby Vision video presentation and its gorgeous contrasts, its impossible mix of warm, earthen hues and dazzling primary-colored lighting. You even stop noticing that its only real visual flaw is the lack of absolute darkness in the shadows.

 

Your mind stops trying to make sense of the expansive and inventive Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which mixes not only audience reactions into the surround channels but also some of the catchy soundtrack instrumentation and sound effects. After giving myself over to Hamilton, the only conscious observation I had about the soundtrack is that there’s a little bit too much of the room in the mix at times, which makes it difficult to understand some performers, especially Daveed Diggs in his rapid-fire-rapping turn as the Marquis de Lafayette. (I also had to crank the volume up to 5dB above reference listening levels due to the relative quietness of the overall mix, but that was an easy fix.)

 

Once you stop focusing on the technical, what’s left is pure experience. As I said, it’s not quite theater and it’s not quite cinema, but this seamless patchwork of several different live performances recorded at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 

Manhattan in June of 2016 works as its own thing.

 

And it may not quite compare with seeing the show live (again, I don’t know in this case), but what this time capsule does is allow you to appreciate not only the performances, but also the brilliance of the set design and choreography. There’s a reason Hamilton is the biggest cultural phenomenon of the past decade—the Elvis, Beatles, and Star Wars of its era—despite the fact that so few 

people have seen it until now. Just like all of those touchstones, Hamilton looks forward and back at the same time. It not only brings musical theater kicking and screaming out of the past, mixing traditional show tunes (good ones!) with hip-hop, R&B, and soul; it also brings the past kicking and screaming into the present, making the foundation of our country and the hard 

work of governing it relatable in the most inventive ways.

 

Make no mistake about it: Hamilton isn’t attempting to be a historically accurate biography of our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Instead, it’s about what his story means to us now. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton is a myth. Then again, so is the American dream. The beauty of this stage production, though—and the recording of it captured for 

posterity—is that it makes us believe in both myths. Or at least want to believe in them.

 

A lot has been written about what it means that this version of Hamilton went straight to streaming more than a year before its intended commercial-cinema run. About how it makes up in some small way for the lack of live theater at the moment. I really don’t have anything to add to that conversation. What did occur to me as the closing credits rolled is that this release also democratizes the show, putting it in front of an audience that couldn’t afford to see Hamilton if it were playing next door tomorrow.

 

I can’t help but think, with a devious twinkle in my eye, that this is a delightfully dangerous thing. Hamilton is revolutionary in more ways than one. It inspires the sort of patriotism (not nationalism, not jingoism, but genuinely transformative, thoughtful patriotism) that the power brokers of American politics don’t want most of us feeling.

 

Will most people settling into their comfy couches and loading up Disney+ see it this way? Almost certainly not. Most will merely be dazzled by the entertainment, and that’s fine. Hamilton is a hell of a show, and this time-capsule recording turns it into a home cinema experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen on any screen.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.