Tag Archives: Hamilton

With Samuel French Bookshop’s fatal end, the tragic flaw is our own

Samuel French Bookshop LA

by Stephen Sachs

If our beloved Samuel French bookstore were a play, its shocking violent demise this week makes the ending a tragedy. A tragic drama not wrought by a fatal flaw of the store’s own making. The tragic flaw exposed here is our own. The fate of Samuel French bookstore reveals a deeply disturbing character defect of our city, our country and our culture.

According to police, the store was broken into and seriously vandalized on Monday night, March 4th following a confrontation with several unidentified male customers who tried to intimidate one of the store employees. The police have closed the store pending their investigation and to protect the staff’s safety. The shop will not reopen. Ever.

Samuel French bookstore had already announced it was closing at the end of this month. Yet another casualty of e-commerce, book sales at the store have been steadily declining. Over 80% of Samuel French’s retail sales are now made online. Still, the sudden announcement of the store’s imminent closure caught us all by surprise and shook our LA theatre community to its core. News of Monday night’s vandalism drives a dagger into our heart. The loss of Samuel French bookshop is a death in the family.

For decades, as a once-upon-a-time actor and now a director/playwright and overseer of a theatre company, each time I walked into the bookstore on Sunset Blvd I breathed a deep sigh of reverence and gratitude, like stepping into a sanctuary. I experienced a spiritual and physical healing when I walked into Samuel French bookstore. The smell of its books was aromatherapy. The brick walls, the catacomb of shelves, the stacks of books, large and small, piled in corners like paper pillars. One enters Samuel French bookstore to be lost and found. To lose oneself reading a script on a calm afternoon, to find oneself as an artist through what one found in its pages. The vandalism of Samuel French bookshop, to me, is a desecration of a sacred place.     

The Studio City bookshop on Ventura Boulevard closed in 2012. Now, our beloved store on Sunset Boulevard is gone forever. Closed early. Due to violence.

We have no one to blame but ourselves.

Like the art form it celebrated, Samuel French bookstore engaged in a daily battle for its own survival against online technology.  Why leave your home when you can download a book? A bookstore is much like a theatre. A live experience. Physically walking into a book store, interconnecting with fellow human beings, holding an actual book in your hand, turning its pages – these are visceral sensations no e-book can duplicate. A book store and a local theatre create community. A place to meet, to gather, to interact. Both a theatre and a book store are places of worship, both serving an art form greater than themselves.

In my opinion, the Samuel French bookstore didn’t just die in the war against online retailing, we killed it. We made our choice. Eight out of ten plays are now bought online. We choose digital over paper. This is the Amazon-era. We click-shop. Our goods are now delivered to our door. We barely need to get up off the couch. The fault, dear consumer, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.       

Once again, Los Angeles has proved we are not New York. Last October, Drama Book Shop, the legendary 100-year old independent bookstore in Manhattan that has one of the largest selections of plays in the country, announced it was closing. The rent was too high. It didn’t take long for the city and its artists to leap into action. By January, it was announced that Lin-Manuel Miranda and three of his “Hamilton” collaborators purchased the Drama Book Shop. The quartet is currently working with the City of New York to find an affordable space for the store.

“The store is a gem and a cultural institution in New York, and we want to make sure it’s saved,” said Julie Menin, the mayor’s media and entertainment commissioner.

Where is the public statement from the mayor’s office in Los Angeles advocating to save or relocate Samuel French bookshop? Aye, there’s the rub. In Los Angeles, there is no Lin-Manuel Miranda.

We do have Nicki Monet. A platoon of local theatre artists led by actress/producer Nicki Monet launched a petition campaign to protest the store’s closing. The petition collected more than 7,000 signatures. Now violence has struck. Who knows what now will happen? Music conglomerate Concord Music, which purchased the store, said it would be willing to support a new L.A. store “with favorable pricing and payment terms.” We shall see.

