Tuesday, February 13, 2018

When "The Best" Isn't Your "Favorite"

Over 35 years (gulp!) of theater-going, I've developed my own tastes and set of standards when it comes to what I like, love and hate in shows. I've learned that my tastes sometimes jibe with critical and popular consensus, and many times they don't. I've learned that there are usually many things to like and appreciate in any show, love it or hate it. Most importantly, I've learned that there is enough room in my heart to truly love  shows that are a silly, feel-good time, just as much as artistic, cerebral pieces that push the art form. Yes, it is possible for me to adore Xanadu and Mamma Mia!  just as much as I adore Next to Normal and Fun Home.

Accepting that self-truth is very freeing - it virtually wipes away any predispositions I have, and it definitely lets me attend each show with as open a mind as I can.  But it also opens up a bigger chance for disappointment come awards season.  I mean that often the "fun" and marginally acclaimed shows are wholly dismissed, ignoring the fact that even a complete flop can have award-worthy elements. (There are exceptions, of course, particularly in a weak season, but my generalization is largely still true.)

Case in point: The 2015-2016 Season: The Year of Hamilton.

Now, don't misunderstand. I respect Hamilton for everything it is and how it has become a permanent part of popular culture.  It earned and deserved all 16 of its Tony-nominations, and maybe a few more.  It is groundbreaking in several ways, not just its casting, and the sheer detail in its staging is impressive.  It speaks to our past, certainly, and it is exceptionally timely for today. It clearly strikes a nerve for most people.  I enjoyed it very much.

But I was also frustrated by it. Much of the sound of the score is a too-close rehash of In The Heights, a show I enjoyed more than Hamilton, and it feels repetitive even when you know it probably isn't.  Maybe that's because, as thoroughly staged as it is, the choreography consists of about a dozen or so moves played out in endless variations. (Cats did that decades before.)  And again, because it is so relentlessly staged, I began to realize that every song in this through-composed piece was treated like a "big number," where every single movement, inflection and lighting change is calculated only to get us to the next "button": the cast goes into a defiant stance, with a jutted chin and smug, self-congratulatory smirks, add a light pulse....and POSE! Applause. Sing. Repeat. In short, it is an impressive, but ultimately cold machine. (Though there is, I'll admit, a comfort and pleasure in a show that does all of the work for you.)

... and...POSE!


Even as Hamilton continues to pop up daily in conversation (heck, when my dad knows it exists, you know it is big) and elsewhere - sitcom references, Jeopardy categories, Wheel of Fortune puzzles, etc. - all these years later, that is not the show that I think of frequently. My absolutely favorite show of that season wasn't even nominated for Best Musical. It didn't compete in any of the "major" categories, either.  I'm talking about the amazing American Psycho.

If Hamilton proves you can make a bygone era a relevant, sexy and stylishly fashionable celebration of what is good, American Psycho proved a bygone era could be a relevant, stylishly terrifying reminder of all that was bad with our society may still be bad. Like Hamilton, American Psycho also fully committed to its concept, in this case, a sterile world that shocked as it jerked the audience between an excessive reality and a demented alt-reality, part drug induced haze, part psychotic break.  Sometimes the shifts were humorous, others were jarring and disorienting, still others were downright scary.  But all served the story and the point of view of the main character.  It left you wondering what, if anything you just witnessed "really" happened.  It is that uncertainty that was the thrill for me.  Leaving a show feeling that exhilaration that you've just gone somewhere you've never gone before is what I hope for every time I take my seat and the house lights dim. (There is, for me, an even greater comfort in a show that asks the audience to be fully present and thinking.)

With Hamilton, distance lends enchantment and perspective.  Applying modern conventions - hip hop, rap, rock and theater music, and rather poignant (and pointed) non-traditional casting - heightens the need to recall our country's founding, to celebrate the diversity that makes our country truly great, and to recognize how much further we have to go.  American Psycho was also a cautionary tale, that, sadly, prophesied that the future was about to repeat itself.  Looking back on it, the cast was decidedly "traditional," and in a setting not that far in the past, it was a scathing commentary on white male privilege, greed and excess.

By the time it was over, we saw nearly naked, perfectly toned bodies bathed in blood which seemed crazy and a little hard to witness.  Uncomfortable laughs greeted these scenes - you laughed so you didn't scream, and/or so you could put off the nagging thought that maybe upper class had/has it coming.

Timing, they say, is everything.  Had the show opened in the fall of 2016 or later, maybe American Psycho would have fared better.  Never meant to be easy on the audience, the show would not likely be a long runner in any event, but he onus of not having to fight the PR for Hamilton might have helped this unique production from getting lost in the shuffle.

More importantly, when the show was on the boards, we were in the throes of the ugly presidential campaign, and we naively thought there was just no way the very symbol of 80's excess and white privilege could actually win the election, let alone unleash conservative hell upon us.  The Trump jokes elicited hearty laughs. We got the joke. Had the show opened 6 months later, it would have been truly terrifying because then we'd know we were living it all over again. For real.

It's all about perspective...

SIDE NOTE: Had I been reviewing shows when I saw them: Hamilton (A) and American Psycho (A+)

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