I dreamed that LA mounted a regional production of Hamilton, with easily available tickets at $5.00 each. Of course, I immediately dragged basically everyone I knew, including a group of visiting sf fans from other countries. Most of the people I brought (about 20 of them) were unfamiliar with the play, but I was certain that they would be instant converts.

When it began, I realized that the director had inexplicably decided to combine the play with Three Penny Opera, which he also didn't understand - for instance, "Pirate Jenny" was done as a strip-tease. Also, all the actors were white.

This went on for 15 minutes while I vainly attempted to communicate in whispers to my friends that this was not the play. "This is like going to see Hamlet and finding that they've actually produced Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead!" I whispered indignantly.

Then I was relieved that apparently they were actually going to do at least some Hamilton, as a black actor appeared and shouted "I'm Aaron Burr!"

Then the opening chords of "Alexander Hamilton" began.

I then found that the director had completely rewritten the lyrics to simplify them, and also to use an all-purpose, gender neutral pronoun of his own invention, "zoo."

All I remember was "Zoo are waiting around for zoo," when I woke up, greatly relieved that this travesty - and I don't mean Stoppard's-- does not actually exist.

Yet. (Thanks to Tool of Satan for the link.)
Alexander Hamilton gets a huge amount of imagery of upward motion-- flying, climbing, rising, and so forth. He's a social climber clawing his way to the top; he has high ideals; a penniless immigrant rising up from the bottom; a scrapper fighting his way to the top of the heap; taking part in an uprising, one of the people rising up to rebel; a soldier and politician rising up through the ranks; an upstart rising above his proper place; he soars too high and falls; his final shot is fired into the sky.

Hamilton is the embodiment of ambition, ideals, greatness, drive, and hubris, all of which are symbolically expressed in reaching or rising upward: not just forward momentum (“see him now as he stands on/The bow of a ship headed for a new land,”) but upward momentum.

Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s opposite, antagonist, and mirror image, gets appropriately opposite imagery. He’s associated with stillness and waiting; being, not doing.

But Hamilton and Burr— opposites who have more in common than they realize, learn from each other, and sometimes adopt each other’s methods— share two images. One is “stand,” which reverses their usual imagery patterns: Hamilton is the one who takes a stand (literally stands still, but metaphorically speaks his mind) while getting more and more frustrated at Burr not taking one. However, whenever possible, even that phrasing is expressed in terms of Burr being the one to not move: “For once in your life take a stand with pride/I don’t understand why you stand to the side.” The second line re-purposes “stand” to once again mean “stay where you are; don't take part.” Similarly, when Hamilton stands ("See him now as he stands on the bow of a ship/Heading to a new land"), he may be still but the ship is carrying him forward.

The other image both men share is “fall.” Both men get a fair amount of falling imagery, and this time it means the same thing for them both: they fall in love, they fell from grace, they fell on hard times, they reached too high and it proved to be their downfall.

The shared imagery suggests that in addition to being each other’s opposites, they also have similarities and complement each other. Imagine how wide the world could have been if they’d joined forces instead of destroying each other…

Cut for extreme length: Read more... )
Burr is a historical novel with two interwoven timelines and two first-person narrators. In 1833, Charles Schuyler (not related to the Schuyler sisters), a journalist and aspiring lawyer, befriends the elderly Burr and coaxes him to tell his side of the story. It’s election time, and Schuyler has secretly been hired to get proof that Presidential candidate Martin van Buren is Aaron Burr’s illegitimate son, in the hopes of discrediting his candidacy. But as Burr tells his life story, Schuyler gets seriously mixed feelings.

I was given this book in high school by one of my uncles (I forget which; it would have been in character for either) because he thought it was well-written and I’d appreciate the prose. Despite a near total lack of knowledge and interest in the time period, I not only enjoyed it a lot (the prose is indeed excellent), but got curious about the duel and spent about a month reading primary sources in the library (this was pre-internet) to figure out exactly what was up with it and who shot first. Once I had satisfactory theories for that, I reverted to my previous lack of interest in the period for the next 25 years.

Then came Hamilton. So I re-read Burr. Vidal’s afterword says that apart from inventing Charlie Schuyler and much of the 1833 - 1840 storyline, and moving characters around in a few minor ways, it’s as historically accurate as he could make it in terms of facts and even dialogue as recorded at the time. The opinions, of course, are the characters’.

This is probably true (it’s definitely more historically accurate than Hamilton in terms of what happened to whom when), and yet even apart from opinions, when one writes fiction rather than biography— actually, even in all but the most exhaustive and objective biographies— you still choose which facts to include and which to leave out. (And even those biographies must choose how to phrase their statements of fact, and thus leave different impressions on readers. Simply writing an exhaustive biography makes the statement, “This person was important. Their life deserves to be recorded in excruciating detail.) No story of a real person, whether fictionalized or true, will recreate that person as they really were. Gather them all together, and you get a sort of pointillist painting, a thousand different stories making up a portrait of a man. Look closer, and they fragment again.

Miranda’s Burr and Vidal’s Burr are clearly derived from aspects of the real man, but are very different people. Vidal’s Burr is both more cynical and more playful, charismatic but misanthropic; he flat-out hates Hamilton and is only sorry he killed him, if he is sorry, because it ruined Burr too. Miranda’s Burr is a potentially great man with a fatal flaw, who the misfortune to be inspired by, provoked by, and finally destroy and be destroyed by his opposite and mirror image, a great man with his own fatal flaw. Miranda’s Burr regrets; Vidal’s Burr blames.

Neither of those guys sounds remotely like the deeply weird person who comes across if you read a summary of Burr’s life that includes the stuff that can’t be proven or remains mysterious (supposedly fondled a marble bust of Hamilton post-duel and said, “There was the poetry;” allegedly attempted to secede from the US and make himself Emperor) or excerpts from his diary (in which he accidentally sets himself on fire and attacks someone with an umbrella that has a knife in the handle.)

Vidal’s book has two somewhat unreliable narrators, but the third somewhat unreliable narrator is Vidal himself. Like anyone writing historical fiction and, to some inevitable extent, history, he chooses the events that support a cohesive character of his own imagining, and leaves out or downplays the ones that don’t. And that’s completely apart from the made-up episodes, like his theory on what Hamilton said (or Burr was told that he said) that provoked the duel. (I can see where Vidal got the idea, but there doesn’t seem to be any historical basis for it ever having been said at all, let alone that Hamilton said it.)

Not one of the Founding Fathers comes across well from Burr’s perspective: Washington is lumbering and incompetent in battle, Jefferson is canny but a snake in the grass and nowhere near the genius he’s portrayed, Madison well-meaning but pathetic, and Hamilton brilliant but vicious and hypocritical. The more Burr insists that Hamilton keeps projecting his own worst qualities on to him, and the more he blames everyone else for all the bad things he supposedly did, the more the reader gets the impression that there’s projecting going on, all right, but at least fifty percent of it is coming from Burr.

In an early scene, an actor pulls a friend away from a fight and misquotes Iago, saying, “You know what you know.” (I think at that period actors sometimes modernized Shakespeare’s dialogue, so that may be a nod to that rather than an error. Iago’s actual lines are “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.”) This scene does not initially seem to have much to do with anything (it does set up some later stuff) and but mostly seems to be there to get readers thinking about Othello. (Vidal explicitly identifies the quote.)

Miranda’s Burr sings in the closing lines of the song “We know,” “We both know what we know.”

Those are both common phrases, so Miranda’s use may not be meant to echo either Vidal or Iago… but on the other hand, the Iago line is extremely famous and Miranda certainly would know it from Othello even if he wasn’t also inspired by Burr. (I would guess that he has read Burr; it’s pretty famous.) It’s the moment when you realize that Iago’s stated motives (way too many stated motives) were probably all lies or rationalizations, leaving the audience with a mystery never to be solved. What we know, we know… and we still have no idea why Iago destroyed Othello and, in doing so, destroyed himself. Remind you of anyone?

