We have Disney+ in the house, and we also have a teenage girl in the house who hasn’t ever outgrown what I call the “Broadway Baby” phase of her development where she doesn’t just know every word to every song, she knows the back story of every ensemble dancer. So when she bounded downstairs this morning (while everyone but me is still asleep) asking, “Can we watch? Or do we have to wait until everybody is awake?” it was like Christmas just for her. So I sat down and let her fire it up, like opening a present on Christmas eve.
Within five minutes I decided I didn’t like it. So, always in search of fresh Shakespeare content, I’m not throwing away my shot. I did not expect my world to be turned upside down. (Yeah, I’m probably gonna keep doing that.)
This will actually be the third way we’ve seen Hamilton. I’m not counting buying and memorizing the soundtrack. I mean seeing.
The first came very early, when it was still in its “phenomenon” phase and everybody was going crazy. Knowing that we were never going to see it on Broadway, yeah, we watched the bootleg version. People have mixed feelings about this, I understand. Personally I always want to know what the buzz is all about, and am willing to pay the tradeoff of having at least some information. When you memorize a soundtrack before you see the play your brain often does funny things as it tries to piece together what’s happening. Getting to see it, even in poor quality, gives you some scaffolding on which to hang those songs.
Well, then it came to Boston, so we had to go.
THAT, my friends, is an experience. Shakespeare has generally taught me a habit – I like to know the story before I go in to live theatre. Too much dialogue and plot can be easily missed in an environment where you can’t pause and rewind, or even leave over to ask the person next to you what just happened, because then you’ll miss something else. So I sat down to Hamilton knowing all the rooms in which stuff happens.
The lights go down, the actors come out, the music starts….and it was fucking amazing, pardon my non-PG13 language. I heard I’m allowed one F-bomb. The opening number of this show is a “Holy shit, we’re here, this is happening, this is beautiful” experience. The way the sound echoes around you. The way something is happening on every part of the stage. It is an absolute spectacle. (Not enough people talk about the choreography in this show. I think it’s one of the best parts, to be honest.) It is overwhelming. You could watch again and again, paying attention to a different background dancer every time.
And now this morning, here I am watching that same scene on tv. With closeups and camera work. The whole sensory bombardment is just gone. The scale and grandeur of the huge opening number is replaced with closeups on faces, presumably so the audience that’s never seen it can go, “Oh, ok, that’s Burr…and that’s Washington, and that’s Jefferson….” and file it away for later. Meanwhile there’s fifty people behind them dancing their lives off and all you see is a couple of them crossing through the shot every now and then.
It’s then that I realized, this is exactly what we’ve been talking about with Shakespeare for years. What’s the difference between a live Shakespeare show and seeing it on film? I have always been a big defender of film versions. Now I’m rethinking that whole position.
Shakespeare isn’t a musical, though. And there aren’t background dancers, usually. The focus is generally on the one or two people that are talking, or killing each other. I think that does translate well to film. Unless there’s a spear carrier having a left shark moment, you’re probably not going to miss much if they’re not in the shot.
Big modern stage musicals like this are very different. Everything is happening at once and the audience has to say “What am I going to look at?” and try to take it all in. Now it’s all about direction. Somebody’s made that decision for you. One of the best choreographed scenes in the play – the “rewind” song (my daughter has everything memorized, I do not) – is an obvious example. Live, it takes a number of seconds to realize what’s happening and the magnitude of what they just did on stage (it is quite impressive). On film, Angelica looks in one direction and the camera cuts in that direction to let the audience know, “Here. You need to look here, here is the important bit.”
There are advantages here, of course. I remember once reading a quote from Ian McKellen about the difference between theatre and film. He said, paraphrased, “In theatre it’s all about the voice. On film it’s all about the face.” That makes perfect sense and it’s still true here – I spotted Angelica rolling her eyes and thought, “The people in the background wouldn’t get to see that.” Rarely though does the plot of the story hinge on an eye roll.
I’ve always said that we have to treat Shakespeare on stage and Shakespeare on film as two different things (even when it’s “Shakespeare on stage, filmed” :)). Usually, I mean the expectations of the moviemakers, and how they have to appeal to a different audience (much like turning a book into a movie and how you have to appeal to the people that have read the book while not losing the people who haven’t). Only now do I think I really understand the difference between have been talking about when they behave like seeing it live is really the only way to go, and film is a very distant second.
I wonder how this experience is going to change how I see Shakespeare now? Hamlet, King Lear, and the other great tragedies don’t count – I’ve seen so many of those now that it’s more about seeing each individual interpretation. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. But I haven’t seen most of the histories live (or at all, really) and I’m curious now how different the experience might be.