Hamilton, Crazy-Ex Girlfriend, and the New Golden Age of Musicals
All of a sudden, musicals are everywhere, from movies to TV to Broadway- and they’re capturing hearts beyond their traditional audience.
In early April, the Crazy Ex-Girlfiend Live tour came to Philadelphia, as part of an eight-city mini-tour featuring the cast and songs of The CW’s musical series. From the stage at the venerable Philly rock venue, The Trocadero, creator and star Rachel Bloom asked the crowd, to cheers, “What it’s like for all you musical theater people, here in a rock ’n’ roll space?”
Later in the evening, the crowd, as most Philadelphia venues tend to do, broke out in an E-A-G-L-E-S chant, in honor of the reigning Super Bowl champions. Jack Dolgen, one of the series’ songwriters, audibly expressed incredulity that “this musical theater crowd” could also be fans of football. Proof of the power of Philadelphia fandom? Perhaps. But it also showed something else.
Musicals, across multiple media, are booming. And it’s not necessarily the traditional “theater kids” who are driving it.
When you go to see Crosby, Stills, and Nash in concert, the crowd is going to be filled with men who look like David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash. Similarly, the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Live crowd was populated with quite a few ladies who resemble Rachel Bloom – 30ish, curvaceous Jewish women who almost certainly can recite the entire score of Les Miserables from memory.
But that wasn’t everyone, not by any stretch. And it demonstrates a cultural phenomenon that’s begun to sneak up lately: Musicals, across multiple media, are booming. And it’s not necessarily the traditional “theater kids” who are driving it.
Musicals are thriving at the multiplex. Recent animated films, from Frozen in 2013 to Moana in 2016 and Coco last year, have featured first-rate scores of original songs. The same is true in live action, as La La Land was a big hit in 2016 that even, for two minutes, was the Best Picture of the year. The Greatest Showman, from the same team of composers, was on no one’s radar heading into last December, but the original musical was a surprise smash, making over $430 million at the domestic box office.
Each of the last few years, the Oscar categories of Best Original Song and Best Original Score have been cutthroat competitions, with the songwriting team of Pasek and Paul (La La Land and Greatest Showman) vying with Robert Lopez and his wife Kristin Anderson Lopez (Frozen and Coco) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Moana, as well as the upcoming In the Heights, and one other project we’ll get to later.)
Even non-musical movies, like Lady Bird and Love, Simon, have featured high school characters embracing theater kid-dom.
Each of the last few years, the Oscar categories of Best Original Song and Best Original Score have been cutthroat competitions…
This is true on TV, too. NBC and Fox have been producing annual, star-studded live stagings of popular musicals, and while they’ve varied somewhat in quality, this spring’s Easter Sunday staining of Jesus Christ Superstar may have been the best received yet, while Fox’s 2016 take on Grease wasn’t far behind.
But there are two musical creations that stand above all others of the era. One has captured the mainstream zeitgeist, while the other is more of a cult phenomenon. But both are the creation of genius, visionary artists, who have combined a wide variety of influences
Best of the Best
I don’t have to tell you about Hamilton: An American Musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multi-genre, hip-hop-inflected take on the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton has won a record number of Tonys, a Pulitzer, and numerous other awards, while also capturing the cultural zeitgeist in a way no Broadway show has in decades. It also, among many other accomplishments, has functioned both as a symbol of the Obama era, and of the resistance in the Trump era.
It’s a great musical, one that pays tribute to numerous genres and styles, while featuring some of the best rhyming couplets you’ve ever heard in your life. And the original cast is among the most talented ever to come together in a Broadway show.
Something of a talking point has emerged, especially in some precincts of the political left, that Hamilton is an entirely elite phenomenon, and that it doesn’t really mean anything to anyone who can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on tickets.
There’s a whole nation out there of kids, many of them LGBT, many of them outcasts for other reasons…who realize at some point that they love musical theater.
But that’s not really true, and to say so betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how people engage with musical theater today.
There’s a whole nation out there of kids, many of them LGBT, many of them outcasts for other reasons, and many of them in small towns far from any type of professional theater scene – who realize at some point that they love musical theater. Traditionally, these kids have discovered their favorite shows by getting and listening to the cast albums, but nowadays they might check out the songs, or even the whole show, on a streaming service or even YouTube.
Such is the case with Hamilton. I consider myself a huge fan of Hamilton, can sing along with every one of its songs and even some of the ancillary Hamilton Mixtape stuff. But while I certainly hope to someday, I’ve never seen a performance of Hamilton in an actual theater. I’ve spent dozens upon dozens of workdays (and one 10K running race) listening to the entire Hamilton score on YouTube, and aside from a couple of iTunes downloads, I’ve never spent any money on my Hamilton fandom:
…Hamilton has won a record number of Tonys, a Pulitzer, and numerous other awards, while also capturing the cultural zeitgeist in a way no Broadway show has in decades.
It’s also far from traditional musical theater types who love Hamilton. Many have come to their fandom through the hip-hop side of it, or covers of its songs from the likes of Kelly Clarkson. When my cousin, a sports-loving, 40-something dad, came to visit recently, all he wanted to listen to was Hamilton.
“She’s so broken inside…”
While Hamilton has captured the zeitgeist in a huge way, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is more of a niche phenomenon. It’s on The CW, a third-tier broadcast network in which it doesn’t present a natural fit. There are some weeks when it is the lowest rated show on broadcast TV, and it was recently renewed for a fourth season that will be its last.
But even still: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is something truly special. It’s a show that takes the titular prototype, turns it on its head, and makes the crazy ex-girlfriend the protagonist. It allows her to be openly mentally ill.
Oh, and the show has around three original songs per episode – nearly 100 of them through three seasons. And the songs are inspired by all sorts of diverse musical styles, from classic Broadway to pop to classic torch songs. Only on that show could all of the following fit into the same universe:
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is something truly special…takes the titular prototype, turns it on its head…allows her to be openly mentally ill.
These songs, written by Bloom, Dolgen, and former Fountains of Wayne bassist, Adam Schlesinger, translated perfectly to the live tour, which sold out all eight shows in minutes.
Sure, a lot of those tickets went to traditional musical theater enthusiasts. But at the same time some of them didn’t. As with so much of the new wave of musicals, across numerous kinds of media, the influences are diverse- and the audiences even more so.