More subtly, it reminds us of a major theme of Vidal’s book, which is the unreliable narrator and the impossibility of ever knowing for sure what really happened in the past. We know what we know… but is it true? Who told us what we know? Should we believe it? Did they have a hidden motive, like Schuyler coaxing Burr to tell his stories, Burr hoping to vindicate himself, Schuyler hoping for the dirt on Martin van Buren, and both lonely men unwilling to admit that they want a friend? Who wrote our history books, and what did they think we should believe? Vidal and Miranda’s Burrs both know that they’ve been painted as villains, and try to tell their side of the story. And both Vidal and Miranda consciously re-tell history to hold a mirror to the politics of their own times.

Back to Othello letters are very important in the play. They also are in the real-life story of Burr and Hamilton, and furthermore play more of a role in both Burr and Hamilton than is required to just tell the story. The duel letters are obvious, but letters to Theodosia are important in both works (in very different contexts) and there’s also the letter-burning in “Burn.” (Which also involves infidelity, which of course is a huge plot point in Othello, though there the accusations are false.) The Othello motif is for sure intentional in Burr; not sure about Hamilton, but it’s interesting to consider.

There’s much more of Iago in Vidal’s Burr than in Miranda’s, but Miranda’s Burr is certainly acting in a Machiavellian manner in “We know.” Finally, though obviously concepts of race were different then, Iago is white and Othello is black, and that is important in the play. While Vidal’s Hamilton is white, “Creole bastard” comes up, just as it does in Miranda’s play; Hamilton wasn’t a racial minority as we think of it now, but people did have issues with where he came from. In Hamilton, of course, the most significant use of race is actors of color playing white people; Othello was often played by a white actor in blackface up until relatively recent times.

The characters in Hamilton are, by and large, infinitely nicer, better, more idealistic, and more likable people than in Burr… but then again, Vidal’s Burr has a vested interest in making everyone else look bad to make himself look good in comparison. Miranda’s Burr states his own case, but also narrates Hamilton’s story with honest admiration when that’s what he feels, even if he hates feeling it.

Othello aside, it’s fun to see where Vidal and Miranda were drawing inspiration or even lines from the same historical source, but did completely different things with it. For instance, you can see that they both thought the historic Jefferson was a giant racist and decided to take him down a peg or hundred.

Vidal’s Burr is charming even in decay— you can tell that you’d like him if you met him— but beneath that still-sparkling surface, human feeling is reserved for only a precious few. Everyone else is held in witty contempt. However, there is real feeling between Burr and Schuyler (much to Schuyler’s angst, given what he’s supposed to be doing), which keeps the book from feeling too grim or depressing. It’s cynical and sometimes quite dark (and contains period-accurate racism, sexism, homophobia, etc) but also well-plotted, gripping, and witty.

Five Times Burr Shot Hamilton (And One Time…)

Burr knew, suddenly and inexplicably but with absolute certainty, that he had done this before. He’d killed Alexander Hamilton, but he’d paid for it. Burr watched his bullet fly through the future and shatter his political career, blast him into a trial for treason, leave him penniless and paralyzed, and finally lodge him in a future where he was forever forgotten as anything but the man who had killed the great Hamilton.
The opening song of Hamilton, "Alexander Hamilton," retells the early life of Hamilton very quickly. He really did have an incredible amount of both trauma and impressive deeds at a very young age and in a very short span of time, and the way the song rushes through it, tossing off in a single line moments that could be worthy of an entire song, does a great job of making that point.

For instance, after it's established in less than two minutes of singing (1:50 on the cast album) that his father ran off, his mother died, and a hurricane destroyed his town, we get:

Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide
Left him with nothing but ruined pride, something new inside

THE COUSIN COMMITTED SUICIDE. If your last living relative committing suicide and leaving you destitute is only worth half a line, you've endured a lot. (IIRC, historically, he had a brother. But the brother's not in the play.)

But apart from recounting a tale of incredible hardship and amazing deeds ("at age fourteen, he was placed in charge of a trading charter," the opening number sets up the level of lyrical complexity of the play. That line seems like a simple, if impressive, statement of fact that one might read in a history book, but it's also got triple vowel repetition (age/placed/trading) and internal rhymes and alliteration (charge/charter).

Here's my favorite verse:

Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned
Our man saw his future drip, drippin’ down the drain
Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain
And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

Hip-hop tends toward density and referentiality. A single line often packs in a lot of wordplay, references, and allusions. And like a lot of great hip-hop, Hamilton was written to be experienced repeatedly, not just once. Miranda knows you won't catch everything the first time. The songs are meant to reward you if you listen to them over and over, and then think about them. As people do. Look at all of us listening to Hamilton on endless repeat.

The verse above has an amazing amount of associations and lyrical complexity packed into four lines. To start with, "hurricane/came" is a slant rhyme with internal alliteration. (The entire song is full of stuff like that-- just grab any line and look at it closely, and you'll see all sorts of clever things.) Then there's the pun on reign/rain. The rhythm and intensity of the "drip, dripping down the drain" line is fantastic. It's one of my favorite lines in the whole show.

But there's layers beyond that. A hurricane is destruction by water (additionally evoked by the reign/rain pun). So we have water destroying on a mass scale (an entire town) and on a smaller scale (one man's future.) Hamilton's future becomes water dripping down the drain, sliding out of his grasp. Is anything more futile than trying to grab at water? And if you look at water being sucked down a drain, it swirls in a whirlpool: a miniature hurricane.

The third line is also very dense. The thing you normally hear about getting put to someone's temple is a gun. "Pistol to the temple" is a really common phrase, and pencil sounds a lot like pistol, especially when sung fast. (I actually misheard it as "pistol" the first time I heard the song, and thought he'd considered suicide.) And the song has just established that Hamilton is at rock-bottom, so suicide seems plausible. Maybe some people (like his cousin) would have gotten desperate enough to kill themselves.

But instead, it's an equally desperate grab at life. Hamilton sees his future drip-dripping down the drain, but he's not going to just stand there and wait for it to slip away. He's going to slam his hand down over the drain.

That's a great reversal, but I'm sure you all noticed it before and don't need me to point it out. But what I didn't catch until multiple listens are the associations of the next part of the line:

connected it to his brain

People have been writing with pencils and shooting themselves with pistols for a long time. They were doing both in Hamilton's time. But "connected it to" isn't something you do with either a pencil or a pistol. You connect a plug to a socket. You connect electrical wires together. Hamilton's time was when people were just starting to experiment with electricity. So there's a word-association suggestion that he's cutting-edge for his time, if your mind jumps to Benjamin Franklin or Michael Faraday or some such when you hear "connected it to" in a 1700s setting.

But there's a more direct association that's way more futuristic. The idea of literally connecting something to your brain is mainstream in science fiction. People plug wires and such into their brain to get into virtual reality. So Hamilton isn't just cutting-edge, he's so far ahead of everyone that he's from our future-- our future-yet-to-come. We still can't jack into our brains a la Neuromancer or Mindplayers. But Hamilton's doing it in the 1700s with a pencil.

In an interview with Miranda, he said that Hamilton comes into the 80s rap of the revolutionaries with a modern hip-hop style, so he sounds like he's from the future. I think this line is similar. Metaphorically, of course all writers connect their pencils to their brains. But this is a very thematically coherent musical, and if those associations weren't written in deliberately, they probably were subconsciously. There's not a single line of this play that was just thrown together for the rhythm or the rhyme. (Which is impressive considering that even Bob Dylan once needed to rhyme "You always responded when I needed your help," and couldn't come up with anything better than, "Now the beach is deserted except for some kelp.")

