How Modern Theatre Prohibits Lin Manuel Miranda to become the“Modern Shakespeare.”
For decades, scholars, writers, actors, and theatre/literature enthusiasts have all come across the same question in some form or another: who is today’s Shakespeare? As a society we look at the prolific persons who demonstrate mastery in their discipline and then create their name as a mantel for achievement, admiration, or duality, to pass down to the next “generation” that exhibits one of the three traits. In terms of literature and theatre, Shakespeare takes residence in both circles as the most prolific within the field, and the name Shakespeare has been passed down to many writers and performers. Some that come to mind include Arthur Miller and Anton Chekhov who demonstrate their Shakespeare crown by creating characters with deep modern psychology as well as using history to reflect their associated time. J.K. Rowling proved to us that the name “Harry Potter” is as important in today’s and tomorrow’s literature as Hamlet or Romeo. Walt Whitman became the voice of the people with his verse. I would even argue Alan Moore shares a stark contrast of character development and psyche in his graphic novels compared to Shakespeare with his plays. These authors, however, only demonstrate their authority in specific spheres of Shakespeare’s overall “greatness.” So who encapsulates all of these spheres?
Lin Manuel Miranda is one of the more important and influential writers of the Twenty-first Century. He has garnered an impressive amount of attention with his works In The Heights, Moana, and the 2016 cultural phenomenon, Hamilton. He is the subject of a myriad of lists regarding him as the “Modern Shakespeare” and I couldn’t agree more. So why Miranda? What did he do differently from all these other candidates mentioned before? For starters, his field of art is theatre, and from there you can see why he has more claim than some very famous novelists and poets. Not only is he working in theatre, but he is also working in musical theatre, which is arguably the more popular form of live entertainment at this current day and age. Though Shakespeare specializes in the “straight-plays” which typically denotes no musical elements involved, the evidence that Shakespeare used and employed music and song in his plays is enormous, with many of his comedies involving the clowns and court jesters to sing a song like in As You Like It and Twelfth Night, and even some of his more serious works including The Tempest and the notorious Hamlet. Diving deeper into his claim, Miranda not only employs music and singing into his works, but he uses the music of the people: rap and hip-hop. In an interview for Hamilton’s America: A Documentary Film, Public Theatre’s artistic director Oskar Eustis notes, “He’s taking the language of the people, in Shakespeare’s case he elevated it to iambic pentameter, in Lin Manuel’s case he elevated it to hip-hop and rap, and he ennobled it by turning it into verse and putting it at the center of the stage and that’s exactly what Shakespeare’s doing…” The comparisons between Shakespeare and Miranda go on and on, and it is an extraordinary thing to be living in the age of Miranda. Yet it is the current age that withholds Miranda from being named a “Modern Shakespeare”, simply because modern theatre is no longer for the people.
Theatre’s cultural importance is unquestionable. An escape to some, an art piece for others, what becomes clear is theatre is for the people. There are social, political, and economic factors that push the idea theatre to be inclusive; when all of these factors work in unison they become accessible for everyone, and when one of these factors limits the potential audience then it quickly deters inclusivity. This is what made Elizabethan theatre and Shakespeare’s work so valuable and still addressed today: it was for everyone. Social and economic positions divided the audience, where the groundlings (the pit around the stage) were made up of “porters and carters”, describes the Globe Theatre Website (“Who Came To the Theatre?”), as well as servants and apprentices of all kinds. The wealthier folk sat perched upon seats in the gallery that surrounded the theatre, and the more socially inclined and wealthier individuals sat closer to the stage for everyone to see them. Though the inclusivity ends when we realize the actors were made up of all males and all males only, that didn’t stop women from attending the performances. No matter where you were from, you were able to see a play, and Shakespeare made sure that his shows were attainable enough for the wealthy patrons to appreciate and the groundlings to laugh with.
Today in America, the social divide has siphoned its way out of everyday culture, but those wealthy enough still hold an advantage over most of the middle/lower class. As Bentleys, boats, and big houses have become luxuries to those who can afford them, the theatre has joined this pantheon in recent years. Though ticket prices for off-broadway or smaller-scale shows are a reasonable price (in the range of thirty to sixty dollars) many new and popular Broadway production’s fetches for a higher price (in the range of seventy to one-hundred dollars or more). Add on pop-cultural relevance to the title and you get MORE of an up-charge. To relate it to our subject matter, the price of the cheapest ticket to Hamilton from Broadway.com for a show in June 2020 is $199.00, and prices increase the closer you are to the stage. The price of admission into Shakespeare’s Globe in the Seventeenth century was sixpence, and that was for the seats inside the theatre. The groundling pit admission only cost 1 penny. When you convert this to the current U.S. Dollar, this pricing is estimated to be equivalent to seventy cents to one dollar (estimated with links below), which was the cost of a loaf of bread. Yes, the carters and the workman had to sacrifice part of a meal or a whole meal for a day to see live theatre, but there is no reason for the average American to spend Two-Hundred dollars on a ticket for one person.
For the record, I have YET to see Hamilton due to the fact I can’t afford it personally. There have been ways companies have tried to combat these high prices. There are, of course, student prices for tickets that lessen the price substantially. There are discounts provided by TKTS stationed in Time Square for certain shows, as well as lotteries most theatre’s hold to give away discounted tickets for performances. Hamilton holds a lottery that sells tickets to a performance for $10 known as “Ham 4 Ham.” These are great ways to get a chance to see some of the more popular shows on Broadway right now, but this relies too heavily on chance and luck, thus becoming less for “the people” and more for “the privileged and those lucky few.”
I am fortunate enough to come from a family that allows me to see a Broadway show once or twice a year, and most of that stems from living near New York City but the rest involves the fact we can afford it. I recognize my privilege and recognize not everyone has the accessibility to Broadway theatre as I do, but it was going to see Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, and Phantom of the Opera as a kid that changed my life forever. I found that I belonged to something and it felt real. I think that’s a feeling everyone should have, and I can’t imagine how someone feels with Hamilton as their first Broadway experience. The content is accessible. Hamilton was made with everyone in mind: for the Broadway veterans who are eager to see a new show, for the Broadway novices who’ve only seen one or two shows or only heard of Broadway through references and images, for the people who never listened to a Broadway soundtrack in their life but are long-time listeners for rap and hip hop, for minorities who get to see themselves center stage for the first time, for those who struggle with not belonging to their new homes or environments, Miranda wrote a piece for everyone to admire. In an interview from Shakespeare Unlimited with Jeffery and Gregory Qaiyum, both writers of Othello: The Remix and other hip-hop renditions of Shakespeare, Jeffery says “I mean, to me I was convinced that if Shakespeare were alive now that there’s no way he’d be doing anything else besides being a rapper.” I think everyone deserves to see Shakespeare, in the same way, I think everyone deserves to see Hamilton. Miranda holds the same momentum and importance to art that Shakespeare has held since he was a crowned a literary giant, and only time will prove how accessible theatre becomes in the future.