A night at the theater, my Hamilton review.

Last night we went to see the musical Hamilton here in Los Angeles. I posted some things on Facebook about it, but wanted to talk about the experience more in depth here.

Three crazy people on the subway

First of all, I’m not going to explain the musical to you. If you don’t know much about it then you really do need to get out more often. Not only is it one of the most award winning musicals, its also a nice bit of history, a ground breaking blend of rap and broadway musical, and a well crafted commentary upon the value of immigrants and people of color to this country. Since it opened in New York the musical has constantly been sold out. When the touring company came to L.A. I figured it was the best chance I would get at seeing it. The show is massively popular here in L.A. too, so tickets were not cheap.

I’m going to start by saying I was probably a fan of Hamilton before you were. That’s not a brag, I have a degree in U.S. History, and Alexander Hamilton was one of my favorites from way back then. This was in the mid 80s, back when Hamilton was still a stuffy old white guy. The question then was, did the modern recasting of the man change him in any significant way?

I first came across the Hamilton from the music. Bits and pieces started filtering into my world, especially after it won so many Tonys. Out of curiosity I downloaded the Original Broadway Cast recording about a year and a half ago. I have loved it from the first listen. I can’t recommend it enough. The music is quite powerful, and does a good job of telling Hamilton’s story, warts and all. If the whole Hamilton phenomena could be reduced down to just this music, I think it would still be a worthy of the praise. It is history brought to life, with all the worry, drama, love, and subterfuge of the founding of our nation, but presented in a three act structure, with all the elements that make for good drama (or for that matter, good story-telling). Just from listening to it you get probably 90% of what goes on in the musical. In fact, there was only one small part of the show last night that strayed outside of the recording (the “Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us” scene which I found out was intentionally kept off the recording to be a nice easter egg for those going to the show). My goal in wanting to go was to not just hear the music live (like one might for their favorite rock band), but to see if the staging of the music made the story that much better. The short answer is, indeed it did.

The Pantages

The setting:
Hamilton is being performed at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. It is a lovely setting, an Art Deco treasure, chock full of fun and interesting details. I could spend a week there with a camera and an internet connection, trying to trace down and discover the meaning behind all of the wonderful statues, reliefs, and decorations. If you love art, then just going to this theater is a sight for sore eyes. To my mind the building is every bit as lovely as the Walt Disney Concert Hall, or the Parthenon. Mind you, it is lovely for different reasons then those other two architectural treasures, but I think you get the point.

The stage is simple, befitting a musical when the story is told mostly by lyric. There are some fancy parts, mostly the turn-table floor which rotates at times on parts of the stage, but this is pretty low-key compared to some plays and musicals, and never once overwhelmed. The orchestra was pretty reduced with most parts played on modern instrumentation. Much of the music was I believe pre-recorded. It sounded remarkably like the Original Broadway Cast recording, which is probably a very good idea as the music itself is perhaps the musical’s strongest selling point. The actors were individually mic’d so their voices did not have to carry to fill the room, which brings me to one of my big criticisms. From our vantage point, center and close to the stage, the sound was not very good. The actor performing the part of Hamilton was quieter than everyone else in the mix for most of the night, so he was at times difficult to hear. The overall sound quality was only fair. A lot like the sound quality of of your a cineplex build in the 90s. The music was at times distorted and mushy, the sound muffled, the highs clipped, and the midtones over blown. It sounded as if the volume of each singer was constantly changed to match the needs of the music. This is perhaps good stagecraft, but at a few points, especially at the big dramatic endings of songs, the actors sang loud enough that they became too loud and distorted. To be fair, the theater might not lend itself to good audio. All those wonderful art deco details might make for an echoic and mushy room, still when you pay top dollar for a musical I believe having a good sound system does not seem too much to ask.

Mind you, all of these are minor points. Most listeners will probably not notice such things. If you’re a recording engineer then you’ll probably find even more flaws than I did, but for most people the sound will be more than adequate. The music was clear, the lyrics understandable, and sound was loud without being anywhere near to rock-concert volume. My wife and son, both of whom have only heard bits and pieces of the soundtrack, found the music wonderful, and had no problems following the story, even when it was delivered at a blistering rate.

The staging of the music, especially seeing different characters sing the various parts, really made the music come to life. The Original Broadway Cast recording is great, as I mentioned above, but suffers in that you often cannot tell which character is singing what part. The voices of Lin-Manuel Miranda (Alexander Hamilton) and Leslie Odom Jr. (Arron Burr) are close enough to my ear that I cannot tell by listening that they often trade lines back and forth in a song. Seeing them do so on they stage brought much greater depth to the songs.

