Tag Archives: Broadway

Show vs. Book: 1984

19841984 on Broadway: We are Big Brother

by Samantha Holle

It was a humid, sweltering day in September, and the clocks were striking three. It was time for the Sunday matinee of 1984.

In case you evaded reading it in high school, 1984 is the story of Winston Smith, an average Joe living in a not-so-average world: after tremendous world-wide territorial battles, Earth has been split into three superstates that are perpetually at one another’s throats. Winston lives in Oceania (what used to be London) and works at a government agency called the Ministry of Truth. His job is to literally rewrite history: when a person has been “unpersoned” — erased from society for going against the government — it is Winston’s job to go back into the files of history and remove any mention of this person’s name. The goal is to keep up the idea that Big Brother, the entity which governs and controls everything in Oceania, is never wrong, is never defied, and always comes up victorious.

But when we meet Winston, he is growing tired of this life. He has seen proof in his work that people who were labeled “government enemies” were not where they were said to be nor were they doing the illegal acts for which they were vaporized. Winston hates Big Brother and the society that lives for war, destruction, and the beating down of the human spirit.

Then he meets Julia, a coworker who, on the outside, doesn’t seem to be Winston’s type: She is a diligent worker at the MiniTruth (as the Ministry of Truth is called in the new vernacular, Newspeak). She screams the loudest and with the most vigor during the Two Minutes Hate, a daily event in which everyone watches a televised murder of an enemy of the state by government officials. It comes as a complete surprise to Winston when Julia quietly reveals that she, too, hates Big Brother and wants to defy the government by feeling love and experiencing freedom.

But there are no secrets in Oceania. Television screens can watch you as you watch them. Neighbors listen at keyholes for any sounds of dissent. People throw one another to the wolves to save themselves. And Winston and Julia soon find themselves biting off far more than they can chew when they get involved in the underground resistance movement called The Brotherhood. Their relationship — and their secret opinions of Big Brother — become more than an act of rebellion. Soon they have to decide which is preferable: a difficult life of defiance and secrecy, or an easy life of love for only Big Brother.

The novel has recently gained popularity, and it’s not hard to see why: Phrases like “fake news” and “alternative facts” pervade our conversations. People communicate via screen more frequently than they communicate in person, and the concept of handheld devices monitoring one’s actions and locations is now a definitive reality. There is little room for intelligent conversation between people of differing opinions, as the ability to argue without screaming has almost entirely disappeared. In these times, it seems every day has a little bit of a Two-Minutes Hate.

It is a dark thought: are we living in the world Orwell imagined almost 70 years ago?

That is the question that Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan pose to their audiences through their stage adaptation of the novel. The two brought Orwell’s 1948 publication to life  in 2013 in the UK; the play was brought to the Big Apple for previews this past May. Just a little over a month later, it began to make serious headlines because people began to fall ill as they watched, especially during the extreme torture scenes at the end.

As an English teacher who has read the novel twice, I went into the play fully aware of this. How bad could it be if I already know that what I’m going to see is disturbing?

The answer to that question: no number of articles about the play or my understanding of the book could’ve prepared me for it. I left the theater uneasy, nauseous, and dizzy. It wasn’t the strobe lights and sound effects, or the fake blood, or the electrocution scene, or the revelation about what really happens when a dissenter is brought into room 101. It was the way some things hit close to home: the bastardization of the English language in order to reduce meaning (and thus kill meaningful conversation), the discomfort between people of varying opinions, the confusion of trying to balance what one feels is right and what everyone else is doing. Yes, 1984 takes place in a dystopian future, but there are present day elements. The lines between the fictional content and our reality blur.

Content and nausea aside, what made this play stand out from any I’d seen previously was the incorporation of media. The production utilizes overhead projectors and hand-held video cameras to capture action that the audience cannot see from their seats: Winston’s diary entries are projected onto a screen above his head as he writes; Julia and Winston’s secret trysts are recorded off stage in a secret room and played on this same screen. This allows the audience to feel like Big Brother in that we have access to people’s privacy, but it also creates sympathy for those being watched.

Ultimately, the novel comes to life in disturbing vividness on Broadway. There is no better indicator of this play’s construction of confusion than the opening scene: Winston is writing in his diary, questioning if the year is actually 1984 or if that’s just what he’s been told. He is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a group who are discussing “the book” and that the act of writing it is, in and of itself, a small act of rebellion. The group explains that without the book, we’d have no way of knowing how bad the past really was and how to avoid these mistakes in the future. It is, at first, unclear about whether or not they are talking about Winston’s diary. Later, the audience comes to understand that this group was the resistance, and they were discussing the book of Emmanuel Goldstein, public enemy number one of Big Brother and leader of the Brotherhood.

However, is it such a stretch to imagine that they might have been talking about Orwell’s book?

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Show vs. Book: Ragtime

America at the start of the 20th century was a crazy time that involved a fair amount of ragtime music, vaudeville and racism — lots and lots of racism. All that is portrayed in the story of Ragtime, which follows the collision of an upper class family from New Rochelle, a family of immigrants and a family of lower class African-Americans.

Side stories along the way detail the atrocities and everyday happenings the nation faced at the time, including the murder trial of Evelyn Nesbitt’s husband, the richness and oddities of JP Morgan and Henry Ford and the up-and-coming magic of Harry Houdini.

