Sunday, April 24, 2016
Do Not Throw Away Your Shot:
A Rare Opening for Broadway Producers to Broaden Their Audience
By James Kernochan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
On November 2 of this year, Barack Obama attended for a second time a performance of the Broadway hip-hop musical Hamilton. After the show, he went on stage to offer hearty praise to the creator and the cast, readily noting that it “also happens to be the only thing that Dick Cheney and I agree on,” alluding to the former Vice President’s prior attendance and embrace of the landmark depiction of one of America’s most recognizable Founding Fathers. He then launched into a buoyant political speech, as the event was also functioning as a Democratic fundraiser. However, he looped back to the show, referencing it as a gleaming example of what can go right in politics: “My primary message tonight, and this performance undoubtedly described it better than I ever could, is that we can’t afford cynicism and we can’t afford to withdraw, we’ve got too much work to do for that. Our system only works when we recognize that the government is not something separate – it’s us.”
Somehow the energy, optimism, and funky hip-hop beats have struck a chord that is resounding far beyond Broadway’s normal enclaves. As of early November, Hamilton had $57 million in advance sales in the bank, believed to be the all-time record.
Yet if, three years ago, it had been suggested that the breakthrough megahit of a generation would be a three-hour piece about Alexander Hamilton related mostly in rap, no one would have believed it. However, what Hamilton is doing with dusty and remote textbook history runs parallel to what it is doing with a dusty and remote form of entertainment, the American musical. By translating a dated style into a beat and vernacular that can relate to the very people least likely to attend a Broadway show, this piece is taking the medium to a new and exhilarating place. At the same time, it is showing that those people who have an attachment to those textbooks or those old-fashioned musicals can get down with the new beat as well. Moreover, its musical relevance is imbued with such thematic relevance that the President of the United States can uncontroversially declare it a parable and proxy for the tumult of our own time.
Hamilton has pulled in popular music luminaries across the spectrum of genres, including Latina superstar Jennifer Lopez, the perennial Madonna, elder statesman Paul McCartney, hip-hop’s jack-in-the-box Busta Rhymes, supreme parodist Weird Al Yankovic, and immensely popular rap artist Common. Vanity Fair even ran a full article from the fashion angle on the attendance of Jay-Z and Beyoncé at the show, saying she should be more careful about wearing red to a show where the bad guys are Redcoats.
The attendance of such a number of chart-topping music stars so early in the show’s run is pretty unprecedented, as Broadway has traditionally maintained its own fairly contained ghetto in the broader landscape of music consumption.
Indeed, a mere six Broadway cast albums have reached the top 20 in the past 50 years. Those are Hamilton (no. 12), If/Then (number 19 in 2014), Book of Mormon (no. 3 in 2011), Rent (no. 19), Dreamgirls (no. 11 in 1982), and Hair (no. 1 for 13 weeks in 1969). What is most salient here is the lack of traditional musical show-tunes. Hamilton is hip-hop and R&B, If/Then is Carly Simon-esque, Rent is 90s hippiedom, Dreamgirls is probably also well classified as early R&B, and Hair is slightly psychedelic pop.
A browse through the entire line-up of musicals now on Broadway shows just how attached to tradition show business is in 2015: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a spin on the Kind Hearts and Coronets franchise, Aladdin is traditional Disney storytelling; Allegiance is, to quote Billboard, “mostly heart-on-sleeve, voice-to-the-rafters Broadway fare;” Chicago is, to quote the show itself, “the old razzle dazzle;” Matilda is fanciful but cut from the British musical cloth; An American in Paris is Gershwin; Finding Neverland is truly old-fashioned. The revivals are truly yesteryear’s excitements: Dames at Sea, Les Mis, The King and I, et al.
There are a few moderate exceptions, notably the more successful shows. Beautiful is Carole King (a generation ago pop), Fun Home is quietly innovative, Sondheim-esque art fare, Jersey Boys is also yesterday’s pop via Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Kinky Boots was “an unexpectedly colossal Broadway hit” with Cyndi Lauper music.
The resistance to musical novelty can get vicious. Frank Wildhorn, while not the pinnacle of quality in any genre, was a focal point for some of the backlash. He asked, rightfully, “’What’s so wrong about bringing pop music to Broadway?... You can’t tell me that Rodgers and Hammerstein were not the pop writers of the day. I thank god my music is popular. What should I do, try to write unpopular music?”