In the bookshop’s final hours, Monday night’s vandalism exposes perhaps the most disturbing truth of all. An unsettling truth about ourselves and the temperature of today. The boiling social and political bile of this nation, fanning the flames of hatred and racism and division, ignited on Sunset Boulevard Monday night. Abuse and intimidation in the bookshop by day led to violence and physical destruction in the darkness of night. A depressing reminder of who we are as a people and where we are plummeting as a nation. This is who we have become. Of course, the defacing of a theatre book store in Los Angeles pales when compared to the uncountable acts of fatal violence and hatred executed every day nationwide. Yet Monday night’s act hurts me deeply because it is a symptom of a larger hurt, a greater ill in our country. Shakespeare warned us not to drink the Kool-Aid of anger and hatred. As he warns in Measure for Measure, “Our natures do pursue a thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.”

In any tragic story, anagnorisis is the moment when the main character discovers his/her true nature, recognizes the truth about his or her true self. I am willing to stay for the Third Act of this play, if there is one. Hopefully, this dramatic story ends with a cathartic spiritual renewal of resurrection.

Stephen Sachs is Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.

A White House without art

Gloomy-White-House-678x381By Dave Eggers

This White House has been, and is likely to remain, home to the first presidency in American history that is almost completely devoid of culture. In the 17 months that Donald Trump has been in office, he has hosted only a few artists of any kind. One was the gun fetishist Ted Nugent. Another was Kid Rock. They went together (and with Sarah Palin). Neither performed.

Since his inauguration in January 2017, there have been no official concerts at the White House (the Reagans had one every few weeks). No poetry readings (the Obamas regularly celebrated young poets). The Carters began a televised series, “In Performance at the White House,” which last aired in 2016, where artists as varied as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride performed in the East Room. The Clintons continued the series with Aretha Franklin and B. B. King, Alison Krauss and Linda Ronstadt.

But aside from occasional performances by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, the White House is now virtually free of music. Never have we had a president not just indifferent to the arts, but actively oppositional to artists. Mr. Trump disparaged the play “Hamilton” and a few weeks later attacked Meryl Streep. He has said he does not have time to read books (“I read passages, I read areas, I read chapters”). Outside of recommending books by his acolytes, Mr. Trump has tweeted about only one work of literature since the beginning of his presidency: Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury.” It was not an endorsement.

Every great civilization has fostered great art, while authoritarian regimes customarily see artists as either nuisances, enemies of the state or tools for the creation of propaganda. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev asserted that “the highest duty of the Soviet writer, artist and composer, of every creative worker” is to “fight for the triumph of the ideas of Marxism-Leninism.”

When John Kennedy took office, his policies reacted against both the Soviet Union’s approach to the arts and that of Joseph McCarthy, who had worked hard to create in the United States an atmosphere where artists were required to be allegiant and where dissent was called treason. Pivoting hard, Kennedy’s White House made support of the avant-garde a priority. The artists Franz Kline and Mark Rothko came to the inauguration, and at a state dinner for France’s minister of cultural affairs, André Malraux, the guests included Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Robert Lowell, Geraldine Page and George Balanchine. Kennedy gave the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who had exiled himself to France and then Puerto Rico to protest Franco’s fascism, a forum in the East Room. Casals had performed in the White House once before, at the young age of 27. Now 84, and a man without a country, he played a mournful version of “The Song of the Birds.”

Casals-at-the-White-House

Pablo Casals at the Kennedy White House.

It’s crucial to note that the White House’s support of the arts has never been partisan. No matter their political differences, presidents and artists have been able to find common ground in the celebration of American art and in the artists’ respect for the office of the presidency. This mutual respect, even if measured, made for the occasional odd photo-op. George H. W. Bush met Michael Jackson, who wore faux-military garb, including two medals he seemed to have given himself. Richard Nixon heartily shook the hand of Elvis Presley, whose jacket hung over his shoulders like a cape.