Perhaps my favorite example of this was the wonderfully subtile scene in the song One Last Time. The song begins with Washington asking Hamilton to write for him one last speech. Most of the song goes into the reasons for the speech and Washington’s retirement, but near the end we get to hear part of the actual speech itself. It starts with Hamilton speaking the words front stage, with Washington back stage about as far as you can go, directly behind him. The rest of the stage is largely bare. As the song progresses, Hamilton slowly moves back stage, and Washington comes to front stage. When they pass the song goes from spoken to sung, and the voicing seamlessly transitioning from that of Hamilton, the speech-writer, to Washington the speaker. All the while the song is building from just single voice and a cello, to multiple instruments. Near the end the ensemble has come onstage, dressed formally, arranged in couples as if listening to a speech at a park, with the men holding their hats high over their heads in respect. It is lovely, and powerful, and fairly simple. Never once does it get in the way of the performance. The movements and the costumes supported the song perfectly.

Another example is in the song The Room Where it Happens. This is the turning point for the antagonist (Aaron Burr), as the song captures the moment he goes from being passive to active, following, as he later tells him, Hamilton’s example. In terms of dramatic structure, this scene is key to the story. It ties up one theme (wait for it), and introduces another (room where it happens), adding complications along the way. In the cast recording the emotional impact of Burr singing “I want to be in the room where it happens” is not very strong. Seeing it staged you realize this is a life changing moment for the man (and later for Hamilton as well). The music alone does not do this song justice. Seeing it performed really brings it all home.

I could say the same for easily 3/4ths of the songs. The staging really takes them to another level. On some songs, like the complicated relationship between A Winter’s Ball, which runs into Helpless, and finally Satisfied, the staging really helps to understand the story. The songs captures the moment when Angelica Schuyler first meets Hamilton in A Winter’s Ball, and then later rewinds so that she can relive that same moment at her sister’s wedding to Hamilton in the song Satisfied. This is pretty complex for stage craft. Movies often go back and forth in time, but it’s a hard thing to do on a stage, let alone in a song. The staging does both scenes perfectly, changing only a few small parts, which add all the wonderful emotional undercurrent to the story.

Finally, I’d like to mention the actors. On the night we saw it the part of Hamilton was played by Ryan Alavarado, who is listed in the playbill as a standby. Either he was having a bad night, or his performance was not particularly polished. Either way his was perhaps the single “average” performance. This is not a complaint. When you go to the theater you get what the director gives you. Unlike a movie which can be shot with multiple takes, you only get one take on the stage. It either nails it or it doesn’t. Alvarado was a good performer but his voice was quieter (as I mentioned before) and his acting was a bit stiff. Perhaps his was a great performance, but only look worse when compared to those he was staged with, because the rest of the cast really pulled out the stops. Stand outs from such a wonderful cast are hard to find, but Joshua Henry, singing the part of Aaron Burr, really nailed it, and Isaiah Johnson singing the part of George Washington was incredible. His ending of One Last Time was soaring, a great example of how much better theater is at performing a song then any rock band. (Take note. If you’re in a band and really want to take things to the next level, this is what it looks like.) Rory O’Malley reprised his role of King George, since he was part of the original broadway cast. His performance takes a comic part and milks it for all it’s worth, to great effect. He was a show stopper. Finally, of note was Raven Thomas’ performance of Angelica Schuyler. She is listed in the program as part of the Ensemble, not a lead part. How she got the part of Angelica I don’t know. What I do know is she sang and acted as if this was her “shot”, and let me tell you, girlfriend knows how to aim. I expect to see more of her.

So in closing, was seeing the play worth the cost? Yes. The staging makes the play so much better than the music. It adds more drama, more comedy, more sadness, more of everything. In spite of a few quibbles I would go again. Already my wife has said she’d like to. I don’t know that we’ll sit in the same seats, but I have a feeling we’ll be back.



A thank you letter

This is in response to receiving a new filter kit for our Falsken Water System that removes hard water deposits from the water before it enters our on-demand hot water heater. The text below was emailed to them. I’m placing it here because I thought it deserved more exposure.


To Whom It May Concern,

I am writing to you after receiving your tHT-20RF replacement filter for our Heater Treater 20. This is the third replacement cartridge we’ve purchased from your company. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the packaging. Previous replacement filters came pretty bare-bones, but this one was obviously a well-thought replacement kit. It included instructions, a new o-ring, and even a little silicon lubricant packet. Opening the box (which is also new packaging) was a wonderful surprise. A bit like expecting a Chevy and finding instead a Cadillac. So good job.

But here is the reason why I am writing. Upgrading a product like this is nice, but not always necessary. As your marketing director will no doubt tell you, I am considered a “captive customer,” that is I have already purchased your product (a heater treater, demanded by our plumber as a condition of installation for on-demand heater), and I’m not likely to purchase another. Short of buying a new home we’re pretty much heater treatered up. Sales of incidentals, like replacement filter cartridges, are probably not a big profit center for you, and they certainly don’t generate more profit by adding “goodies” in with the filter.

