How Hamilton will change what audiences expect from the theater.

I was re-reading Story by Robert McKee last week (the classic must-read for anyone writing or producing or creating anything), and in the first few pages, I stumbled upon this chestnut:

Originality is the confluence of content and form – distinctive choices of subject plus a unique shaping of the content.  A story is not only what you have to say . . . but how you say it.

This axiom of great writing will always be true.  But in the theater, right now, in the post-Hamiltonian era that we’re in, it’s more important than ever.

Hamilton raised the bar for all of us.  Whenever something so unique comes around, and blows the hair back of audiences, critics and umpteen awards committees, the level of expectation for all of those people the next time they sit in a theater seat is different.  They expect more.  They expect different.  Hamilton has become the new control group.

We’re already seen evidence of the “Hamilton Effect.” I’d argue that the sweet Tuck Everlasting, which disappeared much quicker than anyone anticipated, and even Bright Star, which just announced it’ll shutter on June 26th, would have lasted longer in another season, before audiences, critics and the like were colored by their Hamilton experience.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Because this will challenge us all to abide by McKee’s definition like it’s law.  And it also doesn’t mean that every show has to be as drastically different as Hamilton is.  There will still be room for sweet stories, and simple stories, and period pieces with period music, and so on.

But it does mean that Writers and Producers alike will have to work a little harder, and expand their imagination even further, to create unique works that satisfy our audience’s changing cravings.

(If you haven’t read Story, let me pimp it out again – because it’s that good.  It was written for screenplays originally, but it’s just as easily translated to plays . . . and especially musicals.  I read it every couple of years to keep my dramaturgical eyes on point.)


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  • Frank says:

    If what you say really is true, then what excuse does American Psycho have? I’d argue that it is a much more ambitious undertaking than Hamilton even. And it flopped!

    To me, the theater has to have something to say. Both ‘Tuck’ and ‘Bright Star’ say nothing. The same could be said for ‘American Psycho’. While each of them are well put together shows, when you walk out of the theater you don’t really take anything away from it other than the pageantry.

    This is where Hamilton has smashed peoples expectations of theater. People leave thinking about our world, their place in it, and what it means to be “American”. It helps that we are in a presidential voting cycle, but the show would kindle these feelings regardless of timing.

    Theater needs to say something!

  • Carvanpool says:

    Wrong. You misunderstand the “Hamilton Effect”. It has nothing to do with the creative elements of the show. It has to do with the pricing.

    With the astronomical prices of Hamilton, people are seeing fewer shows. It’s Hamilton or bust. Folks that put together the small fortune required to see Hamilton won’t be coughing up the dough to see much else on Broadway. Not Bright Star, not Tuck Everlasting, not American Psycho, or others.

    You saw the year end numbers. Ex-Hamilton, Broadway is down. Hamilton is crushing it, and the competition too. The Hamilton tide is definitely not lifting all boats.

    Don’t get so caught up in the hype. Hamilton is hot now, but in a few years, there’ll be a new “paradigm shifting” show.

    Ain’t no thing.

  • Bill says:

    All I can say, Ken, is I hope you’re only half right. Because if you’re 100% right, then I’m afraid we’re doomed to seeing way too many attempts to top Hamilton by imitating it. And then what happens to the Fun Home’s, the Bright Star’s, and for that matter, The Daddy Lon Legses. Broadway needs to preserve the NEED for something “different.”

    • Joe says:

      I agree with Bill. I think we are headed into the dreaded cookie cutter remakes and knockoffs that will be inevitable. I’d prefer just straight up good story telling, great music and wonderful performances. Don’t try to be the next HAMILTON, just be the next great show.
      My money for next season is on ANASTASIA.

      • Frank says:

        Anastasia is the most cookie cutter production currently announced for next season. Based off a film, large cast, large budget, “family fair”, etc.

        Your comment contradicts itself.

        Well done.