Like many great opening songs, "Alexander Hamilton" sets up the main themes of the play: Hamilton writes his way out, he's way ahead of his time, he works non-stop, he makes a big impression on people for better or worse, he's an immigrant, he overcame adversity, and history has its eyes on him:

Alexander Hamilton,
When America sings for you,
Will they know what you overcame?

They sure will, because now they've heard this song. And not only is the play a hit, but Miranda wrote such a catchy tune that he literally got America, or at least quite a few Americans, singing for Alexander Hamilton.

The opening number also introduces many of the repeated lyrical motifs of the play-- "What's your name?" "How does a…?" and several variations on "Wait," among others. Here's another:

My name is Alexander Hamilton
And there’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait, just you wait

If you don't already know, Burr tells you toward the end of the song that he's "the damn fool that shot him." So Hamilton is going to die prematurely, still with a million things he hasn't done. But he'll do more in the time he has than most people could do in ten lifetimes. In the next song, he says he didn't expect to see twenty. Much later, Burr (and the ensemble) sing:

Why do you write like you're running out of time?

Why do write like tomorrow won't arrive?
Why do you write like you need it to survive?
Why do you write every second you're alive?

Burr sees death as a universal leveler. It will come for him, as it came for everyone who loved him, as it comes for everyone. All you can do it wait for it. Hamilton also knows death can come at any time (his mother, his cousin, the hurricane), but to him, that means that he can't just wait for it. If you wait, you could die before you accomplish anything. If you want something to happen, you have to make it happen, right now, because you might not get a tomorrow.

He's never not heard his clock ticking. But in his time, as now, the written word survived. Parents die. Children die. Entire towns die. Politics change. Empires fall. But words outlast their writers. Every second not spent writing is a second wasted, when he could be making that little bit more sure that after he dies, something of him will survive.

Burr's "What's your name?" question is a musical reference-- it turns up fairly often in hip-hop. (Also in folk songs, though phrased a little differently depending on how old they are. But in those it's usually a real question, not a rhetorical one.) But it also connects to the theme of immortality through works. Even if we hadn't just heard it a million times in the song, if we went to high school in America, of course we remember the name.

What's your name, man?

Alexander Hamilton!
Due to medical reasons, I have been living under a rock for the last seven months. So you may all already be aware of the pornographic novel about Aaron Burr, The Amorous Intrigues and Adventures of Aaron Burr, published in 1861 and attributed to aaronburrsmyastralhusband, I mean Anonymous. In other words, at least one person was writing Aaron Burr RPF smut 150 years before it first appeared on AO3. However, I had not heard of the book until Naomi Kritzer tipped me off yesterday. And in case the same is true for any of you, behold!

Reaching forth his hand, Burr seized that of Adelaide King, and drawing the beautiful girl to him, he pressed her plump bosom forcibly to his own, and inflicted a dozen kisses on her dainty red lips.

The biggest cliche of old-school trashy romance, the forcible yet welcome kissing, has rather deep roots. I have read similar lines in porn from Burr's own era. I expect that descriptions of brutal and forbidden yet strangely delicious kisses were once inscribed on lost tablets in a language of which not a single word now survives. And I bet some of those were RPF, too.

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books reviewed it, called it out for rapeyness, and gave it an F+. Talk less, fuck more, Burr.

A comment to that review says, "Is this the time to mention that a gothic Aaron Burr romance novel exists?

It’s a trilogy called “The Torment of Aaron Burr” and apparently in it, Burr creeps on Alexander Hamilton’s teenage daughter."

A TRILOGY. Martha Washington should have named her feral tomcat after him. Here's a picture of the cover. You know it's a Gothic because it has a woman fleeing a house.

This does not appear to be online, but luckily several people on Tumblr read and liveblogged.

The Amorous Intrigues and Adventures of Aaron Burr is available free online.

Miranda's Burr would probably have been appalled by the book - talk about giving ammunition to your enemies. But I think the historic Burr would have secretly read and gotten a kick out of it. Burr may now be remembered as a villain, but apparently he was remembered for quite some time as seriously hot stuff. And now an entire generation is going to picture him as Leslie Odom Jr. Hamilton got the protagonist's role and the ten dollar bill, but porn writers may never stop telling Burr's story.

Cut for Aaron Burr and a nun; not worksafe. Read more... )

I think I've found the inspiration for Harlequin Presents, circa 1970. Seriously, prose styles have changed somewhat, but I have spotted lava metaphors in a minimum of three modern romance novels. Not to mention modern fanfic. The more things change, the more they stay the same. "Anonymous" would be raking in money self-publishing on Amazon if he or she was writing today.

Also, you may enjoy this ad for more trashy novels at the end of the book. I can't decide if my favorite title is Kate Montrose; or, The Maniac's Daughter or Madeline, the Avenger; or, Seduction and its Consequences.

Attention is called to the following Catalogue of cheap Publications, just issued. These books are got up different from anything of the kind ever offered to the public. They are all handsomely illustrated with Colored Plates, which have only to be seen to be appreciated.

Cut for long list of dirty books Read more... )
Burr’s very first line in real time (as opposed to narrating the story after the fact) constitutes one of the best and also most retrospectively hilarious examples I’ve ever seen of a person’s entire character summed up in one line:

Pardon me, are you Aaron Burr, sir?

That depends, who's asking?

The man won’t even commit to his own name without testing first to see how it will be received: the ultimate weathervane.

That scene and the introduction of the revolutionaries which follows is a great example of introducing people in a brief lyric that sums up the essentials of their character, which is often a good thing to do in a story with a large cast. You can give them more complexity later. Right now, the audience just needs to remember who they are and get a general sense of what they’re about.

Other than Hamilton himself, who got a lengthy introductory song, every else’s intros in the first number went by very quickly and without identifying them by name; they only become meaningful in retrospect, when you find out that the man who said, “I trusted him” was George Washington.

The doubling of Act I/Act II characters, which I didn’t even notice on my first listen until Jefferson started rapping and I suddenly realized that it was the same guy as Lafayette, makes their one-line intro work for both characters. Mulligan/Madison and Lafayette/Jefferson’s “We fought with him” is a play on double meanings: they fought beside Hamilton in Act I and against him in Act II. That must be so heartbreaking onstage to actually see the band of brothers become enemies. Not to mention Laurens/Philip’s “I died for him.” (If I was LMM, I would have made more of Laurens’ death. Maybe he does more with it onstage?)

The revolutionaries announce themselves 80s rap style, which was an era with a lot of songs that summed up as “I’m So-And-So, and I’m super awesome!” (Also lots of political songs, but Miranda seems to be specifically parodying the “Yo, I’m badass and get all the chicks” subgenre.) What’s funnier in retrospect is that Laurens and Lafayette evolve their own styles after that, but Mulligan stays in that style all the way through. When he makes his surprise re-entrance later, it’s with this:

Hercules Mulligan, I need no introduction!
You knock me down, I get the fuck back up again!

His lyrics are way simpler and more straightforward than those of other characters at that point in the play. There’s no alliteration, minimal internal rhyming, and the rhyming isn’t particularly clever: Mulligan/introduction/again is an unimpressive rhyme compared to, say, destitute/restitution or any of the endlessly inventive and funny “Burr, sir” rhymes (of which my personal favorite is “You punched the bursar?”) The vocabulary is very simple. The only exception is “covenant,” but most characters in the play use a lot of very sophisticated vocabulary, not just one medium-difficult word. Compare to a completely typical Hamilton line a few songs back, in this case from Washington: We rendezvous with Rochambeau/Consolidate their gifts. Rhythmically, Mulligan’s delivery lacks the jaw-dropping speed of Lafayette (which indicates both Lafayette’s quicksilver intelligence and his fighting style that leaves the enemy reeling.)

