Recently I read an article in the New York Times titled "Free Yourself from the Wisdom of the Crowd." The article talks about five star ratings and how we rely on strangers when we are making purchasing decisions, generally through online ratings. Given that only a small percentage of people write reviews, this can be risky business.
Author Joann Chen quotes Matthew Salganik, author of "Bit by Bit: Social Research in a Digital Age" who says: "Knowing more about what other people are doing and thinking can help us all find the best things faster but it can also lead to stronger fads where people are following people who are following people who are following people."
Although the subject matter, consumer online shopping, is different in many ways, the article resonated with me on a topic completely different -- the musical "Hamilton."
I should give you a little background here, so you know where I'm coming from. I go to the theatre lot. I was a theatre major in college. I've seen numerous professional companies, including shows on Broadway, London's West End and countless professional touring companies. I go less now than I used to -- it's way too expensive.
But when "Hamilton" came to town (ticket prices starting at $125 and up) I knew I had to see it.
Because everyone was seeing (or had seen) it. Some of my very good theatre loving friends had seen it many times, often traveling to distant cities to see it. (Think about it -- the theatre ticket, travel, accommodations, just to see a show. I say this, but I timed our visit to London to see "Company," so as far as travel for theatre goes, that one is up there!) And more to the point, just about everyone loved this show. Loved it over and over. Everyone from professional theatre critics to longtime theatre-going friends to enthusiastic amateurs who seldom attend the theatre.
I wanted to love it like everyone else. I wanted to say it was the best thing I'd ever seen. I wanted to be able to say to everyone I knew, "You've got to see it, you just have to!"
I was falling into the category of the person who reads the five-star online review. Just assuming it would be the best because everyone says it is. Maybe you've seen it and agree. From the bottom of your heart you agree it would be worth every penny of $172 for a seat. (Good seats, I might add). And I don't want to detract from any enjoyment of the show for anyone. I'm glad you enjoyed it because I know you probably paid a lot for the tickets! I feel for anyone who also was taking their kids and spending in the $500 zone for a family to see it, because you could do a lot with those dollars. And I admire you, too, for taking your kids to live theatre! It's the only way it will survive -- building an audience while they are young who appreciate the excitement of real drama happening in front of their very eyes.
But I am one of the outliers.
I am not quite a "Hamilton hater" (this is a wonderful article in the Chicago Tribune on this topic). But I didn't love it. And I've been agonizing on why, having discussions with some who are like-minded and others who are big fans.
I really did love the set. (My friend Jan took this one!)
And I admire the work tremendously. I think the writing and concept is truly genius. A (mostly) rap musical about a historical figure most don't know except for his photo on a ten dollar bill and the history surrounding Alexander Hamilton seems, well, dull. And yet, Hamilton's life and the events in the musical are anything but. The show has the power to reach a group of people for whom going to the theatre is a rare, elitist thing. And, it has the power to bring music that the theatre-going norm (and I'm talking about the audience we saw, which was largely 50-plus white people) to a new audience. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creative genius behind the show, deserves the kudos he gets.
(Rick said it reminded him of a Harlem Globetrotters game where the people doing the work were almost entirely minorities and the people watching were white.)
But the show I saw wasn't the CD I listened to before attending. (And if you are thinking of doing so, you'd better listen to it a lot and commit the words to memory.) The CD was crisp, clear. The music well mixed. The orchestra didn't overpower the vocals, especially the raps. It's not my genre and yet I found myself liking the CD very much.
The show (which is almost exactly the CD and all sung) is at the mercy of its performers and orchestra. As I struggled to hear over the orchestra, I wasn't able to sit back and let it really move me. I was working too hard. There were serious diction issues with some of the performers even when you could hear them (not everyone felt that but I wonder -- were they the people who had committed the show to memory? I would bet yes.) There was so much going on onstage that I felt overwhelmed and couldn't focus. Too many dancers, too many words, too much, too much.
And yes, there were a few real standout performers. I will give them their due for they saved it for me. Unfortunately, Hamilton wasn't one of them. There are other things that bothered me that I wouldn't hesitate to mention except it's probably not relevant to you so I'll skip it. But that wasn't my only criticism.
But as I said, I was the outlier. The audience leapt to their feet at the end (apart from Jan and me, and eventually I did because when you have people standing in front of you, you can't see what's going on.) It certainly was a hard-working cast and they deserved applause. And it's pretty obvious to me our group were the outliers of the audience. You can recognize this in yourself when you keep wondering "how much longer can this go on" when everyone else is going "oh, I hope it never ends."
As we were walking out, I said, "I am so tired." And Mark said, "You haven't been dancing for three hours." To which I replied, "No, I've just been assaulted for three hours." And surprisingly, a woman walking out overhead me and said, "I know just what you mean."
I wonder -- is it all the advance hype? I think that plays a part -- all those five-star ratings. If all I knew was that it was a rap musical about Alexander Hamilton and it won the Pulitzer and the Tony, would I have liked it more? I think so. But knowing it was "Best thing ever!" -- that's pretty subjective.
It makes me nervous to really recommend anything with that awed "WOW! You have GOT to go." I've said that before, because it was what I believed. But all I will say from now on is, "I really loved it and thought it was the best thing I'd been to in ages (or the worst) but it's up to you."
Because things really are subjective, aren't they? As Jan said several days later, "I think opera is a work of genius too, but I don't like it." And then we had another glass of wine because just talking about it got us agitated!
We can admire what we don't care for and respect it for what it is. In this case, I admire the huge educational outreach of Hamilton to schools and young people and their willingness to make a large number of ticket available at a $10 rate through a daily lottery. They can afford it -- but that doesn't mean they have to do it. I admire the scope of the writing. There's a boatload of info packed in there, a number of fun or good musical comedy songs, and lots and lots (and lots) of words that rhyme. I know how hard that is. Indeed, it has me working on my own rap musical entitled "The Mueller Report." Seriously. The prologue is finished. I'm now starting work on the second section, titled "Volume I." Because I've got the time and I can do this kind of thing. (And it's a darned good way to read a pretty fascinating report! As much as I say I hate to recommend anything after my Hamilton experience, I will say love it or hate it, every American should read it.)
None of us felt we got our money's worth out of the show, even though we were all glad we saw it. If I won one of their $10 lottery tickets I would have returned, hoping to see more. And maybe that's why people go so often. Once is not enough when there is too much to take in.
If you haven't seen it, I do hope you enjoy it more than we did, that you find it worth the ticket price. (Our combined ticket price could have bought us a nice little B&B weekend with a really good dinner. In season so think that on through.) I really want you to like live theatre. I want you to LOVE it. I want you to go enough so you know what YOU like and what you don't.
But don't just take anyone's recommendation for your opinion, including mine. Love or hate it or anything in-between. But let your review be your own.
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