Monday, July 27, 2020

Newfangled, Old-Fashioned: Hamilton and Funny Girl, Streaming

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Philippa Sooi n Hamilton.

Like at least half of my friends, I bought a subscription to Disney+ so I could watch Hamilton. Thomas Kail, who staged it on Broadway (and, in its earlier incarnation, downtown at the Public Theatre), filmed it in 2016, and the original plan was to release it to theatres. When Covid put paid to those plans, Disney picked it up, and though one misses the effect of the big screen – and though the handful of fucks are muted – it seems like a reasonable trade-off. I caught Hamilton with the London cast two years ago, and they were admirable. But, captured just before they dispersed, the original ensemble, headed by book writer-composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton and Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr, is so electric that I actually found the show even more exciting and affecting on my home screen.

So much has been written about Hamilton since it opened on Broadway in early 2015 that it doesn’t make sense for me to write a full-fledged review half a decade after the fact. (And it’s unnecessary: Michael Lueger covered it for Critics At Large in September of that year.) Instead I’d like to offer a few observations. Hamilton is far from the only significant musical of the twenty-first century; there have been eighteen or so others – just about one for each year – that I prize, and a few of them (The Light in the Piazza, Bandstand, The Band’s Visit, Dogfight) also rank among my all-time favorites. Some have dramatized political issues and historical moments movingly (Bandstand again, as well as Memphis, American Idiot, Come from Away and, in its lighthearted way, Hairspray). But Hamilton, with its casting strategy – only King George III (delectably played by the show-stopping Jonathan Groff) is played by a white actor – and its infusion of contemporary musical styles, is the only one that brings the historical narrative into the current cultural moment. Or, to be more specific, the cultural moment of 2015: Hamilton was the last bona fide Obama-era entertainment, which adds an extra-critical element to our viewing of it at the lowest point in American history that most of us have experienced. I don’t mean to suggest that Hamilton is a great musical because it reminds us of the values this country appears to have abandoned; our willingness to embrace a play or movie’s political point of view doesn’t make it good. But the show resonated with audiences in 2015 as we were living under the first administration headed by a person of color, and it resonates with us in a different but even more potent way in 2020. American plays and especially movies have conveyed their eras in vivid ways throughout the last century that drew audiences to them – The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946, The Manchurian Candidate in 1962, Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, and Nashville in 1975, to pick some outstanding examples. But I can’t think of a work of entertainment that meant one thing when it came on the scene and means something completely different on the screen a mere five years later.

When he reviewed Hamilton on his blog, Scene 2, my Critics At Large colleague Joe Mader made the astute observation that the show undercuts our expectations of Broadway musicals by making the performers the real special effects. The set design by David Korins is a single unit with two turntables, one inside the other like a pair of Russian dolls, moving in opposite directions; Paul Tazewell has dressed the actors in a combination of period (eighteenth-century) costumes and a stylized version of rehearsal clothing; Howell Binkley’s lighting is beautiful but draws considerably less attention to itself than the lighting of most Broadway musicals. (In the movie, the cinematographer Declan Quinn transfers Binkley’s lighting eloquently. Quinn also shot the most remarkable stage-to-screen transcription I’ve ever seen, Vanya on 42nd Street.) Kail’s staging and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography aren’t just served by Korins’s set; these elements are co-dependent. Visually the show is pared-down but you don’t experience it that way because of the ingeniousness of the staging and the dazzling across-the-board showmanship of the ensemble – and by the time Kail filmed the musical the intimacy and camaraderie of the actor-singer-dancers had become part of the mix. So when Hamilton drinks with his New York friends, the energy of young men basking in the heat of the revolutionary moment is really indistinguishable from the way the actors play off each other, clearly grooving off their joy in a shared achievement that has turned Broadway upside down.

Who are the standouts in the cast? Odom, without a doubt: he’s the musical-theatre equivalent of wildfire, and he’s the best singer on the stage (a considerable distinction). Philippa Soo as Eliza Schuyler, whom Hamilton marries, and RenĂ©e Elise Goldsberry as her older sister Angelica, who carries a torch for him until he dies – one delicate, the other effusive, both vivacious in their opposite-number ways. Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson (in act two; in the first half he’s the Marquis de Lafayette) and Groff give the funniest performances. Anthony Ramos, double-cast as two doomed young men, John Laurens and Philip Hamilton (Alexander and Eliza’s son), is particularly touching.

Miranda himself is witty and charismatic, but his performance has a major flaw: he can’t resist overplaying the big emotional moments. (He cries through one entire ballad, near the end.) He may have succumbed to the temptation more as the run went on. And that flaw overlaps with the problems in the musical’s second act, when the melodrama begins to pile up and even Soo’s exquisite reading of her down-tempo numbers in the last half hour can’t disguise the banality of the lyrics or the middle-of-the-road quality of the melodies. Miranda writes great numbers – “My Shot,” “The Schuyler Sisters,” “You’ll Be Back,” “What’d I Miss,” “The Room Where It Happens,” and many others – but ballads are not his strong suit, and there’s an unfortunate but unavoidable confluence of them with the escalation of the soap opera in the plot. It’s not so much a problem when Hamilton gets involved in an affair with Maria Reynolds (effectively played by Jasmine Cephas Jones, who doubles as the third Schuyler sister, Peggy), her husband begins to blackmail him and his enemies find out about it; there’s plenty of intrigue to complicate the melodrama there. But though you can’t quarrel with the history (Miranda adapted the musical from Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton), the back-to-back sequences where Eliza finds out about her husband’s adultery and Philip and then Alexander get killed in duels wear holes in the fabric of the libretto.

