I confess to mixed emotions. These emotions ping-pong between gratitude and longing.
Let’s start with the gratitude.
Like nearly every theatre person in the world with a good internet connection, I eagerly consumed Lin-Manuel Miranda’s epic musical theatre masterpiece, Hamilton, when it ceremoniously dropped on July 3rd on Disney Plus. Although I had listened to the soundtrack, I had still never actually seen the show. Sadly, the $400+ tickets for the touring productions priced this theatre professor out of the market. Thankfully, Disney Plus’ original cast video-recording of a 2016 performance stands out as one of the finer attempts to capture live theatre. In particular, Andy Blankenbuehler’s symbolic choreography and Howell Binkley’s evocative lighting design, both Tony winners, translated beautifully to video. Dance and design lifted Miranda’s voluminous score with dozens of kinetic and poignant stage pictures. From the battle of Yorktown to the hero’s death by dual, Hamilton proves a visually striking show.
But among the dozens of beautiful moments on display throughout the production, two of the simpler images that take place late in the story hit me the hardest. Draped in black and bathed in luminous blue light, a bereft Eliza Hamilton (Phillipa Soo) stands beside her estranged husband (Miranda) following the death of their son. Prompted by the lyric, “There is a grace too powerful to name,” Eliza delicately reaches across the divide of adultery and neglect to take her husband’s longing and repentant hand. This discrete gesture of forgiveness radiates the spartan stage with palpable beams of reconciliation and redemption as the chorus soothingly sings, “Forgiveness, can you imagine?”
Likewise, listening to the soundtrack did not prepare me for the delicate final images of watching Alexander tenderly wait in the background for his resilient wife to join him in eternity. In the haunting finale, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” Eliza reveals how she spent her fifty years of widowed life striving to further her husband’s legacy. On the final refrain, she notices her husband watching her from upstage. As if between worlds, they circle each other lovingly. Singing the concluding line of the musical, she turns towards the audience and lets out a pained yet strangely joyful scream, as if simultaneously dying and joining her beloved.
As illustrated by these two subtle examples, the filmed production of Hamilton reverberates with poignant threads of redemption and a fleetingly heartfelt glimpse of the Kingdom. The opportunity to view these powerful moments inspires gratitude. Bravo.
Now, for the longing…
As I passively absorbed a videotaping of a landmark musical, I longed for more, for something that we have all been missing for months now: the collective vibrancy of sharing space with our fellow humans. Let’s just say that streaming theatre, while worthwhile, is a shadow on the cave compared to the live variety. Like the ambitious antagonist of Hamilton, Aron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), I would so much rather be in “the room where it happened.”
The great Russian director and founder of modern acting, Constantine Stanislavski, uses the religiously-charged word “communion” to describe the invisible bonding among actors and audience members that occurs in live theatre. Similarly, Sir Peter Brook, one of the most innovative theatre directors and theorists of the 20th Century, articulates this metaphysical connection with the phrase “Immediate Theatre.” In his seminal book The Empty Space, Brookuses this term to describe the almost spiritual connection that exists between actors and audience. Brook observes that this connection does not translate to film because film lives exclusively in the past while theatre shares the present. On those good nights in the theatre, Brook observes, “The audience assists the actor, and at the same time for the audience itself assistance comes back from the stage.”
The Reformed tradition teaches us that, at its best, art functions as a form of worship. I personally like to think of the stage as an altar, a place of transcendence where I grow closer to my Creator. For the past four months, my little Episcopal church has “worshiped” via Zoom. Many larger congregations have recorded weekly services that they then steam asynchronously to the masses. While I appreciate these efforts to worship virtually, I confess that I am getting pretty damned sick of Zoom church. The basic service remains the same, but distanced fellowship lacks the visceral contact of Stanislavski’s communion. Virtual worship, while necessary, wants desperately for Brook’s “immediacy.” The tricks and glitz video of production does erase this fact.
Like church, theatre thrives on this sense of reciprocity, of fellowship, of synergy, of a collection of individuals somehow becoming one. Recent studies have shown that live theatre can synchronize audiences’ heartbeats, even if they do not know each other. As I watched and admired Hamilton with my family, I could not help but notice that none of us, theatre lovers all, joined the recorded audience in spontaneously bursts of applause, nor did we stand in ovation from our basement couch in sublime admiration after the glorious closing number. Although engaged, we played no role in the event. Passive observers all. I sincerely doubt that heartbeats synchronize during Zoom church or in recorded productions of Broadway shows. Sadly, virtual worship diminishes the palpable sensation of the body of Christ.
Please don’t misunderstand. As we struggle to flourish during this sickeningly destructive global pandemic, I am grateful that Disney streamed Hamilton and that Zoom church exists as an alternative to corporal worship. And I am certainly not advocating that we risk spreading COVID-19 by packing our houses of worship, whether they be churches or theatres. I am simply lamenting what we have lost and what we continue to lose daily.
This dark time of global pandemic will certainly change us; God will likely use this change for good. But through our transformations, I cling to one persistent and stubborn prayer for the time when, God willing, we can safely meet together again in closed spaces. Through the memory of its absence, may we better appreciate and savor the innate human need to commune in groups, the glory and edification of literally passing bread and wine to our neighbors, and the delightfully awkward joy of sharing the peace of the Lord in public settings. Mostly, I pray for a return to the edifying magic of sitting in dark theatres, becoming one with strangers, if only for ephemeral but sustaining moments of shared grace.
The final moments of Hamilton encapsulate this prayer. Eliza sings, “Oh, I can’t wait to see you again. /It’s only a matter of time.”