  • Austin says:

    Having seen Hamilton, I disagree that as a production it’s groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination. Even the score (yes, it is brilliant in many respects) is not as revolutionary as we think. “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” come to mind first. They are so similar it’s laughable. I didn’t realize it until watching the production thinking, “what does this remind me of?” The style, the pacing, the structure, the energy; “Hamilton” falls into that category of “[insert popular music of time] BioPic Musical/Opera” that works better as a concept album than a staged production. People are flooding to the theater (myself included) after listening to the score expecting the most groundbreaking production they’ve ever seen, and for some reason they hype is enough to convince people that it is, but on the list of most brilliant productions I’ve ever seen (and I have seen MANY), “Hamilton” is not on the list. It’s actually a surprisingly flat and overly directed/choreographed piece that lacked emotional truth from the actors. The train has already left the station and it’s not slowing down anytime soon, but I honestly think another musical in the next year or two is going to come along (something in the vein of “Wicked” which was both a brilliant score AND a brilliant live show) and start to kill some of the “Hamilton” hype. It’s just a matter of time.

  • As a former resident of PATERSON, the City Alexander Hamilton founded, his statue greets Great Falls visitors as our newest National Park. Hamilton has a western presence here, diametrically across from his Manhattan homestead. H e was the founder of S>U>M> (Society of Useful Manufacturers) via the man-made water way system that made the l9th century Mills in Paterson function. Over a week-long period I saw the new cast in The King & I at the Beaumont where the sound system was both too low and screamingly high.for the show. Everyone seemed to rely on their body mikes with little or no emotional projection. Then I saw the denuded version of THE CRUCIBLE in vogue with a semi-abstract-workshop styled production, like the down sized diasater of John Doyle’s PETER GRIMES, COMPANY, and SWEENEY TODD.
    Having seen the original dazzling COMPANY production with Boris Aronson’s modernist design, or the final Met performance of Jon Vickers in Grimes, Doyle’s work is rank amateur.

    I sat on the orchestra for THE CRUCIBLE could only hear a few words, so in the middle of the first act, I got a pair of head phones that captured the TV like projection of the cast, aimlessly trying to make this abstract mess viable.
    While some were nominated for Tony awards; there were no winners here.
    Paterson and the Theatre will survive the media onslaught and the next mega-hit machine will commence like it did for HELLO DOLLY; MAME; CHICAGO; LIFE WITH FATHER which all ran for years in their heyday. etc

    The real HAMILTON change is the outrageous prices in those uncomfortable Broadway seats and your knee’s in your chest; like a HAMILTON hot air balloon ride… Thank God for TDF that I have used for almost 40 years.

  • Bob Graham says:

    wtf I clicked on this out of the newsletter thinking I would find analysis of a major play. My bad.

  • Donya Lane says:

    Hey Ken,

    In light of that this was a part of our recent conversation, I wanted to be sure to read this entry! So true, what McKee said… and you spotted exactly how it applies to Hamilton and everything thereafter. (I just had a funny thought: is Hamilton the Elvis or The Beatles of musical theatre?)

    For what it’s worth, after years of immersing ourselves in Story by McKee, Ed and I now find ourselves big, big devotees of Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. I highly recommend it for anyone interested!

    Thanks, Ken!

  • Jennifer says:

    Interesting comments. Are you all in NYC? Out here in the south (Atlanta) let me assure you that HAMILTON is the JCS, PHANTOM, RENT of this era. It is, for our students the “OMG I can’t believe this new thing show, it has changed my life…..I have to quote every line, and live, eat, breathe it for the year” and will be a bracket/dividing line as I think RENT was (the last such as this I think) BEFORE and AFTER RENT. NOW BEFORE AND AFTER HAMILTON.
    Good? Bad? no, just a demarcation point. AND happily there have been many non-RENT like shows since!

    I was sorry that the producers pushed “Tuck Everlasting” to open this season. It seemed it was rushed in at the last moment to meet Tony nom deadline. It’s such a wonderful show. It wouldn’t be the FIRST Broadway show to see – see the big splash but, like “Daddy Long Legs” it could have been the SECOND Broadway show! Hopefully it will have legs.

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