But these complaints apply to only the last half hour of a nearly three-hour musical. Anyway, musical-theatre history is full of wonderful shows with second-act problems – it practically comes with the territory, especially when a show takes on complex subject matter and an epic storyline. (Camelot comes to mind.) Hamilton does so much so brilliantly that its shortcomings are ultimately minor. It knocks you on your ass, and then you want to get up and sit through it all over again.

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Funny Girl, which opened in the final years of the golden age of the American musical, is a good example of a terrific musical with second-act problems. The first act of this 1964 show, with a book by Isobel Lennart, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, is about the rise to fame of the Brooklyn-born singer and comic Fanny Brice, who becomes a star of the Ziegfeld Follies in the years before the First World War and falls in love with the handsome gambler Nicky Arnstein. It has an exuberant upward trajectory and an irresistible heroine – played, of course, both on Broadway and in William Wyler’s 1968 movie version by Barbra Streisand. (She was already a one-of-a-kind recording artist and the star of several distinguished TV specials as well as a Broadway celebrity; the film won her an Oscar and turned her into a movie star.) Act two is about the slow dissolution of the marriage as she climbs to higher professional heights and he loses all his money and winds up in prison for a phony bonds deal. Fortunately the character of Fanny Brice, like the real-life one, is built to withstand all that heartbreak stuff – and fortunately, too, Styne and Merrill don’t use up all the best numbers in act one, even though nothing quite matches up to the first-act finale, “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”

The musical is so deeply associated with the woman who created the title role that it rarely gets revived. Bartlett Sher was set to stage one with Lauren Ambrose a few seasons ago but the funding fell through. The only major production I know since the movie is the one Michael Mayer directed at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London with Sheridan Smith, which transferred to the Savoy Theatre in 2017. Smith is known mainly to London theatregoers; I was introduced to her when she gave a scene-stealing supporting performance in Trevor Nunn’s revival of the 1942 Terence Rattigan play Flare Path nearly a decade ago. But she left Funny Girl early in its West End run due to stress and exhaustion and was replaced by her understudy, Natasha Barnes. That’s the Fanny I saw three years ago, and though the audience was clearly sympathetic to this little engine pushing her way up a treacherous track – since the star carries this particular musical on her back – I would have said that Barnes was merely competent. But Smith returned late in the run, and then she took the show on tour. If you’ve got BroadwayHD you can stream the final performance, at Manchester’s Palace Theatre.

Smith isn’t the same kind of performer as Streisand. (Well, who is?) On the screen Streisand looked like a big studio-era movie star in Irene Sharaff’s period clothes; Smith isn’t glamorous.  Diminutive, with foreshortened legs but a puffy, square-ish face – a face like a dumpling – she’s a lot closer to the real Brice’s unconventional star looks than Streisand. And you feel, in a way you didn’t quite with Streisand, that her Fanny clowns constantly because it covers an essential insecurity underneath all that show-biz confidence. The script tells us that you can’t keep Fanny down, but Smith lets you see her awareness that she comes from the wrong side of the tracks. (Streisand played her class consciousness as a badge of honor.) When she gets loony, it’s more like Mabel Normand’s or Betty Hutton’s looniness. I think she’s marvelous, though I have to admit that I missed what Streisand could do with those songs, because  though Smith has a sweet voice and can put over a number dramatically, she isn’t a great singer. She triumphs with “I’m the Greatest Star” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” but “Cornet Man,” which is supposed to win over the audience at Keeney’s burlesque house, where her success results in a Ziegfeld contract, isn’t special enough to make the plot development plausible. The one time she has to do Brice’s Yiddish shtick, on “I’m Private Schwartz from Rockaway” (the center section of the “Rat-a-Tat-Tat” number), she doesn’t really get it. And though you can’t fault the emotional authenticity of her second-act ballads, “Who Are You Now?” and “The Music That Makes Me Dance” and (interpolated from the movie) the title song, Brice was a sensational torch singer as well as a comedian and Smith, unlike Streisand, simply isn’t.

Mayer’s production is perfectly OK. He makes clever use of Michael Pavelka’s set, which includes a mirrored flat at the edge of the stage-left wings and continually reminds us that, as Fanny admits, the stage is where she lives. But though Darius Campbell as Nick sings well – the production restores the duet, “I Want to Be Seen with You,” for him and Fanny that the movie cut (Omar Sharif was no singer), and adds a solo, “A Temporary Arrangement,” that was cut out of town in 1964 – he doesn’t have much personality, and most of the other supporting players, like Nigel Barber as Ziegfeld and Morton Callaghan as Keeney, are forgettable. Joshua Lay as Fanny’s hoofer pal Eddie Ryan and Rachel Izen as her stalwart mother Rose, are the best of them, making their duet, “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?,” a second-act highlight. Lynne Page’s choreography is reasonably good. Lennart’s book has been revised by Harvey Fierstein, but his main addition, a subplot involving Eddie’s unrequited love for Fanny and his consequent dislike of Nick, doesn’t do much for the show. And a speech he added (I believe) where Rose confides that she made the same mistake with Fanny’s absentee dad that Fanny is now making with Nick – suffocating him with love instead of giving him the space to be his own man – contradicts an earlier reference to him as a bastard who’s well out of her life. This mania for revising the books of classic musicals makes me crazy; I can’t think of one that hasn’t made the book worse rather than better. But Smith is delightful, and a delightful Fanny naturally makes any production of Funny Girl worthwhile.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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