Rise Up! Broadway and American Society from Angels in America to Hamilton. Chris Jones. London: Methuen Drama, 2019. Pp. 215.
Rise Up! Broadway and American Society from Angels in America to Hamilton takes a broadly sociological look at notable Broadway shows of the last 30 years, constructing a rough lineage from Angels in America’s 1993 Broadway opening to Hamilton’s runaway success in 2015-16. The book opens with a compelling prologue detailing former Vice President Mike Pence’s notorious visit to Hamilton only days after the 2016 election. Then, Rise Up!’s fourteen chapters tackle one notable Broadway play or musical and an attendant event or movement in US politics (or within the larger theatre industry). Each chapter is titled for the year of the play’s Broadway opening from 1993 through to 2016 (with a notable gap from 2002-2007). In doing so, Jones builds an historical image of Broadway in which each show discussed represents a unique and important lesson or development that would lead, almost inevitably, to Hamilton as Broadway’s cultural and political peak.
Jones’s clear journalistic prose takes readers inside the various Broadway houses where each show played. At its best, Rise Up! moves seamlessly from huge events of political prominence, to the local context of New York theatre, to the particular production on which the chapter is focused. The book’s first chapter, “1993: An Angel Lands,” does this beautifully, taking readers into the Broadway of the 1980s and the AIDS crisis, discussing Larry Kramer’s activism and artistry to serve Jones’s discussion of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America. Chapter twelve, which focuses on the notorious flop musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, is similarly compelling, guiding readers through the backstage turmoil and the on-stage errors and injuries that plagued the production in a way that is both sensitively handled and entertaining to read without feeling sensationalized.
At the same time, the book is mired by Jones inclination toward tangents that never quite weave back to his overarching argument. Hamilton serves as a prominent but ultimately weak binding agent for the history this book constructs; Jones mentions each featured play’s connection to the hit show, but the tone is more winking gesture than compelling narrative thread. In some cases, these gestures distract—chapter five contains a lengthy description of the historical duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, connected loosely to August Wilson’s King Hedley II via gun violence.
Missed opportunities to more clearly cohere this narrative abound. I was particularly struck that Jones makes only passing remarks on Oskar Eustis, perhaps the figure who connects Angels in America most directly to Hamilton. Similarly, Jones discusses Frozen at length in chapter seven without mentioning that the show shared a composer with Avenue Q, the primary subject of that chapter. While Rise Up! is an enjoyable read, it presents readers with an oversimplified history without ever quite connecting its many dots. This often renders thinner analysis for theater historians and scholars. I was struck especially when chapter five, on August Wilson, ends with a comment that the playwright “did not live long enough to see the first show staged [at the August Wilson Theatre]: Jersey Boys” (80). Some hint toward Jones’s perspective here would have been useful to me as a reader—was this an appropriate choice, given the show’s grounding in a specific location much as Wilson’s plays were? Or was it inappropriate to open Wilson’s eponymous theatre with a musical about a white doo-wop group performing in the early 1960s that largely evades the politics of the period? While Jones’s journalistic prowess makes the read interesting, the breezy tone allows him to evade deeper evaluation and critical analysis of topics. Some hint at Jones’s perspectives on these works and their cultural significance might have helped guide the reader and connect the volume’s disparate threads.
My reader’s copy was also riddled with typos and minor factual errors—such as incorrectly naming The Little Mermaid in a discussion of Beauty and the Beast (59) or a reference to 2011 that, in context, must actually refer to 2001 to make sense (92)—that left me equal parts confused and distracted. These errors and misclassifications affect the very structure of the book; for instance, the seventh chapter is entitled “2002: The Pull of Vegas and the Rise of the Meta,” but the chapter details events set largely from 2004-2006 and in fact makes no reference to events in the year 2002 beyond the title. This was particularly notable, as the chapters jump from 2002 to 2007, and the contents of this chapter would fill that gap. While these errors may reflect on the editing or publisher as much as author, they raise concerns for me about the historical narrative that Jones’ book constructs when this narrative is at odds with the basic facts he presents.
This book is perfect for those developing an initial interest in musical theatre or Broadway history, and could be used as a launching point for discussing commercial theatre and politics with undergraduate students, or as an entryway for further research into any one of the works included. It is also excellent for refreshing one’s memory of recent Broadway shows, especially musicals, as most major successful works since 1993 are mentioned in some capacity. Scholars aiming for a more rigorous investigation of these issues could pair Rise Up! recent volumes on musical theatre and US American culture; for instance, Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s Past can provide greater insight into Hamilton as a cultural juggernaut, while Stacy Wolf’s Beyond Broadway: The Pleasure and Promise of Musical Theatre Across America plucks musical theatre from New York City and examines it in the context of communities and societies across the US. Ultimately, Rise Up! is an enjoyable and sometimes insightful read that is simply not geared toward academic readers or audiences well-versed in either musical theatre or recent political history, but can be read, used, and enjoyed with that in mind.
Casey L. Berner
City University of New York