How Important Is Context?
The musical that has taken Broadway by storm is now casting its eyes elsewhere. West End’s most famous producer, Cameron Mackintosh, is working with the Broadway team to bring Hamilton across the ditch. And it was also announced that they were looking at an Australian launch next. But will it carry the same resonance in these musical hubs outside America?
What makes any form of entertainment great? What is the one key to success? What ties all the entertainment monoliths together? Relatability.
Television viewers saw themselves (and their friends) in the FRIENDS characters. Musical audiences can relate to the struggles the two witches undergo in Wicked. The songs which hit the top of the charts consistently deal with average problems that we all experience. Even incredibly popular movie franchises such as Star Wars and Harry Potter contain heroes that are just like us until they get a miraculous opportunities. We constantly crave to see ourselves in our entertainment. And that is one of the reasons why Hamilton has become such a big hit on Broadway.
Hamilton is an American story. It follows the one founding father who no-one knows. The impact he had on the constitution, the development of America’s government and his untimely death. It is a political commentary on immigration at the exact time when everybody is talking about immigration (Thank you Donald Trump!). And ultimately it gives audiences an insight into how America became what it has become today – something which resonates incredibly strongly with Americans.
This is, of course, not the only reason why it is successful. It keys into a theatre audience who is looking for something new, fresh and edgy. It appeals to the tourist market who wants to see a Broadway show but have more interest in Jay-Z than Rodgers & Hammerstein. And it appeals to a younger adult audience who struggle to find an option for them on the Great White Way.
But will this same confluence of factors lead to success overseas?
I recently heard an interview with Broadway presenter Jeff Chelesvig. His job is to program theatre for a regional audience in Des Moines. He looks at the hits on Broadway, balances those against what his audience will want to see and devises a year-long program that will engage and excite subscription audiences. And he discovered something very interesting.
Bridges of Madison County wasn’t a hit with audiences on Broadway. Despite telling an emotionally moving story accompanied by a phenomenal series of songs, it didn’t hit the right chord with the Broadway audiences and encourage a frenzy of ticket buying. But it did in Des Moines. Why? Because it told a story that Des Moines residents could identify with and see themselves in the characters. In fact, the real bridges of Madison County are only a short drive from the theatre.
These audiences really loved the opportunity to see a story that reflected themselves on the stage. And it meant they had a fantastic time with a show which really struggled in a New York environment.
So what is my point . . .
Is Hamilton’s success dependant on its location? The story has a lot more resonance with Americans than it does with any other country. The New York audiences are largely tourist-based, meaning people who wouldn’t usually see a show want to see one (whereas many other musical scenes rely on return visitation from their existing more-traditional audiences). And Americans are currently debating immigration in the Parliament, in the workplace and on the streets.
Don’t get me wrong, I will be first in line to buy a ticket when it comes out to Australia. But will it receive the same success in different cultural contexts?