George W. Bush widened the partisan rift, but culturally, Mr. Bush — the future figurative painter — was open-minded and active. He met Bono in the Oval Office. He hosted a wide range of musicians, from Itzhak Perlman to Destiny’s Child. He was an avid reader — he maintained a long-running contest with Karl Rove to see who could read more books in a year. Laura Bush has long been a crucial figure in the book world, having co-founded the Texas Book Festival and the National Book Festival in Washington, now one of the country’s largest literary gatherings.

But perhaps no Republican could match the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose guest list was a relentless celebration of the diversity of American culture. He and Nancy Reagan hosted Lionel Hampton. Then the Statler Brothers. Then Ella Fitzgerald. Then Benny Goodman. Then a night with Beverly Sills, Rudolf Serkin and Ida Levin. That was all in the fall of 1981. The Reagans did much to highlight uniquely American forms, especially jazz. One night in 1982, the White House hosted Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea and Stan Getz. When Reagan visited Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1988, he brought along the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

But that kind of thing is inconceivable now. Admittedly, at a time when Mr. Trump’s policies have forcibly separated children from their asylum-seeking parents — taking the most vulnerable children from the most vulnerable adults — the White House’s attitude toward the arts seems relatively unimportant. But with art comes empathy. It allows us to look through someone else’s eyes and know their strivings and struggles. It expands the moral imagination and makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others. When we are without art, we are a diminished people — myopic, unlearned and cruel.

This post originally appeared in the NY Times. Dave Eggers is the author, most recently, of “The Monk of Mokha” and co-founder of The International Congress of Youth Voices

Lin-Manuel Miranda tells how Chaim Potok’s ‘The Chosen’ changed his life

Lin Manuel Miranda

by Lin-Manuel Miranda

The trajectory of my life changed in 8th grade, when I got the following note back on the back of an English essay. My teacher’s name was Dr. Rembert Herbert. This is what he wrote:

“Lin-Manuel—This is an excellent, well-crafted essay. It confirms what I have suspected for some time—that you have been ‘hibernating’ in the back of my class, emerging only occasionally—as when you wrote ‘The Chosen’ musical for class earlier this year. It’s a new semester, almost spring—join us!”

The “Chosen” musical he references was a class project I created as a part of a class assignment. The assignment was to teach three chapters of The Chosen by Chaim Potok, as part of a group. I decided it would be easier to write a song based on each chapter and have our group perform it. Actually, I recorded myself singing all the songs and made my group mates lip-synch my voice, as I had no trust in their musical ability and no way of teaching it to them. Why did I do this? Well, I loved the book. And I loved the way Dr. Herbert taught the book, encouraging us to find the connections and themes for ourselves. I had, in fact, spent most of 8th grade scribbling song lyrics and poems in the back of my classes, earning grades just good enough to get by. I never saw any reason to share these with anyone else.

With this note, Dr. Herbert essentially called me out. He told me, “That creative energy you are burning in the back of the class is what we need IN the class. You can USE that here.” He was also the first person outside of my family to say to me, “You’re a good writer.” He encouraged me to audition and submit my writing to Brick Prison, a student-run theater group at my high school. It was there that I found the energy source that would power the rest of my life.

His encouragement extended far beyond that 8th grade English class. When I began making films in high school, Dr. Herbert would sign permission slips allowing me to film in classrooms, or after school. I began writing short, 20-musicals for Brick Prison, buoyed by my “Chosen” experience in his classroom. My senior year, I earned course credit as his intern, helping him with his 8th grade students. I gained a whole new respect for how much he invested in every student, stepping in if he sensed a drop-off in the quality of their writing, or quietly encouraging the shyest class members with leadership roles.

I still have that 8th grade essay, and Dr. Herbert’s attached note. He is still teaching 8th grade English at Hunter. I am so grateful to him for paying such close attention, for seeing something in me, and urging me to share it. That’s what the best teachers can do. I hope I have made him proud.

See The Chosen at the Fountain Theatre