In short, Mulligan’s musical and lyrical style is basic, but in the literal rather than insulting sense— so basic that it wraps around and becomes totally awesome. In case it’s not clear, I love him. He’s one of my favorite characters in the entire play. Also a great example of making a huge impression in a smallish role. (Though it does match oddly with his actual role in the Revolution, which is being the undercover man. Mulligan’s entire character is about “what you see is what you get,” which is the opposite of what you want in a spy. Since we never actually see or get any musical/lyrical indication that Mulligan can be anything but HERCULES MULLIGAN, it gives the impression that the Redcoats were really not paying attention.)

Mulligan’s style strikes me as both in-character and a musical joke about his type of rap and the era it came from. (Not all ‘80s rap was like that, of course, but the joke is about the part that was.) So many “I’m cool! You’re a fool!” songs. SO MANY. Blasting from boom-boxes. Blaring from car radios with the windows rolled down. Teenagers performing absolutely terrible songs they wrote themselves, complete with hand gestures that are now only used in parodies. If you were there, you remember. And also, you probably had horrific hair.

Back to the character intros! All the revolutionaries are in “Yo, I’m So-and-So and here’s why I’m cool” mode, but they also say specific things which imply a lot about themselves in a very few words:

Those redcoats don’t want it with me!
‘Cuz I will pop-chick-a-pop those cops till I’m free.

Laurens, the abolitionist, talks about freedom. He also mentions fighting cops, which suggests political radicalism. (Uh. I assume that means “fighting.”) It’s also a very dangerous thing to do, especially for a black man. So it foreshadows his death, most likely by gunfire. (So does “Fools who shoot their mouths off wind up dead.”)

Ah oui, oui, mon ami, je m'appelle Lafayette.

Key facts about Lafayette: 1) He’s French. (There may be a nod to Les Miserables’ Les Amis in the “mon ami”):

The Lancelot of the revolutionary set.

2) He’s effortlessly and genuinely the coolest person in the room, even when he hasn’t quite got the hang of English, and also a great warrior: Lancelot, the larger-than-life hero:

And then we have Hercules Mulligan:

Braaaah! Braaaah! I am Hercules Mulligan!
Up in it, lovin’ it!

Yep. That’s HERCULES MULLIGAN! Say no more.

And then a reiteration of Burr and Hamilton’s philosophies:

If you stand for nothing, Burr,
what’ll you fall for?

One of the things that makes this musical endlessly re-listenable is how packed almost every line is.

First, the line is a play on a proverb, “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.” When I looked it up, I found that it’s of uncertain lineage… but has been attributed to the historic Hamilton. (If there is one way that Alexander Hamilton is like Yogi Berra, it’s that if some phrase of an unknown origin sounds like something he might have said, it’s liable to be attributed to him.)

Burr may stand for nothing, but Hamilton falls in the duel. But Burr falls too: standing for nothing is the basis for his clash with Hamilton, which destroys Burr too.

There’s also two interesting plays on phrases. “Stand for nothing” is reminiscent of “stop at nothing:” ruthless, especially in pursuit of a goal. That certainly applies to both men, and is exactly what leads to their mutual destruction.

“Fall for” can mean “be fooled,” as in the proverb. The direct cause of the duel was Burr’s belief that Hamilton was saying unspecified bad things about him. It’s possible that someone either lied to Burr about that, or it was true but someone deliberately informed him in the hope of engineering some sort of fight that would damage or destroy one or both men, either out of personal enmity or hope of political gain. I don’t recall this being implied in the play, but historically, I think it was a possibility. Those guys both had plenty of rivals and personal enemies apart from each other, so it’s possible.

If someone did lie to or manipulate him, Burr fell for it. The historic Hamilton certainly seemed baffled about what the hell Burr thought Hamilton was saying about him, and he normally didn’t hold back on his opinions. If he was saying insulting stuff, it would have been more in-character for him to admit it and pile on. I could imagine him saying something along the lines of, “I said a dead horse would make a better vice-President, because it’s true. That was in comparison to our current VP, who is a live jackass.” Instead, he basically said, “I don’t know what the fuck you think I’m saying about you, so I can’t repeat the details of your own fevered imagination. You’ve really lost it this time, Burr. Pistols at dawn.”

More commonly, “fall for” means “to love.” So who or what does Burr truly love? His mistress, Theodosia? His daughter, not yet conceived, who will motivate him to go ahead and take that final shot? Power, which drives the rivalry that takes both men down?

All that, in just ten words.
I wrote part of this in a comment to another entry, but thought it might of general interest to Hamilton and/or Sondheim fans, of whom I luckily have many on my f-list, so I pulled it out and expanded it. Er. A lot.

Hamilton makes fantastic use of repetition, especially of the repeated phrase whose meaning changes with context. The most striking uses of this are “I am not throwing away my shot” (sometimes just “my shot” or “shot”) and “Wait for it.”

The historic Hamilton occupies a specific spot in American common knowledge. In my experience, before the musical came out, if you asked the average American who Alexander Hamilton was, you’d get something like this: “He lived during the American Revolution. He was… Uh…. Secretary of the Treasury, I think? Something like that, anyway. He was shot and killed in a duel with another politician, Aaron Burr. [That is probably the only thing the average American knows or recalls about Aaron Burr.] Oh, yeah, and he's the dude on the ten-dollar bill.”

What both cracks me up and gladdens my history nerd heart about the sheer unlikeliness of the entire existence of this musical is that previous to it, Hamilton was not one of America’s iconic political figures, like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson (or, in terms of people who weren’t president, Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King.) Nor was he obscure enough to be cool. He was in the exact "One of those dead white guys" zone where people interested in his period know a lot about him, because he really was important, but the average American knew exactly what was in my paragraph above, and no more. (If they’re a leftist, they may have the impression that he sowed the seeds of making America a plutocracy but probably didn’t intend that. Or that may just be me. If I recall correctly, my grandfather hated him for exactly that reason.)

But in popular consciousness, he was just above the level of someone like Paul Revere, where everyone can spit out “The midnight ride of!” upon mention of his name, and then, “Uh… He warned everyone that ‘The British are Coming!’” (Wikipedia has this note in his entry: "The British are coming" redirects here.) And that’s it. In general, no one who isn’t otherwise interested in that period (or economics/the Coast Guard/etc) has thought of Alexander Hamilton since high school. Whereas Americans who are otherwise not knowledgeable of history often have actual opinions on, say, Thomas Jefferson. (If you’re younger than me, you probably heard a lot about his slaves. If you’re my age, he had a sort of demigod status in high school history classes, which makes his takedown in the play especially hilarious.)

You notice that the duel figures prominently in common knowledge. People who know who Hamilton was at all always remember the duel. This is probably because 1) duels are cool, 2) Hamilton was the only important person in American history who was killed in one. (I guess unless you count Button Gwinnett. But I’m pretty sure nobody counts Button Gwinnett except autograph-collectors and people who enjoy unusual names. For the former, his signature is the rarest of any of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. For the latter, just FYI, a dude named Peru Italian Blackerby Ping served in the Kansas state senate in the mid-1800s.) Anyway, just in case you don’t know or forgot about the duel, Hamilton tells you about it right in the opening number. Miranda does not want that to be a surprise.

Burr shot and killed Hamilton, and every time you hear the word “shot,” that goes through your mind. And like any good tragedy, you know what’s coming but you want to scream, “No! Don’t do it!” So “wait,” in the sense of “stop,” also brings the duel to mind.