The data show that a critic’s recommendation only played a role in 29% of ticket purchases (see Exhibit 2). Ben Brantley, reigning critic at the Times, tried to champion the musical adaptation of Honeymoon in Vegas that made its way onto a Broadway stage in early 2015 (some would even say it only found the money to go to Broadway after his prior rave), deeming it “a real-live, old-fashioned, deeply satisfying Broadway musical in a way few new shows are anymore.” Particularly in a poorly- or outright non-remunerative field such as dramatic criticism, people are motivated by a passion and fixation so deep-seated that they often cannot imagine doing anything else with their lives. The same holds true for so many of the businesspeople and creative professionals who owe their incomes (or lack thereof) to a medium most of them discovered in smitten evenings on a grade school stage.
Mr. Brantley did show industry-awareness in his review of Hamilton in the same season, speaking of “theater reactionaries” and their relation to the “progress-challenged continuum of the American musical,” as though he stands apart from the persnickety mob. Then, he zeroes in on the element that comprises a full five letters in the seven-letter word “musical,” namely the music: “… this confluence of what’s heard on the American stage and what’s heard on the airwaves and in the clubs hasn’t existed for six decades.”
Indeed, stretching back to 1927 and the true arrival of radio throughout American households, a full five of the top songs played on the radio were directly from Broadway shows (including the enduring “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat), and another two written by Broadway composers. Music dominated early radio, and Broadway dominated then-popular music, a happy syllogism for the deans of show business. Interestingly, the songs were generally performed by radio-focused singers rather than by original cast members. Rodgers and Hart and George Gershwin also both hosted radio programs (ibid.). In the 1930s and 1940s, Broadway ceded some airspace to a burgeoning Hollywood, but the Great White Way’s cultural footprint still remained heavy through hits from original new shows and a considerable amount of covers in subsequent years, sometimes finding national popularity long after the show’s run on Broadway. The turning point, alas, was 1954, when Elvis Presley debuted his first hit, “That’s All Right.” In a tale all too familiar throughout the annals of the entertainment industry, the producers and power brokers clung to the old ways and forfeited a pivotal opportunity for broader societal relevance.
A few songs have wormed their way onto the radio or at least into widespread popular consciousness over the years, though again often through secondary-artist or secondary-medium recognition. The hippie liberation anthem “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In” from Hair in 1967 was the number two single of the entire year according to Billboard, although it was performed by The 5th Dimension rather than by the original cast. In 1982, the rafter-shaking diva showcase “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from Dreamgirls, reached number 22 on the Billboard singles charts, and even number 32 in the UK; though for many of the current generation, the recognizable version is that from the 2006 film of the show, performed by American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson. Other minor hits came from Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. An attempt was made with the show Rent to turn its most popular song, “Seasons of Love,” into a radio hit, in part by enlisting Stevie Wonder as a guest soloist, but these efforts were in vain. The central theme here seems to be that a Broadway tune crossing over to mainstream success was an exceedingly rare event, and when it did happen, it tended to be by being co-opted by other entities that were more mass-media friendly.
Part what seems to happen with the crossover smash shows is the perfect positioning around a sociocultural or political moment. Hair arrived at the height of the counterculture movement in the 1960s, ritualizing, interpreting, and commemorating a watershed moment in modern American history. Rent was a kind of 90s update of the counterculture, but steeped in some more wrenching topics the haunted the alternative world, such as the AIDS epidemic. Book of Mormon hit the scene just as the Romney campaign was launching into overdrive, and was memorialized for posterity in a Newsweek cover showing Romney as one of the dancing Mormon chorus boys from the show. Hamilton, with its virtually all-minority cast playing America’s Founding Fathers, seems to have arrived at the ideal opening for a feisty and unflinching discussion of ethnic minorities’ lingering exclusion from the polity within which they live. Indeed, one of the most famous lines from the show is “Immigrants, we get the job done,” a rallying cry that for many is a perfect antidote to the anti-immigrant rhetoric that brought America’s attention to Donald Trump. Some producers clearly believe that escapism or recycling of yesteryear’s cultural franchises is the best way to theater consumers’ pocketbooks, but these enormous hits demonstrate that theatergoers are not necessarily as shallow as has been supposed, and may value material that reframes or expands upon the zeitgeist even if it means sinking teeth into weightier topics.
