EXCLUSIVE: Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres majority owner and president Jordan Roth talk about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.
GERARD: Every fall, sure as the leaves turning, movies based on historical fact come under fire for their creativity with facts — usually prompted by competing studios surreptitiously angling for the inside track against Oscar front-runners. And just as predictably, critics take the bait, coughing up chewy essays about the responsibility of history-themed films to stick to the facts or, even worse, questioning what we journalists call the “preferred narrative” of a story.
I think it’s inevitable, then, that just weeks before both the Tony nominations and the Pulitzer Prize announcements (they’re coming on Monday), The New York Times would run a silly Page 1 takedown of Hamilton, questioning Lin-Manuel Miranda’s take on the foundling founding father. About the worst the usually fine reporter Jennifer Schuessler could come up with was historians saying that Miranda overstated Alexander Hamilton’s abolitionist stance. I feel slightly conflicted about this subject because I questioned the wisdom of a Rockefeller Foundation grant that put the study of Hamilton into the New York public school curriculum and underwrote cheap tickets for 20,000 students in underserved districts to see the show. I’m all for students seeing Broadway shows but I’d rather see Hamilton taught as a — oh I’m going to use that word — disruptive work of dramatic art than as history, just I would say the same of Billy Big Boy’s Richard III.
However, Hamilton is adapted from Ron Chernow’s celebrated biography of that man and the Times conveniently left out the appraisal of one of the country’s leading historians and popular writers on the subject of the American Revolution, Brown University professor Gordon S. Wood. Maybe that’s because Wood beat the Times to the punch with his essay in the January 14th issue of The New York Review Of Books, in which Wood admitted with some joyous astonishment that Miranda’s achievement is a formidable act of truth-telling in a more typically truth-bending medium. He wrote:
“Burr poses the crucial thematic question: ‘How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a/Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten/spot in the Caribbean by providence,/impoverished, in squalor,/grow up to be a hero and a scholar?’ Miranda has Hamilton’s close friend John Laurens give the answer. ‘The ten-dollar founding father without a father/got a lot farther by working a lot harder,/by being a lot smarter,/by being a self-starter.’ Then Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and Hamilton’s wife Eliza chime in with a succinct rhyming narrative of Hamilton’s early years. Chernow has said that this opening song, less than five minutes long, ‘accurately distills’ the first forty pages of his book.”
It was as if the Times needed to demonstrate that it could show some critical distance as well. But this was small beer indeed.
ROTH: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” as another lyric from the show puts it. That’s the point. Ron Chernow told his story of Hamilton, Lin told his story of Ron’s story, and now you, the press, are telling your story of Lin’s story of Ron’s story of Hamilton. It’s a fascinating, collectively created, postmodern piece in itself, playing out in real time every day in newspapers, websites, TV and radio. Yours, like theirs, is a story about singular genius and worldwide fascination. A fascination you created by rightly heralding the genius and now a fascination you have to satisfy by continuing to tell more story. So this latest article is not born of competitor mudslinging – are there any competitors here for the top prize? – or the Times doing an about-face takedown, but rather this is just the next reason they could think of to write about Hamilton. To feed and continue the fascination. And the story is told not just in words, but in placement – page A1, the place of the world’s most fascinating news. Of course, we’re following suit right here, collaborators in telling this ongoing story. And to be clear, calling it the press’ story doesn’t mean it’s not true — the show is genius and we all are fascinated — just as calling the musical Lin’s story doesn’t mean it’s not true. But that was your point.
GERARD: Exactly. Still, nitpicking Hamilton strikes me as a useless and, worse, philistine exercise. Next topic: I’m a little punch drunk these days from covering both the end of the Broadway season and the Tribeca Film Festival, whose 15th edition is fully underway. There’s a firm theatrical underpinning to many of the movies being screened, from James Lapine’s Custody, a New York-set feature whose cast includes Viola Davis, Tony Shalhoub (a star of Lapine’s Act One) and Raul Esparza, to The Last Laugh, a documentary about “Holocaust humor” in which Mel Brooks holds forth on The Producers, to the bomb, an interactive multimedia be-in with live music. At one panel, Jodie Foster and Julie Taymor will discuss the creative process (I hope they’ll discuss whatever they want, but that’s the line), while others include stars who’ve been drawn to Broadway lately, including Chris Rock and Tom Hanks.
All of which got me thinking that as this growing festival, so much a part of our cultural fabric now, has embraced television and other genres, where’s the theater component? Paula Weinstein – the film producer who is exec v.p. of Tribeca Enterprises – told me that TFF’s commitment above all is to story-telling. With companies like The Flea and Soho Rep adding so much to downtown life and more Hollywood-Broadway cross-pollination than ever before, there ought to be a live theater aspect to TFF. Not long ago I spoke at the Salzburg Festival (co-founded by theater and film director Max Reinhardt and playwright Hugo von Hoffmansthal) about the need to integrate more American theater into that festival as it expands from classical music and opera to include plays, as it once did. The Tribeca Film Festival should take a similar lead in that direction right here in NYC.
ROTH: I love this idea and I know Tribeca founder and theater-lover Jane Rosenthal will too. Tribeca actually launched a Tribeca Theatre Festival back in 2004 in collaboration with the Drama Dept, but it was short-lived. Over 10 years later as the festival has expanded and evolved, so let’s try it again. I think you’re suggesting not a stand-alone theater festival but rather incorporating theater into the flagship festival. I particularly love that, as it can highlight the ways all the different forms of story-telling impact and inform each other — of course film, TV and theater, but also other elements of our creative culture. We both loved Wednesday’s festival opening night screening of the documentary The First Monday in May, a masterful exploration of the masterful work of curating both the Met costume exhibit and the Met Gala celebrating it. In its opening moments, Anna Wintour not only frames the film and the art form it explores but also leads us towards our first prospective theater panel with her words: “Fashion is a kind of theater.” I’m imagining geniuses of fashion, retail, restaurant, public space all exploring the theatricality of their respective fields. Of course, mirroring the film panels and screenings, we’d want to see theater panels and performances. And I imagine they’d be curated to reflect the festival’s mission of supporting downtown New York and/or this broader theme of story-telling and creative forms in conversation with one another. Could be encore performances of the best of downtown theater from the previous year. Could be new collaborations among theater and film artists and other creators. I’d love to hear other thoughts from our readers in the comments section.
GERARD: Speaking of panels, the engrossing event in which Ethan Hawke and Patti Smith swapped tales from their lives was in effect a theater lovefest. Smith recalled her early, fiery collaboration with Sam Shepard on Cowboy Mouth at the American Place Theatre and its impact on the rest of her life as poet and rocker. Hawke responded recalling the role a production of Shepard’s True West had on his devotion to the form, including his work with The New Group and his memorable performances in Tom Stoppard’s epic trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, at the Beaumont. So yes, Tribeca: Bring it on.