OMG, this got long )
rachelmanija: (I wrote my own deliverance)
( Feb. 6th, 2016 03:20 pm)
I really think this song works best if you hear it the first time not knowing it's coming. So I'm spoiler-cutting the entire entry. Once again, "Hamilton" refers to the character in the play, not the historical person, unless I say otherwise.

Read more... )
Due to being sick, by the time I even heard of Hamilton, the Broadway hiphop musical about Alexander Hamilton, it was the hottest thing ever and its fans were pushing it with so much zeal that I was actually put off. I figured it could not possibly live up to the hype.

Also, except for Sondheim, I'm not a huge musical theatre fan, and though I am a history nerd, I'm not much into American history in general, except for the Vietnam war and to a lesser extent the 1930s and 1940s. I find Hamilton's period particularly uninteresting. Hamilton would have to be a staggering work of heartbreaking genius to get me to like it at all. Previously, Gore Vidal's novel Burr, which is indeed pretty great, was the only work set in that period which I liked or even did not find excruciatingly boring.

So I am a little hesitant to put up a post which is inevitably going to make non-converts feel the exact same way I did, and make them even more reluctant to try it. However…

I consider Sondheim to be the genius of American musical theatre. In my opinion, no one has ever even come close to matching him, so far as my personal taste is concerned. Sweeney Todd is my favorite of his plays, and I also think it's objectively his best, insofar as that can be objective. I say this not to say that Hamilton is like Sondheim (though it does have noticeable Sondheim influences) but to explain my own personal standards when I say that Hamilton is the only musical I have ever heard that I think is as good as, and I already love as much as, Sweeney Todd.

I now see why Hamilton is so popular in fandom circles, and why its fans are so enthusiastic. For one thing, no one is going to listen to the whole thing if they don't like it early on, and it seems to be something that either people love or are totally indifferent to. So you only hear from the fanatical fans - everyone else didn't even finish it.

That aside, Lin-Manuel Miranda pretty clearly identifies with his own character of Alexander Hamilton. (When I mention Hamilton, I mean LMM's character, not the actual historical guy.) He wrote him as an immigrant and a writer, a man who came from nothing and fought his way up, a man who ran off at the mouth and was told off for thinking he was the smartest in the room (because he often was). He wrote Hamilton as writer, and as a misfit whose intelligence annoyed others even as it made him notable. No wonder so many fans identify!

I have never identified with a fictional character as much as I identified with Hamilton in certain songs and lines. One song in particular is not only a beautiful song, but is about the defining act of my life - the one moment, if I had to pick just one, that sums up the core of my self. It's a song about what makes me who I am.

I've written about that too, but Miranda wrote it in music, which I could never do. He wrote lines that I could never write, not because he's a better artist than me (though he probably is, and I say probably because, like his Hamilton, I do generally think I'm the smartest in the room so I'm not sure) but because only he could write them, just as only I could write what I write. Lin-Manuel Miranda's surely never even heard of me, but he wrote my soul into a song and put it on Broadway.

I assume that's because it's his soul too. I think it's the soul of a lot of writers and artists. Though the particulars are directly applicable to me in a way that's really unusual, and I would not be surprised if some of you have been biting your tongues not to say, "Rachel, you HAVE TO listen to Hamilon because you will identify SO MUCH, let me link you to this one song that is SO YOU."

I heard that song and I was glad that I lived long enough to hear it. I felt as if, had I died the day before, what I would regret most was that I never got to hear that song. I felt that way when I saw Sondheim's Assassins and Sweeney Todd, when I saw The Kentucky Cycle on Broadway, when I saw the first X-Men and Lord of the Rings movies, when I went to Japan for the first time and saw monks practicing kyudo in Kita-Kamakura and autumn leaves falling at Eikan-do temple.

Again, this isn't about my taste and whether it matches yours - it's about that shock of joy at something you experience for the first time, and fall in love with at first sight. It's as if you exist solely so you could experience that moment.

I'm not going to name the song because I managed to be unspoiled for the show, and so it came as the most amazing, poignant surprise. Maybe it will be for you, too.

(I'll talk about it later, in a spoilery post, along with other spoilery things. Obviously the historical events are known; I'm talking about artistic moments, and there are many delicious surprises there which I don't want to ruin.)

If you are unfamiliar with Hamilton, I think watching these two videos will tell you if you'll like it or not. I think if you don't like these, you probably won't like the rest either. I suggest that you watch the videos in this order. They both should actually be watched, as one is a performance and one includes lyrics.

Lin-Manuel Miranda performs an early version of the opening number at the White House

My Shot

The entire thing is streaming for free at Spotify.
Lin Manuel Miranda performing the opening number of Hamilton - his history geekiness is so endearing.

The whole thing on Spotify for free.

I am slowly listening to this. It's very dense, especially since I'm not familiar with that period of history other than reading Gore Vidal's Burr and getting briefly obsessed with the duel and the question of who shot first (Burr. Also, Hamilton's shot went wild because he'd been hit, not because he deliberately fired into the air, give me a break) and I just have the album - there doesn't seem to be a video available. It's pretty great though. If you like Sondheim, you would like this. I'd say listen to the first three tracks (through "My Shot") and see if you like it. I love the way it combines hiphop with Broadway, both lyrically and musically. It's really clever and catchy.
One of the worst jobs I ever had was as PA (Production Assistant) for a company that shot commercials. I ran errands for up to eighteen hours a day for sixty dollars a day. One night I got so exhausted that I fell asleep while driving back from a shoot, and woke up six lanes over, still moving at sixty-five miles per hour. Then I found what I thought was a good parking space in front of my house, parked there, and collapsed. The next morning I discovered that the space had been empty because it had a fire hydrant, and my ticket wiped out my entire earnings for the day that had almost gotten me killed. I quit.

But before that happened, I arrived at office early one morning and opened the lobby door. The lobby was typically packed with actors if auditions for the next commercial were being held, so it was no surprise to me to find it full. But to my shock and horror, this morning it was full of clowns! Clowns of all genders, shapes and sizes! Clowns in full makeup and costume! Clowns sitting in every chair, clowns leaning against the walls, clowns gesticulating and twisting balloon animals!

Up until that moment, I had thought the phrase “reeled back in horror” was a figure of speech. I reeled back in horror, fetching up against the door. Then I yanked the door open, fled for my life, and slunk back into the office via the rear entrance.

This was in the mid 1990s, when commercials were even more surreal than is common nowadays. I frequently saw commercials where I never even figured out what was being advertised. This may or may not explain why Holiday Inn commissioned a TV spot in which three dwarf clowns and a great big fat clown chased a tall skinny bald clown through a Holiday Inn.

“Every lobby has free computer access,” explained a portentous voice as the clown chase hurtled through the lobby and past the computers. As the skinny bald clown raced across the surface of the swimming pool, and his clown pursuers fell in and then floundered after him, the narrator added, “All our swimming pools are fully heated.”

What if the house was filled with his evil clown confederates?! )
This one's short but sweet.

I was stage managing an evening of short plays by the playwright I hate more than any other, John Patrick Shanley. How do I hate him? Let me count the ways:

1. Except for portions of Moonstruck and the one brilliant line in Joe vs. the Volcano, "The lights! They're sucking out my eyeballs!" his writing sucks. It is cheap, pat, phony, overly slick and mannered, and twee.

2. His plays exemplify the "Nice Guy" phenomenon, in which a certain type of man always complains that women reject him because he's a nice guy and they want abusive assholes, when the real reason they reject him is because he's whiny, passive-aggressive, smug, self-righteous, and sexist. Similarly, many of his plays give lip service to feminism while portraying women as brainless bimbos who secretly long to be dominated.