However, another vital theme as well seems to be the periodic cresting of a wave that then dissipates – the arrival of an energetic new type of music on stage that has the potential to change the entire industry, followed by a resumption of the status quo. Hair was 1967, Dreamgirls 1982, Rent 1996, Hamilton 2015. So every fifteen to twenty years there is an awakening and the clouds part for a momentary glimpse of that wider entertainment universe. While these shows did each have some lasting impact on what could be produced on Broadway, the follow-ons were mostly tangential, and no lasting shift was achieved in terms of the relation of Broadway to other art forms. Is this time different? Is Hamilton actually the vaunted game-changer? Many say so, though some would scoff, such as infamous theater writer Michael Riedel at the New York Post: “If I read one more puff piece about how Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history lesson is a ‘game changer,’ I’m going to use my influence at the US treasury to have Aaron Burr replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill.” The Hollywood Reporter (and plenty of others) appears to have noticed Hamilton all the way from the U.S.’s other less theater-centric entertainment capital, and critic David Rooney insists this time it’s true: “while ‘game changer’ is another term tossed around so liberally by the entertainment media that it’s become almost meaningless, in this case it fits.”
So who’s right? Well, fairly difficult to say while the game hasn’t even had time to change. It would not be decorous to blame journalists too much for twisting hopes into facts, but it is also important to characterize this momentous piece with appropriate precision: an opportunity to change the game. Whether the producing types will follow suit is a matter to be seen within the next few years.
The clarion call of this show to that opportunity is something to be marveled at indeed. Brantley elaborates further on its magnetic elaboration of contemporary musical styles:
"[B]y the late 1950s, songs from musicals had become a quaint breed apart from the songs that America danced to and sang in the shower… Spotify-friendly tunes have tended to show up only in those cumbersome recycling centers known as jukebox musicals. But, lo and behold, there are songs throughout Hamilton that could be performed more or less as they are by Drake or Beyoncé or Kanye."
Brantley stretches plenty too far in this ultimate assessment; none of those three artists would dream of rapping lines such as “Thomas Jefferson, always hesitant with the President / Reticent – there isn’t a plan he doesn’t jettison.”
However, with the Beyoncés and Jay-Zs showing up, Broadway has the acme of mass market musical craftsmanship paying attention to its charms and distinctive opportunities to tell a story in a memorable way. As the recorded music market dwindles and dries, having shrunk from $60 billion (in today’s dollars) at its peak to approximately $15 billion today, these musical minds might consider the enduring power and relevance of a medium that, in a fundamental sense, cannot be meaningfully pirated. Which is not to say it is not pirated – Book of Mormon has certainly been accessible on pirating sites – but the quality of these is invariably quite poor; ushers are constantly monitoring the audience for use of cameras, so only a tiny lens could be surreptitiously placed to capture the action. People will always seek an intelligent night out to share with friends and family, and Broadway looks, if anything, to benefit from the advancement of technology as people seek authentic experiences.
Beyond the physical immediacy, writing a full show is an opportunity for a musical artist to tell a long-form story such as used to be more possible with the focus on album sales. iTunes’ unbundling of tracks from the full album format not only undermined the music industry’s ability to extend its revenues, it undermined artists’ ability to make a cohesive work that for many of them was the ultimate expression of their talent. The fact that artists have continued to produce their work in album format in spite of the commercial decline of the album shows the emotional and aesthetic attachment to having a broader canvas.
The opportunity to tell that full story live is a further step that these musical artists have rarely if ever had. Exhibit 6 shows the robust billion-dollar markets on both sides of this equation, a reminder of just how much money is at play in live concerts and in Broadway performances, and a hint as to where some of the potential overlap may reside. Top grossing live artists such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Bruno Mars have theatrical costumes, lavish props, and exuberant stage presentation that seem well situated for a Broadway show. Justin Timberlake as well is a star personality who has shown ample ability to cross over to screen presence and some acting chops.
One less conspicuous common denominator in the top ten concerts: singers who cull a huge share of their material from fairly anonymous writers. While it may not come as an enormous surprise that Katy Perry does not write all her material, it may surprise some to know that even Paul McCartney is co-writing his latest songs, such as with Paul Epworth on his recent album New. The pyramid of creative minds lurking beneath these internationally known performers is extensive and wide-ranging, and include quite a few names that enterprising Broadway producers would do well to add to their Rolodexes.
