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‘Hamilton’: The show, not the cast, is the star

🕐 7 min read

Lin-Manuel Miranda, superstar: That became plain as the writer-composer-performer of “Hamilton” watched his show rack up every award known to entertainment over the past year.

His rap musical about the country’s first treasury secretary is minting money, and that’s not going to stop just because Miranda and other key members of the original cast departed this month. As with “Rent,” another youthful, high-spirited breakout musical that might be a model for “Hamilton’s” longevity, the essence of the act is hard-wired in the writing – strong characters, infectious songs. It’s going to outlast the original cast.

That “essence” is often – or used to be – the stuff of arguments about authenticity in art. Are you really hearing the band if some of the charismatic original members have split? No way, die-hards told me as a kid when I caught prog-rockers Yes after flamboyant singer Jon Anderson, keyboardist Rick Wakeman and drummer Bill Bruford abandoned the group.

That notion of purity at the source once defined rock and its anti-corporate ethos, a stance that now seems quaint across a culture that has become rampantly self-cannibalizing and hyper-corporate. That’s how it feels not only in pop, but especially in Hollywood, where the golden age of 1970s indie filmmakers crumpled under the heavy foot of blockbuster packaging: The “Star Wars” force that is with us yet (and we dig it). Sequels and reboots are air and water now. Any idea that the laid-back, jauntily sloppy 1984 “Ghostbusters” was somehow too artistically sanctified to be remade is laughable (also uncivil, misogynist and racist, given the way the “arguments” were put).

Broadway, too, has absorbed the lessons of corporate marketing, which is why the unexpected and brazenly original “Hamilton” stands out. Stars are usually too individual to fit the preferred factory stamp. The use of stars on Broadway is peculiar, and revealing: With plays, they’re mandatory. With musicals, they’re risky and rare.

Consider the Broadway season that just closed, and note how newer works utterly depend on the names of famous actors:

“China Doll”/Al Pacino. “Blackbird”/Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams. “Eclipsed”/Lupita Nyong’o. “The Father”/Frank Langella. “Misery”/Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf. These stars don’t get replaced. When their few months are done, the show is over.

Bonus points: Name the authors of any of those dramas. Tough, right? What matters is the star. Catch that cast – that’s the essence.

It’s largely the same with revivals of plays: “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night”/Jessica Lange. “Hughie”/Forrest Whitaker. “The Gin Game”/James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson. The hook is never the play. You buy your ticket to see the stars.

Last season’s new musicals, on the other hand, never packaged the star – not even “Hamilton,” which turned into a box office comet only once it became clear how good the thing was. Just try finding an above-the-title name in any of the other new musicals from the season – “Allegiance” (George Takei? Really?), “Amazing Grace,” “American Psycho,” “Bright Star,” “Disaster!,” “On Your Feet,” “School of Rock,” “Tuck Everlasting,” “Waitress.”

Wait – wasn’t uber-star Audra McDonald in “Shuffle Along”? Didn’t producer Scott Rudin announce that the show would close early, as McDonald departed for maternity leave?

Yes, but the ambitious and talent-laden “Shuffle Along” – a labor of love for writer-director George C. Wolfe, choreographed by Savion Glover, and with Tony Award winners Billy Porter and Brian Stokes Mitchell in the cast – was not written for McDonald. It was anything but a showcase vehicle tailored for her, and the marketing never promised a big night with Audra front and center. The six-time Tony winner wasn’t even nominated for her very sporting supporting turn.

There you have it: the curse of the musical theater star. Once audiences buy tickets based on seeing a unique talent, the bargain can’t be undone.

Hugh Jackman made a must-see phenomenon out of the Peter Allen catalogue musical “The Boy from Oz”; the show closed when his contract was up, and no one’s been interested since. “The Producers” is typically cited as the poster child for Why Musicals No Longer Rely on Stars: With Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, the Mel Brooks show harvested a record 12 Tony Awards and pioneered the “premium pricing” ($480 at the time) that’s now an industry standard (lately $849 for “Hamilton”). Without them? Lane’s replacement, acclaimed British actor Henry Goodman, was dismissed by producers after four weeks, before critics could get a look.

Lesson learned. If you want a solid hit, something with legs, like “Chicago” (20 years and kicking), the title’s the essential thing. It’s a surer sale.

Behold the carousel of leading performers in “The Phantom of the Opera” early in its current Kennedy Center run. Chris Mann was out of the title role for a week because of an appendectomy; the role was covered by its three understudies. After announcing that Julia Udine would be Christine Daae instead of Kaitlyn Davis, Davis stepped back in for the delayed opening night, but Udine was slated to return later, and canceling performances was never a question. With juggernauts, the individual parts are replaceable. Audiences sign up for the shrine.

The essence of most musical theater hits since “The Producers” has boiled down to corporate recognition, as the current attractions prove. You know the songs (“Motown,” “Jersey Boys,” “Beautiful,” “On Your Feet!”), or you recognize the story from TV, books or movies (“Aladdin,” “An American in Paris,” “The Book of Mormon,” “The Color Purple,” “Kinky Boots,” “Lion King,” “Matilda,” “School of Rock,” “Waitress,” “Wicked”). Otherwise, you’re trekking back to an omnipresent and indestructible warhorse (“Cats,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera”).

Those are the categories. Broadway is tiny, and creatively very narrow (if economically robust, thanks to the perennial moneymaking titles). “Hamilton” may be transitioning into that last slot; when I saw it last August, late in previews and just before its Broadway opening, Miranda had the performance off. Instead I saw Javier Munoz, who now fully owns the role of Hamilton. He was terrific. The show was massively good.

The bummer is that the title-driven business model makes our finest musical stars terribly scarce on stage, even though they ought to be the essence of Broadway’s world-class song-and-dance experience. In 2003, “Wicked” cemented the rising reputations of Idina Menzel (an original “Rent” performer) and Kristin Chenoweth (a 1999 Tony winner) as bona fide musical theater stars, presumably capable of generating serious box office attention. How many musicals have they been in since?

Chenoweth’s had three shows, the longest being the nine months she headlined “Promises, Promises” with Sean Hayes. Menzel has been back exactly once, with “If/Then,” which sold tickets for a year on her name, and closed with her departure. As Washington Post critic Peter Marks noted when Menzel and “If/Then” were at the National Theatre for a pre-Broadway tryout, we live in “an era when juicy new parts in musical theater are as rare as red diamonds.”

That’s not an accident: Even goddesses can’t get parts. Since “Anything Goes” in 1987, Patti LuPone – now in Chicago with the promising original new musical “War Paint” – has done only three musicals on Broadway, all in the past 10 years (“Gypsy,” “Sweeney Todd,” Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”). After “Into the Woods” almost 30 years ago, Bernadette Peters has been in only five Broadway musicals.

Megan Hilty got pretty famous, by stage standards, playing an emerging Broadway siren in NBC’s “Smash,” and then she drew raves dueling the shadows of Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe in the 2012 Manhattan concert staging of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Yet Hilty still hasn’t had a juicy role in a Broadway musical. Golly, what’s a girl gotta do?

When audiences flock to “The King and I” for a year to see the perfectly framed Kelli O’Hara, and the producers take the trouble to replace her with Marin Mazzie but then shut it all down in eight short weeks, you see the risk. If you play with stars, make hay while the star shines. Otherwise, bank on putting your essential appeal in a title.

Like “Hamilton.”

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