The worst example of this was in some play of his in which a woman shows up with a black eye, and tells her female friends that she and her husband got in a huge fight, she deliberately pissed on the bed, and he punched her. But that cleared the air, and now they love each other more than ever! The friends are horrified and say that she should leave him. She retorts that if feminism is really about letting women make their own choices, then it shouldn't deny her true and meaningful experience. BAAARRRRRRFFFF.

3. In college, some of my friends and I got tickets to see his four-person play, Four Dogs and A Bone. Every minute was torture. A few days later, we were at a restaurant when we overheard a man at another table saying, "The actors were good, but the script was so bad, it was like watching four guys trying to lift a Mack truck."

I said, "Excuse me, but are you talking about Four Dogs and a Bone?"

He was.

Anyway, there I was, stage managing his abominable play. The lighting designer had over-designed given the electrical capacity of the theatre, so I constantly had to unplug and re-plug plugs at the patch bay to get it to work. The patch bay was under the lighting board in a very small space, so if I managed to not stick my finger in the socket, I'd bang my head instead. It was torture.

The only bright spot was the hot light board op with whom I shared the very small booth. He was a tall skinny black guy with a shaved head and the sort of banked intensity which romance novels often describe as "smoldering." We didn't have much time to talk, as we both came to the production late, but we worked well together and our brief conversations had been quite congenial. I decided to cunningly sound him out to see if he had a girlfriend (or boyfriend.)

"Soooo," I said one night, "You ever go get a drink after a show?"

"I don't drink," he said.

"Ah," I replied. "Hmm." I was about to suggest a snack instead, but he was already on a roll:

"I don't drink," he repeated. "I don't go to bars. I don't go to clubs. I don't dance. I don't take caffeine. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I don't eat meat. I don't have casual sex. I don't get piercings. I don't party. And I don't do small talk."

"Really, no small talk..." I mused. "How does that work when you go on dates?"

Even before he spoke, I knew what his reply would be: "I don't date."
I was once hired as the stage manager for a professional production of a new, avant-garde German satire, which was to premiere in the USA after a production in Germany. The German director and one of the German actresses were coming with it, but the rest of the cast was American. In the first scene, lights came up on the male lead lying on his back in the middle of the stage, masturbating. It was that sort of play.

The German director and actress (who was also his girlfriend) were fantastic: talented, charming, and all-over lovely. The leading American actor, who was responsible for my presence, was also a good guy. Unfortunately, that left the remaining American actors: the leading actress, the second-lead actress, and a male character actor.

I liked the male character actor up until opening night, when he gave me a token of his affection, tucked into an envelope along with a kind note thanking me for my work. It was a Xeroxed page of racist jokes.

The leading actress was quite famous from having played the wholesome, all-American, and perfect Mom on an old, long-running, wholesome, all-American TV show. Lest she find this and sue me, I will not use her real name, but rather a pseudonym. I’ll call her Mrs. Dalton. She was an evil harridan who took pleasure in making everyone around her miserable. Once she stomped out of a rehearsal, and I had the surreal experience of chasing her through the halls of the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, screaming, “Get back in here and finish the rehearsal, or I’ll report you for breaking your contract!”

The second-lead actress—I’ll call her Marlene-- was well-known in Los Angeles as an acting teacher. It wasn’t that she was a bad human being. It was that she could not remember her lines. The day before the opening, she had still not learned her lines. On opening night, she jumped ahead twenty pages. I prayed, “Please please please let someone else notice and get her back on track!” But, as if they were hypnotized, everyone else continued from where she had jumped to. But the part she had skipped contained crucial information without which the entire rest of the play made no sense.

So I decided to call a cue that would be an unmistakable signal to the other actors to go back. But I had to talk the light and sound people through this, because they were now completely lost, and it involved jumping five pages forward from where we were supposed to be. But at least it wasn’t twenty pages forward. And it was the only thing I could think of that would definitely force the actors off their current track. But by the time I’d gotten the techs ready, they actors had all continued on from the wrong place for several minutes and were now twenty-five minutes away from where they should be.

I called the cue. In the middle of Marlene’s sentence, the lights blacked out on everyone but Mrs. Dalton. A spotlight shone into her pop-eyed and horror-struck face, and treacly piano music began to play. With an audible gulp and in what was clearly a programmed response, she began the monologue that went with the cue. When it was over, the rest of the play continued as it was supposed to go. Unfortunately, however, when it got to the five minutes that we’d already been through, we were forced to go through the entire thing again.

The centerpiece of the entire play was a very long family dinner scene. The director decided to have the sole food be a life-size bull’s head, horns included, made entirely of crimson Jello. Mrs. Dalton hacked off great slabs and hurled them, quivering, onto everyone’s plates. It was pretty funny. Especially since the prop woman kept screwing up the recipe. One time she forgot to put in the sugar, which made the actors all make dreadful faces, gulp down their mouthful, and take no more. Another time she put in too much gelatin. They didn’t react to this when they first bit in, but slowly, as their mouthfuls turned first to pebbles, then to sand, and then to dust, without ever dissolving into a substance they could swallow without choking, they each gave up and spat it out.

The stage hand was an arrogant jerk. When we did a scene change during intermission one night, when I thought the audience had all gone to the lobby, he refused to obey my instructions on how to get a large piece of furniture through the door. It slammed into the set, knocking off a large piece of plaster.

“Do it MY WAY, you fucking idiot!” I shrieked. “YOUR WAY just destroyed the set!”

When we emerged onstage with the furniture, we were greeting with a round of laughter and applause from the audience members still in their seats.

And then the house manager tried to create a lawsuit )
The play I was stage managing was Maria Irene Fornes’ Mud, which deserved a better production than it got. I kept getting lines from it stuck in my head, due to its hypnotic, rhythmic quality: “What do you do when you open your eyes? I work, jerk!”

It’s about a woman who gets involved with two men; one of them shoots her in the end. For reasons that I don’t recall, the director decided to build a small shack to perform it in, and seat the audience inside, on benches up against the walls.. I was stationed outside to do sound effects and so forth. This was at UC Santa Cruz, which is itself built in the middle of a big redwood forest.

I had to mix up a bowl of stage blood every night, and sling it over the actress playing Mae when she dashes outside. She is then carried back in, soaked in blood, and dies onstage. The night before the play opened, I heard the actress in soft, intense conversation with the director. I listened at the door because I’m the sort of person who listens at doors, and also because it is often a danger sign when Method actors get into intense private conversations with the director.

“I’ve read that when people die… well,” said the actress. “They… um… lose control.”

“Yes?” said the director in a tone far more encouraging than I would have used under the circumstances.

“So… when I die… Should I?”

“Should you what?” asked the director, now sounding a bit less encouraging.


There was a long pause.

“Well…” said the director. “If you really feel it…”

I flung open the door. The guilty parties recoiled guiltily.

“If you pee, you can clean it up yourself,” I informed the actress.

The actress decided that she was unlikely to feel it to that extent.

Earlier in the play, I had to reproduce puking noises when one of the actors goes out and is supposed to be barfing into a toilet. I did this by slowly pouring a large can of chunky chicken soup into a pan of water, while the actor stood next to me and made vomiting noises. (He clearly did not feel it to the extent of actually puking.)

These props and the rest not pre-set onstage were all on a big table outside. Since everything right outside could be heard inside, I decided to open the can of soup before the play began. This worked fine the first night, to which only one audience member showed up and so the director had to go and offer to give him tickets for a later performance, pointing out that it might be weird and uncomfortable for him to be stuck alone in a shack with three actors emoting for his sole benefit. He said he’d be fine, to the annoyance of the actors, who did feel weird and uncomfortable.