No discussion of who’s actually responsible for all the world’s hip-shaking can progress far without mention of and appreciation for Max Martin. Martin is responsible for a staggering twenty-one Billboard Hot 100 number one hits, and a record-breaking fifty-four songs that have been in the top ten. He launched onto the scene in 1999 with Britney Spears’ smash debut “…Baby One More Time,” a song that pushed the edges of pop intensity and trudged boldly to the edges of thematic obscenity with its infamous chorus of “hit me baby one more time.” While his most recognizable songs are unabashedly pop (well, by definition, they’re popular), within this realm he established a certain razor edge and an insidious sense of catchiness that has made his songs easily to denigrate in conversation but impossible to keep out of your head in private. Face it, even if it’s a secret and a guilty pleasure, you had a couple of them on iTunes, and maybe even still do. More recently, he has been behind artists that represent a more widely acknowledged appeal than the “teenybopper” fare that most characterized his early years, most prominently Taylor Swift. Half of the songs on her most recent album, 1989, were co-written by Martin, and the album, even beyond its massive commercial success, was recognized by the critics at Rolling Stone and numerous other publications as one of the very best albums of 2014 -- a feat that was certainly not achieved by Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, or the like. 2015 saw Martin extended his critical recognition even deeper, when Rolling Stone’s five best albums of the year featured two with Martin contributions, Adele’s 25 and The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness -- and the true cherry on top, best song of the year for The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.”
Furthermore, even if Backstreet and lesser boy bands were the totality of Martin’s artistic range, from a business perspective, there is no dismissing the largely secondary purchasing power of the teenage girls that formed their core audience. Wicked has earned $975 million from its perch at the Gershwin Theater in Manhattan, plus at least another $2 billion from touring and foreign productions.
Martin comes from a proud and largely blond tradition: Swedish studio wizard hit-makers. While Abba is instantly recognizable as a gem of Scandinavia, far fewer are aware of Denniz Pop and his role behind the ineluctable early-90s smashes of Ace of Base (most famously, “The Sign”). The seminal Mr. Pop envisioned “a factory of Swedish writers and producers who would create hits for British and American artists,” a sort of transmogrification that seemed risible at the time but now is a foregone conclusion. As arts education gets slashed in the United States, Americans might perhaps reflect upon the potential fruits of fostering the imagination of their youth: a full thirty percent of Swedish children attend publicly funded after-school music programs. Ironically, these Swedish programs were created in 1940s in an effort to counter the pernicious effects of increasingly secular music coming from the United States. Over half a century later, Max Martin pointed to these programs as the formative and decisive influence in his desire and ability to beat the Americans at their own game.
Other luminaries of the Martin-Pop set include Mikkel Eriksen, Tor Hermansen, Lukasz Gottwald, and Esther Dean, who go by such showbiz pseudonyms as Stargate and Dr. Luke. The use of pseudonyms is almost a winking joke at the reality of their relationship to their artistry: virtually no one knows them either way, but at least they are living a part of the romanticized dream. The performers of the song often still receive a named credit regardless of whether their actual contribution was miniscule.
The other key element from the business perspective here is the movement away from flesh and blood musicians. As Nathaniel Rich at The Atlantic observed, “Session musicians have gone extinct, and studio mixing boards remain only as retro, semi-ironic furniture.” An analysis of costs in a fairly recent season of Broadway shows paints a stark portrait of the differential between musicals and straight plays: $9.7 million to capitalize a musical versus $2.4 million for a play, and weekly running costs of $590,000 for a musical and $280,000 for a play. Part of that differential arises from larger casts, more lavish sets, and sometimes elaborate stage effects, but a significant part as well stems from the money paid to musicians, conductors, and sound professionals. Removing the musicians from this equation would make for a major reduction in the ballooning and prohibitively high costs of mounting and running Broadway musicals.
Sometimes all it takes is a single work to inflame the artists of the future and draw their attention to the possibilities of a medium. Lin-Manuel Miranda claims that seeing Rent on his seventeenth birthday “gave me permission to write musicals,” and assuredly Hamilton is doing the same for now-unknown kids. However, Broadway producers would do well to invite Max Martin, Shellback, and others to the new show rather than sit back and assume the future is making itself. Hopefully now in the age of instantaneous sharing of and access to nearly all music, someone can also direct the great songmakers’ attention to a new album that also was ranked among Rolling Stone’s top albums of the year, that of Hamilton.
