The Senseless Sensationalism of “Hamilton” and “Harry Potter”
Consider that statement brazen. Consider it sensationalist. Whichever way you look at it, it reflects exactly what theatre has been reduced to on both sides of the Atlantic — a headline-grabbing soundbite intended to draw in the wider reader.
Whereas sensationalism in mainstream media aims to overhype news or events in order to present a bias or to widen their virality — typically at the expense of professional journalism best practices — in theatre journalism it mostly occurs in an effort to get stories into the mainstream. Hamilton has arguably made Broadway musicals cross over into a much wider swath of popular culture, but that effort, and efforts like it, have caused a casual abandonment of editorial guidelines, press embargoes and other well-worn traditions that has changed how arts editors, and journalism itself, operate.
Right now, the British press is consumed with the build-up to the Brexit referendum. It is being billed as “the biggest political decision of a generation.” News columns, opinion pieces, debates, commentary — and persistent polling — have taken over virtually all forms of media, in much the same way that the presidential election has done for the US this year. But above that noise, above the fury and the rage, the theatre has managed to poke its head above the parapet and find its way into the mainstay news, nestled right up there with Trump’s racism and the war against ISIS.
And all it took was a little bit of magic. Unless you’ve been locked in Azkaban for the past week, the biggest theatrical opening of the year occurred at the Palace Theatre in the West End last Tuesday, the first previews of J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Divided into two parts, the plays run in repertory, with audiences taking them in on a marathon day or over consecutive evenings. They are billed as the “eighth part” of the internationally best-selling franchise about life at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
A casual abandonment of editorial guidelines.
The cynical amongst us may raise an eyebrow at the need for an extension to the Harry Potter franchise in the first place. The most cynical of us all may question the need to commit audiences to double the ticket price to take it all in. Still, the “event” has made the theatre front page news, and London arts a center, once again, of international attention. Whilst this may seem like a strange fact to complain about, I worry that the level of coverage — that is, the sensationalism attached to it — in fact damages the nature of arts coverage, especially when journalists are fighting to retain positions on news desks everywhere.
The problem is the scale of the hype. Cursed Child has become the London equivalent of Hamilton as it enables sensationalist journalism at its most base. Each week, any number of London productions begin previews or hold official press nights, but few get coverage beyond the traditional, ever-shrinking arts desks of the national newspapers. The new British musical The Go Between, which marks the Olivier- and Tony-winning Michael Crawford’s return to the West End, actually held its press night on the same day as Harry Potter’s first preview. No prizes for guessing which “event” got the real coverage.
And this was just the first day of the first week of a six-week Cursed Child preview period. There are already reports of arts journalists from national tabloid papers filing reviews during the intermission of the first of the two plays. Not only does this break all sorts of professional embargoes, it promises readers little more than half-baked assessments of what they witnessed. Thankfully, thanks to Rowling and her team’s #keepthesecrets marketing, few actual spoilers found their way onto mainstream media, and Twitter once again proved to be a valuable tool in policing those journalists who continued to speak out of turn.
Aside from the usual fluff pieces and Internet speculation, at that first preview BBC News and ITV placed journalists outside the theatre, armed with camera crews, to focus on the lucky “golden ticket” winners and to interview audiences both before and after the show, attempting to break news. Websites such as WhatsOnStage.com un-ironically tweeted updates throughout the day of people standing outside the theatre, with speculation about what they were doing. We were one step away from interviewing the road-sweepers on their thoughts. This is the definition of “utterly excessive.”
Similarly, last weekend, the New York Times arts section ran three separate articles on Hamilton in an extension of what Internet message boards are calling “HamilTimes.” Scarcely a day goes by without one think-piece or another on the show, often at the expense of a wide variety of other theatre and arts that New York has to offer. Feeding into this machine generates hype (and millions of dollars of free marketing) for a show that is so sold out that it recently extended its upper price bracket to more than $800 per ticket.
The problem is the scale of the hype.
I’m in two minds as to how helpful this sensationalism is to the wider theatre industry. Since Hamilton has been the favored pick of journalists up and down the US, demand has long since outstripped supply, and so the “sensation” of Hamilton is now a snake that eats its own tail. One can argue that the interest in Hamilton has raised the profile of Broadway theatre in general and exposed people to other musicals that they can get tickets to, but there’s an equally strong argument that such overexposure damages the perspective of “ordinary” audiences as to what theatre is — and of the interest paid to it by those outside the theatre bubble. If journalism reflects only art deemed “worthy” of being sensationalized, then does an “ordinary” audience member, maybe one swayed by mainstream coverage, grow dependent on that sensationalism to instruct their ticket-buying choices?
I’m one of the blessed half a million or so people who have seen Hamilton. I’ve been there, I’ve loved it and I’ve happily bought the overpriced t-shirt. At a wedding rehearsal dinner a few days later, we were introduced as “the guys who saw Hamilton.” Within half an hour I had explained everything from how I got tickets, to exactly how difficult the rap is to understand for an older person, to the amount of tears Phillipa Soo actually sheds in “Burn.” It got to the point where I feared we were upstaging the bride; I was one step away from creating a receiving line to make answering questions easier. I was struck not only by people’s overall engagement with the topic, but by the fact that in my years of working in theatre journalism, I had never felt the same level of interest in my work or what I had seen. Hamilton was one of nine shows I saw during my week in New York. Yet, as soon as I began to talk of the charm and delight of She Loves Me or the breathtaking choreography of Shuffle Along, my audience glazed over and found a sudden interest in the table of vol-au-vents.
With the ever-growing trend of celebrity-led productions, sensationalized theatre coverage is ever-growing right along with it. In London, Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet at the Barbican last summer threatened to destroy the Internet, what with publications fighting for click-bait and article upon article covering every aspect of the production as stoked by its PR team, which dutifully drip-fed information to the press in order to build momentum. When various publications ran first-night reviews immediately following the first preview, the tone of the PR campaign immediately turned sour. Those publicists who had encouraged such coverage now found themselves on a slippery moral high-ground, demanding that editors take down the early reviews and abide by press embargoes.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has poked the dozing dragon of sensationalism once again, and with a such long preview period underway, it’s unlikely that all press will adhere to the rules of theatrical warfare. Like Hamilton, it’s London’s hottest ticket — the show is sold out for the rest of 2016 and the majority of 2017, and the online weekly ticket lottery is proving to be a huge frustration for fans from all over the world. As the demand to see the show grows beyond control, and will no doubt peak again upon the arrival of the official press night and the worldwide publication of the script this July 31, you can be sure that sensational coverage will no doubt rise right alongside it. How much is too much? We are soon to find out.