The next night, I suddenly heard a stealthy lapping noise. I looked over and there, two feet away, was a big fat raccoon, sitting on the prop table and drinking the soup. I was in a quandary. If I so much as shooed it, the audience would hear. I waved my arms at it. It ignored me. I found a 2x4 (we were near the prop shop) and levered it off the table. It glared at me, then waddled away.

The next night I turned my back for a minute… and heard a stealthy lapping noise. The raccoon was back, drinking the soup again. And this time, it had brought a friend. I once again made use of the 2x4.

The next night I weighted down the soup can and watched the table like a hawk. Suddenly, three raccoons materialized. They stared at me for a while, then left when I wielded the 2x4. The next night, there were six. This time they queued up. I was hard-hearted and did not give them any soup.

If the play had continued running, the raccoons might have achieved enough numbers for a jury. As it was, the shack stayed up long after the play closed, and I am pretty sure some of them moved in.
The theatre department at my high school was entirely inhabited by a theatrical in-crowd, which largely overlapped with the generally popular kids. So I was never involved with it until its teacher retired and the entire theatre crowd quit en masse. Seeing an opportunity to do something where I wouldn't be a total misfit, I promptly signed up for theatre with the new teacher, a young guy who I will call Dan.

Dan, who had an entirely new group of students to work with, was sweet but perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He decided a very appropriate play for high schoolers would be "Snow White." Since the Disney version is copyright, these dwarves were named Wicky, Blicky, Flicky (etc) and Quee, the shortest of them all. I was Quee. Of course.

Snow White was a bit of a diva. She did not like the Prince, she did not like the dwarves, and she especially did not like me. She was supposed to be kind and loving to the dwarves-- the dwarves often commented on how very kind and loving she was-- but in all her interactions with us, her utter loathing was quite visible. And every time the Prince hugged her, she curled her lip and held herself away. (The Prince was a block of wood who could not pronounce "beloved" with three syllables. Unfortunately, he had a lot of lines addressing Snow White as "My be-loved.") The dwarves did not like me either. I think the only people who liked me in high school were the librarians, the chemistry teacher, the art teachers, and Dan.

Apart from the fact that the play was terrible and only the Wicked Queen could act, we also had some technical issues.

One was that Snow White was supposed to be carried in "in a coffin all made of the clearest crystal," as it was repeatedly described in dialogue. But Dan didn't know how to do this, so the coffin was all made of the opaquest plywood. But he refused to alter the text, claiming that no one would notice.

There was also quite a lot of scenery on wheels that took forever to maneuver, in long, long, long, interminable, noisy blackouts.

But the worst problem was the mirror. The mirror's dialogue was recorded. But due to some glitch, the words were completely incomprehensible, though you could hear the inflections quite clearly. It sounded exactly like the teacher in the Charlie Brown movies: "Wah wah wah wah wah? Wah! Wah WAH wah wah."

Dan insisted that everyone would be able to understand it. The Wicked Queen, during the actual performance, simply repeated everything it said:

Wicked Queen: "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?"

Mirror: "Wah WAH wah wah wah wah wah wawww."

Wicked Queen: "Snow White's the fairest of them all? NOOOOO! Not Snow White!!!"

There was a scene in which I was supposed to get dunked in a water barrel. But since we only had one costume, they were supposed to pour a bucket of glitter over my head, not water.

Did I mention that no one liked me?

On the night of the performance, with evil glints in their eyes, the two dwarfs, whom I will call Jim and Sue, dumped a full bucket of water over my head.

It so happened that there was a scene change right after that. The lights went down. I leaped out of the barrel, grabbed Jim by the collar, slammed him up against a large piece of plywood hedge on wheels, and punched him in the face. (It's possible that there were reasons why no one liked me.)

"It wasn't my idea!" gasped Jim. "It was Sue! Stop hitting me!"

With a snarl, I flung Jim to the floor, and dashed off in pursuit of Sue-- now vanishing backstage. I caught her and punched her. She said, "It was just a joke. You can't HIT people over a JOKE."

"I AM hitting you over your stupid joke!" I yelled. But it occurred to me that she had a point.

I dashed to the costume shop, ripped off my soaking wet costume, flung on another and totally random costume, and bolted back around the pitch-black backstage area to get to my next scene on time... And tripped and fell headlong into the coffin made all of very hard and very sturdy wood. The edge of the coffin slammed right into my solar plexus and knocked the wind out of me. I lay sprawled in the coffin, unable to breathe, thinking incredulously that I could not possibly die from running backstage, right? Right? Then I regained the ability to breathe, and lay there gasping like a beached fish for a while. Then I remembered that I was undoubtedly late for my entrance.

I leaped up, hauled ass in a slightly more cautious manner, and skidded onstage. There, to my surprise, I found myself face to face with Snow White. I had missed my entire scene and interrupted the next one, which was her solo monologue. We stared at each other.

"What are you doing here?!" she shrieked. "You're ruining my scene! Go away!"

"Er," I said. "I beg your pardon. I had to... er... find new clothes... since mine were drenched... in a stream... that I fell into. Goodbye!"

I ran offstage. Only then did I remember something that the script had earlier made quite a point of: alone amongst the dwarves, Quee did not speak.

The next morning I learned that the lights had malfunctioned along with everything else, and instead of a real blackout, they had merely dimmed. The entire audience had seen me slam Jim into the scenery and clock him. I'm sure that was the highlight of the play as far as they were concerned. It certainly was for me.
rachelmanija: (Princess Bride: You keep using that word)
( Nov. 4th, 2007 05:57 pm)
In a recent conversation in which we talked a bit about slang terms for women's genitalia, I was reminded of the story of the Snatch Song. It was told to me by an old theatre professor, Gary Gardner, who specialized in playwriting and musicals, and I will now share it with you.

There is an old musical, The Fantasticks, which has a song about a kidnapping, but inexplicably, instead of using the word "kidnap," they use "rape." It was written in the 1940s, I think, but that is still bizarre. It's otherwise nauseatingly wholesome.

Gary was asked to come critique a rehearsal of this musical, which was done at a Catholic boys' school, before it opened. There he discovered that, feeling that the word "rape" was too risque, even used in a non-sexual context, the director, who was a monk, has substituted the word "snatch."

Twelve-year-old boys are singing:

A pretty snatch!
A literary snatch!
An obvious open schoolboy snatch!

Gary told me that the most embarassing moment of his entire life was taking a monk into the men's room and explaining to him what snatch meant.
If you all haven't been reading the comments to my entry on the worst and/or most embarassing plays I've ever seen, in which other people recount their experiences with same, you are missing the best part. "I still have no idea why the Duke in Measure for Measure was four vampires."

This tale, like the one about Delbert's masturbation monologue, concerns a play that was not incompetent, but rather embarassing, over-the-top, pretentious, and ostentatiously shocking. But this one requires background.

When I was getting my MFA in playwriting at UCLA, I and the other six students in my class took a seminar on playwriting from the legendary professor Leon Katz. (ETA: Added link to his website. Please do not e-mail him with a link to this post...) Leon was a majesterial gentleman with a deep voice and a white beard, rather like King Lear. He was brilliant and famous and avant-garde. One day in class he began telling us about the most profound theatrical experience he had ever had.

"It was in the sixties, of course," he said. He went on to describe what struck me as a pretentious, touchy-feely, anti-war, hippie play. It sounded awful. But Leon was obviously deeply moved by the memory, and the class was very small-- ten or twelve of us sitting around a table-- so we all sat in respectful silence. "And at the end, the actors all stripped naked. And, in a gesture of solidarity, so did the audience. And then we all left the theatre together, and marched out into the New York streets, stark naked."

"HAW-HAW-HAW!" The laugh exploded out of me like a small bomb, entirely without my consent.

Leon turned on me. Leaning across the table, he hissed, "You post-Reaganite philistine, you make me sick!"