It is certainly important to acknowledge that some attempts at musical envelope-pushing on Broadway have had that envelope unceremoniously pushed right back at them. None in recent memory belly-flopped more violently and catastrophically than Holler If Ya Hear Me, the Tupac Shakur musical. The producers were hopeful that Shakur’s stature as one of the best-selling rap artists of all time would attract those dedicated fans to a concert with a story. Holler was one of the poorest performing musicals in recent history, filling, on average, only 20% of the box office potential in its uncommonly brief seven weeks of release. To put those numbers in perspective, that’s an average of $173,000 when the weekly running cost alone probably runs around the aforementioned figure of $590,000. Holler lost every penny of its capitalization and could barely even pay a third of its weekly keep. However, there were diverse problems at play in the demise of this effort. Again, the attempt to turn a pre-existing artistic franchise into a follow-on property without any organic inspiration behind it. A story was structured around the songs, thinly, laboriously, and awkwardly, turning a gang war into an opportunity to jump on top of a car and spank the air to while spitting out the lyrics to “California Love.” This strained story was put into dialogue by Todd Kreidler (the gentleman pictured in Exhibit 4), a white man from western Pennsylvania, who unsurprisingly lacked authenticity or urgency in his outsider’s depiction of a world utterly foreign to him.
Another potential pratfall was observed about a year ago from the same producer who was chiefly responsible for both Rent and Hamilton, the enterprising and visionary Jeffrey Sellers. The Last Ship was a noble effort from none other than Sting, but its focus was the tragic and miserable demise of a shipbuilding town like the one in which Sting had grown up in Northern England. Finger-pointing has certainly taken place since the show’s end, focusing on the marketing and problems with the book. From discussions with those who have seen the full piece, it seems likely that the fatalist and gray-soaked panorama of a world altogether foreign to most potential audiences around New York City was just one big downer. Among the mega-hits of the past two decades – Rent, Avenue Q, Book of Mormon, The Producers, Hamilton, Jersey Boys, and Wicked – some have dark elements, troubled characters, and heavy themes from society, but they are spun into electric light, and the audience is roused and invigorated. Linda Winer described The Last Ship in Newsday as a great score “buried in a monotonous, improbable story and surrounded by dark rusted metal with grim industrial scaffolds.”
The role of a great producer should be to find and foster the artists of the future, and such a person would be able to identify that Miranda is ahead of his time. Jeffrey Seller even found Miranda years before when he was working on In the Heights, Miranda’s first Broadway musical, which depicted the Latino community among whom he grew up in Washington Heights. Heights was a more traditional musical than Hamilton and nowhere near as revolutionary, although it used ethnic musical styles that had hitherto not been appreciated on Broadway. In a way, Seller had identified a man ahead of his time ahead of when he was really ahead of his time, bearing fruit some years later when Hamilton was birthed from the same cortex. Seller was also able, in the case of each of his blockbusters, to perceive an audience far grander than the one that already existed. Seller does not tell Julie Taymor and Bono that they should make a ludicrously expensive iteration of the Spiderman franchise, with input sourced from Twitter users and focus groups. That sort of perspicacity is what makes Seller the most successful producer in the United States, and why he has the President of the United States telling him that he has enabled a major contribution to the national dialogue.
However, dialogue is just the thing that producers could enable more of. Bringing Max Martin and Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk and Coldplay to Broadway shows, and making them realize this is the place to start a real revolution. Flying to Stockholm and sharing a smorgasbord with future pop prodigies. Getting to know top-notch producers from the music, film, and publishing worlds, those who shepherd talent that might not be aware of the Broadway opportunity. Creating private and supportive spaces for artists to test out stories and to feel out collaborations with dialogue writers, choreographers, directors, and actors. Stepping back when an artist does something provocative and potentially uncommercial, to see the larger vision and whether each element is consistent. Not intervening when Trey Parker wants to have a little ditty about dysentery, or when Miranda says he’s going to have black people play George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
The incubation space envisioned here is a pivotal concept, fairly recognizable to Silicon Valley people. Broadway shows need audience reactions to build a true symbiotic relationship, but putting shows out on major regional stages puts an uncomfortable pressure and also starts a project with an audience that is often mismatched. Particularly in dealing with artists with extensive reputations to uphold, an atmosphere with zero pressure, ample supportiveness, and meaningful creative dialogue affords the best scenario to birth the art of the future. Book of Mormon was developed at private workshops with no out-of-town or off-Broadway tryout, a tactic that enabled them to keep the audacious and potentially off-putting content close to the vest. However, having a laughing audience to foster a few performances still helped Parker and Stone to accentuate the show’s strengths and excise its excesses. Holding these sessions in more remote locations can also be salutary in avoiding the glare of a deeply gossipy city. Hamilton went up to Poughkeepsie, New York to test some of the material out as part of a Vassar program. Finding the money for the incubation space can be tricky, as people giving the money often look for something physical to show off, and the relative privacy and lack of visibility of this setting are integral to its success. However, non-profit regional theaters around the country are sustained largely by donations, and when the model is shown to facilitate works that go on to greatness, this scheme may hopefully catch some fire.