But the story truly takes off when Mother — the mother of the upper class family — finds an African American baby in her yard and takes it in. Soon, the child’s mother, Sarah, follows and stays in Mother’s home with her family until she can handle taking care of her baby. While staying with the family, Sarah’s ex-lover, Coalhouse, visits everyday in an attempt to win Sarah back and spend time with his son. Coalhouse is a well-known African-American, ragtime pianist whose car is then trashed and vandalized by the city’s firefighters. It’s enough for Coalhouse to completely erupt and damage the lives and relationships around him until his world spirals and crumbles, leaving all other nearby players to pick up the pieces.

There are too many characters and subplots in the book to detail here, but suffice to say the musical does a wonderful job of zeroing in on the most important and exciting parts of the story and bringing them to life. The novel’s beginning is bogged down by the story of Evelyn Nesbitt, which becomes irrelevant by the end. The novel also includes a lot of details about Morgan, Ford and Houdini. While interesting and helpful in setting the tone of the time, they also don’t do much to move the story along. The musical smartly cuts a lot of this and instead focuses on the Coalhouse storyline, which is the most heartbreaking and also the most socially-conscious.

Because of the visual aspect of the show — the sets, the silhouettes — the story’s symbolism also becomes much more apparent than in the book. The musical, for instance, makes a clear distinction between the immigrants, the upper class white people and the lower class black people. The silhouettes, which are only mentioned in the book as an art form, are used throughout the show and acknowledge the show’s theme: that color and race should not be the most important thing about a person.

Ragtime, the novel, was enjoyable, until I saw the show and saw how much more focused it was in its storytelling — and the incredible music didn’t hurt either.

Get Ragtime in paperback for $10.

Or on your Kindle for $11.99.

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‘Hamiltome’ Sold Out on Amazon

51figkm9nulThree days in, and the long-awaited book Hamilton: The Revolution — nicknamed Hamiltome — is already out of stock on Amazon, according to Entertainment Weekly.

The book, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, is the entire script of the smash Broadway hit show Hamilton, including annotations by Miranda. The audiobook version of it is partially read by Miranda and — funnily enough — by apparent Hamilton super fan and actress Mariska Hargitay.

Grand Central Publishing has already ordered its third printing of the book. Those who order it now will have to wait about nine to twelve days to get their copy. In the meantime, here are some of audio clips from the book to hold you over until you get your copy! 

Place your order for Hamiltome in hardcover for $24. 

Or on your Kindle for $16.99.

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Show vs. Book: Hamilton

Before having seen the critically-acclaimed musical Hamilton, I knew as much about Alexander Hamilton as I imagine many other Americans know — he’s the guy on the $10 bill, right? Was he a president? I think so? Well, Alexander Hamilton wasn’t a president. Spoiler alert: he was a founding father who was shot and killed at the age of 49 by then-Vice President Aaron Burr. But he is a legacy, who I finally started to care about thanks to lyrical genius and creator of the new hit musical Lin Manuel Miranda.

The show is based on the Ron Chernow biography entitled Alexander Hamilton, a 700+ page behemoth. Yes, it’s a monster of a book, but a fascinating one nonetheless. It takes the reader quickly through his young life as an illegitimate child born on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. His intelligence and ability to write and speak eloquently was enough to get his fellow islanders to pay for him to go to school in the United States. His rise to the top from a bleak childhood is a classic rags to riches story — one that Lin Manuel Miranda equated with that of a hip hop star. Hence; the hip hop musical version of Hamilton’s life, which includes lines like “I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry/And I’m not throwing away my shot.”

Hamilton, the show, lasts three hours, which is fairly long by today’s standards. It’s amazing and astonishing to learn about Hamilton’s life: his rise to the top, his love for his wife (and sister-in-law), his sex scandal, his kinship with George Washington and the relationship with his frenemy Aaron Burr. Reading the book, however, filled in several blanks. For instance, the show highlights Hamilton’s oldest son, but doesn’t make clear that he had a total of eight children, plus additional orphans he and his wife, Eliza, took in. Nor does it include that one of Hamilton’s daughters had a mental breakdown after her brother (Hamilton’s son) died. There’s also a large chunk of the book that focuses on the time during which John Adams served as president, but the ongoing feud between Hamilton and Adams is left out of the show, with the exception of a single lyric. Upon further research, I learned a rap about Adams was written but had been cut — probably for time.

Instead the musical focuses less on Hamilton’s family and political feud with Adams and emphasizes his relationship with Burr. Of course, this makes sense. After all, it’s a Broadway musical, and the show needs to lead up to the big deadly duel finale. But in reality, Burr wasn’t as big a figure in Hamilton’s life as some of the other men of that time. Sure, Hamilton and Burr ran in the same circles. Sure, toward the end of Hamilton’s life, the two hated each other — hey, they didn’t duel for nothing — but, based on the book, their lives didn’t entirely revolve around each other like the show makes it seem.

The show is amazing. Alexander Hamilton is an amazing figure. After seeing the show, you’ll feel hungry to learn more about Hamilton, and for that reason, I highly recommend you not throw away your shot and make it a point to see the show and also read more about the guy who happens to have his face on those $10 bills of yours.

Get Alexander Hamilton in paperback for $14.96.

Or on your Kindle for $15.99.

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Who Knew? Another Wicked Book On the Way

The fourth and final novel in the Wicked Years series is on its way. According to theatermania.com, it was announced Thursday that Out of Oz would be released November 1st. The first book in the series, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the Westwas released in 1995.

Soon after came a little Broadway musical called “Wicked.” You may have heard of it.

I feel like few people know the show was based on Gregory Maguire’s novel. I knew that (and have yet to read it), but I was unaware that Wicked was just the first in a series of books Maguire wrote about the wonderful world of Oz. Hmm. May have to add that to the reading list!

For more information on the series and what Out of Oz is about, click here.

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