I forget what happened then, but I think I may have had to leave the room to recover, as I am prone to hysterical laughter. I do remember that I was utterly unable to make any response to Leon other than gulp snarf!

This incident became legendary in the theatre department. Years later people were still saying to me, "Oh, so you're the post-Reaganite philistine."

Anyway, toward the end of the seminar, Leon invited us all to a staged reading of a play he had written. It was called Swellfoot's Tears, and it was a re-telling of Oedipus Rex set in a concentration camp. Because otherwise it would be too cheerful, I guess.

We all showed up at the now-defunct bookshop Midnight Special for the reading, which was held in a back room with no door. That is, it was totally open to the rest of the bookshop, and any browsers in the back could see and hear the entire play.

Leon was reading the stage directions. In his grand voice and with great relish, he declaimed, "Center stage is a ten-foot pillar of shit that drips blood."

I realized then that this was going to be another exercise in stifling the hysterical cackles that longed to emerge.

Leon continued, "Enter Big Pink Cunt."

For a moment I thought that was a prop, but when the actress began to speak, I realized that it was her name. The characters all had names like that, resulting in lines like, "Hey Big Pink Cunt, bring me Jack Off In My Ass!"

Then followed two hours of abuse, degradation, violence, misery, and shit that dripped blood. The audience squirmed. The actors, however, appeared to be having a great time. I don't think I've ever heard actors project so well. Innocent bookstore patrons kept drifting toward the back, whereupon they would either flee instantly in horror, or else hang about for five minutes in incredulity, then get bored and drift away.

I have always wondered if that play ever got a professional production. If so, I bet the stage manager just hated having to deal with the shit that dripped blood.
I was going to do a post on "the five worst plays I've ever seen," but then I realized that some of the most entertainingly bizarre live theatrical events I've witnessed from the audience (as opposed to having been involved in the production) were not bad, exactly, or not entirely so, but more misconceived, over-ambitious, better suited for a different audience than the one that was actually present, or just plain strange.

If you enjoy this post, I would be thrilled if, in your own journals or in the comments here, posted on your own five most peculiar theatrical experiences when you were in the audience.

5. Delbert's one-man show. I don't remember what the name of this was, but when I was in grad school for playwriting, the seven playwrights in my class attended the thesis production of the grad acting class, in which fifteen or twenty of them performed ten-minute one-person shows that they'd written themselves. After ten or so well-acted, competently-written performances on the theme of "My childhood sucked, but I forgive you, mommy/daddy," we had been lulled into a sense of security. And then came Delbert.

He was a scrawny platinum blonde who looked like a British punk rocker, who proceeded to give a performance of burning intensity on the theme of his complex and tormented relationship with masturbation. He delivered his lines in a deliberately stilted manner, with emphasis in unusual places, and he had a sound system set up so that sometimes a recording of his voice would echo his last few words.

Delbert: Sometimes I go to a porno shop to buy my porno mags. Sometimes I take my porno mags home. But sometimes I just can't wait. Then I sneak behind the shop, into an alley, and then I rip off the covers and masturbate. (Pause.) I wonder why I do that.

Delbert on tape: Do that, do that, why I do that.

Delbert: Sometimes I stick my finger up my ass when I masturbate. (Pause.) I wonder why I do that.

Delbert on tape: Do that, do that, finger up my ass, ass, ass.

I should mention at this point that I and the other six playwriting students were sitting in the front row of a very small black box theatre, approximately two feet from Delbert and his finger. I was sitting next to Lori, an extremly sweet evangelical Christian who did not, as she put it, "cuss." When the lights went to black, without consulting or even looking at each other, all seven of us, like a single organism, leaped up and fled the theatre.

4. The tongue play. This was also during grad school, and was a play written by a playwriting grad student who was not in my class. It was about a man who had no tongue.

It was deliberately unclear whether he had lost his tongue to tongue cancer or whether his daughter had bitten it off when he stuck it down her throat. It was also unclear whether he had actually molested her, or whether he was insane, or where the play was taking place, or whether Tongue Man was imagining the whole thing and did, in fact, have a tongue. Yeah, it was pretentious, but on a line-by-line basis, it was actually pretty well-written. The reason it goes on this list is that it was practically a one-man show, and it was performed in entirety as if the actor had no tongue.

Imagine two hours of "I' I 'o-eh-eh ou, I ah o 'ah-ee." You could mostly figure out that he was saying something like, "If I molested you, I am so sorry," but... Two hours. Of no tongue.

In what will become a recurring theme in these stories, the grad playwrights fled the scene without congratulating the playwright, and then convened in the women's bathroom to speak without tongues and laugh maniacally.

3. The head play. This was some very famous classic German play, and I cannot for the life of me recall which one. (ETA: Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening.) A bunch of us, this time undergrads, drove out to see a mutual buddy star in this extremely long production as an emo young man who spends the whole play moping and contemplating suicide. I realize that this could also describe Hamlet, but at least Hamlet has sword fights.

For two hours and forty-five minutes, it was merely long and dull. Then the hero meets a ghost, a buddy of his who had blown off his head. The way this was portrayed was that the chest and shoulders were built up in a frame over his actual neck and head, and he carried his head under his arm. However, his voice clearly emanated from the middle of his chest.

This struck us all as hilarious, but since there were eleven of us in an auditorium that seated 300, and we all knew the star, we stifled our laughter until the ghost tossed the hero his head, exactly as if he was doing a basketball lay-up. Then the floodgates burst. We all burst into hysterical laughter, and continued laughing like hyenas for fifteen minutes, until the end of the play. Every time we started getting it under control, the ghost would speak from his chest, and we'd go off again. Once again, the moment the play was over, we eschewed our planned congratulations and instead fled in shame.

2. Lord of the Rings. Yes. The entire thing. In two hours, I believe, though my impression at the time was "six or more."

This was a strange vanity production put on at a local theatre by a friend of my parents, which was why we went to see it. We were under the impression, as well, that the woman who adapted (undoubtedly without permission), directed, composed music for, and played Galadriel, was doing it with and for children.

However, when the play began, it turned out that although indeed, all the actors but her were kids, it was actually a paen to the wonderfulness that was the actress/Galadriel. No doubt my memory is distorted, and the shapelessness of the production didn't help, but I recall it as two hours of mobs of children scampering about the stage, singing the praises of Galadriel while she blessed them in a lordly manner.

We fled without visiting her backstage as we had planned. My Dad remarked, as we hastened to our car, "I wonder what the parents of those kids thought when they found out that their little darlings spent two months learning hymns of praise to Julie."

1. The Goddess is Awake. Never ever go to a play that the same person wrote, directed, starred in, and composed the music for, is all I can say. Especially if he's named Elon Skyhawk.

Elon had proposed this to the Theatre Department, and as senior student I had been on the board that rejected it. When, undaunted, he produced it independently, the entire board showed up to see it.

We sat in an open-air auditorium. Suddenly a man in a gorilla suit appeared. He slowly walked through the audience to the stage, periodically roaring and checking his wrist watch. The he left. Elon Skyhawk emerged. His play, which bore a curious resemblance to LOTR, was entirely composed on Elon majestically declaiming environmentalist rhetoric while scantily clad undergrad girls worshipped at his feet. For two hours. In the end, the gorilla, who apparently represented capitalism and consumerism, reappeared. Elon banished him, and the scantily clad undergrads sang a hymn of praise.

It was a tough call for first place between this and number four, but I give it Elon for, in addition to all his other sins, temporarily making me want to cut down forests just to spite him.

Dishonorable mention to the play about a husband and wife doing role-playing, for featuring the immortal and oft-quoted line, "Put on the dog mask, you BITCH!"


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