The element most crucial in the success of the incubators is finding and shepherding the talent there, and the most important part of this is the music. After all, a musical without music would be a contradiction in terms. Of the fifteen highest-grossing Broadway shows of all time, not a single one is a play. The cumulative gross for August: Osage County, one of the biggest play hits of the current millennium, is $32.8 million, pennies compared to Wicked nearly billion-dollar take since 2003. Making musicals sing is here a matter of making Broadway appreciate that music has changed since 1943. And part of making that stylistic change is recognizing that the country has also radically changed since 1943, in composition and in values. In 1960, America was 85% white, 10% black, and 5% Hispanic or Asian; in 2010, approximately 64% white, 12% black, 16% Hispanic, 8% Asian/other; in 2060, it is predicted to be 43% white, 13% black, 31% Hispanic, 8% Asian, 5% other.
Broadway isn’t prepared for the shifting tide – even worse, it’s woefully behind even the present times. Exhibit 5 shows the statistics for Broadway as compared to the population at large. New York City’s population is far more diverse than the country at large, and so there is an exacerbated disconnect between the people living directly around Broadway and the people being entertained in Broadway theaters. While Holler If Ya Hear Me was not a fruitful attempt to woo the underappreciated audiences, Hamilton just might finally let black and Hispanic audiences know that their voices are appreciated both on stage and in the seats. The very limited criticism of Hamilton that appeared in any mainstream press outlet was from New Yorker critic Hilton Als, averring that Miranda watered down the ethnic edge of the show because he was “fearful of being kept out of the white boys’ club of American musical.” The title of his review, “Boys in the Band,” is a reference to the seminal Stonewall-era gay play and then 1970 Friedkin film, and the gay-baiting continues apace: “Part of what makes people feel so jumpy and excited during ‘Hamilton’ is its unbridled masculinity… Miranda’s men aren’t doing the usual ‘gay’ work of the musical, which is to say singing about their feelings.” While much of Broadway’s original luster and lucidity came from the artistic vibrancy of the persecuted minority that underpinned so much of the industry, the gay white men still ruling the roost have succumbed to a cultural myopia, to the exclusion of other ethnicities and sexual orientations. Why shouldn’t there be more “unbridled masculinity,” and more confrontational rap? Miranda probably struck the right balance between rap integrity and reaching his white audience, and Als is ostentatiously peering judgmentally from above, but the point stands. Broadway is still a place where Miranda might feel he needs to play to a softer white audience without too much of an edge. However, he also can dish history in a range of styles – not just rap – and the King George character is captured in gleaming Britpop, acted with such flair by Jonathan Groff that a backstage Beyoncé told him she plans to plagiarize it. This is the sort of backstage interaction like Robert Lopez meeting Trey Parker and Matt Stone after Avenue Q – creative luminaries from outside Broadway, from outside Broadway’s ethnic uniformity, finding a common language and common loves, naturally and unscripted, with real live Broadway folk. Beyoncé needs to invite her friends, and Jeffrey Seller needs to be milking the mass media attention and presidential visits for all they are worth – and they could be worth an enormous amount if he plays the cards right. Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Obama all have immense currency and attention within the African-American community, and their spreading their admiration for the show could open up a true moment for more diverse audiences and more diverse endeavors on the Great White Way. The momentum from Book of Mormon in this instance is also considerable – a mere four years ago, that musical drew unprecedented audiences from frat boys, snarky adolescents, and a whole host of other individuals who probably never would have been caught dead in a Broadway theater.
The industry can progress towards something more impactful and more relevant, and frankly more fun. Take the lessons drawn here from recent failures and successes. Take a hint from Hamilton himself:
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!