What this tells me is that someone in your company decided to upgrade your replacement filters, and did so against most of the advice they give you in business school. Even now I bet you have a bean-counter somewhere in your company telling you this was a bad business decision. Well I’m writing to you to tell you different. This was a brilliant move, one I hope more companies will emulate. Whomever made this decision should be congratulated. I used to be a captive customer, now I am a loyal one. This is an important difference, and well worth the extra money you spent on me. Dollar for dollar, this is damn good marketing.

Signed, a very thankful customer,

Eric Tolladay

You need to read this book.

Really. You need to read this book. I’m not kidding. Just buy a copy and read it, okay?

If you don’t want to buy it from Amazon, you can find it in almost every used bookstore.

A while ago I wrote this review on Goodreads. Since I’ve been re-reading BOB again, all I can say is its still true.

This is one of those books that almost anyone can read and enjoy. The kind of book that usually gets around only by word of mouth. In my case my sister simply handed me a copy, and said, “Here, brat. Read this.” It is a fantasy, a mystery, and something else. It is deeply funny, and at the same time wonderfully touching. It is a quirky novel, often associated with “The Princess Bride.” Barry Hughart happily twists the ordinary into the profound, and the profound into ordinary. In most mysteries, the plot has the main characters slowly, piece by piece, uncovering the truth, in this book they are also uncovering China. Each clue tells the reader more about China; more depth, more interest, and more supernatural, until at the very end the reader suddenly finds themselves knee deep in something that can only be fable, and cheek-to-jowl with the gods. Its like starting with Sam Spade in gritty urban Los Angeles, and somehow ending up in Valhalla. I’ve read it several times, and Hughart always surprises me with his transition from a sleepy Chinese village, to a piece on the great chess board of heaven. 

Some quotes:
“Take a large bowl,” I said. “Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, myhtology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei – which means “dry cup” – and drink to the dregs.”
Procopius stared at me. “And I will be wise?” he asked. 
“Better,” I said. “You will be Chinese.” 

“Error can point the way to truth, while empty-headedness can only lead to more empty-headedness or to a career in politics.” 

“My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character.”

Seriously, why haven’t you read this yet. Go. Now.

The Thing About Flying

This is what you have taped
to your mirror:

There are only two things
to flying:
Sticking out your wings
and leaping.

And when you look at yourself in the mirror,
you see your strong wings,
such excellent feathers,
pinions, hanging low,
soft fluffy down underneath.

And you know you were made
for flying.

This is what you tell yourself,
what everyone tells you,
and so it must be true.

So you climb your hill,
be it a long desired dream
or perhaps a new career.

You stretch out your wings,
and you jump.

Only, the wind shifts or
the air turns cold.
Because in very short time
you come crashing down.

You get up.
You dust yourself off,
and you climb that mountain,
And you jump off it.

With each crash you get up,
each disappointment
a new scar,
a new lesson,
a new path to try.

And before long,
you’ve worn a path
up that hill.
And your beautiful feathers
have gotten dirty and torn.

And on the day,
you reach the top.
And you stand poised,
ready to leap,
but are too afraid to try.

I will tell you,
on that day,

You looked to your wings,
and said you were made
for flying,
But I also noticed your
and your excellent legs,
and while everyone else said
you were made for flying,
I said,
you were made
for climbing mountains.

Just look at those feet.
Just look.



Independent vs collaborative creative processes.

I know a song-writer who divides his creative process in two parts. 1) Creating, which he does alone, and 2) Editing, which he does with others, and in a separate room from the one he creates in. I used to think this a bit weird, but more and more I think its a great idea.

I bring this up because all to often I see writers talk about their craft as if they are doing it all alone. Yet every other art form I’ve done (both professionally and as a hobby) has used both an independent creative process and a collaborative creative process. Usually, like my song-writer acquaintance above, the initial creative process is done independently, while the editing is done collaboratively. But even the independent part of the creative process, (Bog, is there a better word than “independent” to describe working alone?) is not really working alone, at least for me. When I write my ideas come from all around me. Something said to me earlier that day might make its way into the story, or a joke I overheard, or something I witnessed on the bus. And that’s not counting the hundreds of novels and stories I’ve read over the years. Surely some of that works its way into everything I write.

And once you get to editing a novel (and I’m not just talking copy-editing here) then the story goes from independent to collaborative. An author writes, but where would their novel be if there weren’t promoters, and printers, book-jacket designers and art directors, publishers and even readers? All of these people make up a successful novel, not just the author. I think its time we authors start admitting this. Our stories are more than just the sum of their parts.


Forget the toast, which side falls up when you drop a cube of butter.

We at Chez Tolladay are civilized enough to keep the butter dish in the cupboard, not the refrigerator. This morning we discovered that if said butter is dropped from waist height it makes the most interesting pattern on the floor. A nice round circle, with the remainder of the cube stuck in the middle. It looked, for all the world, as if it were a high speed photograph, freezing the action half-way through the splash. Fortunately the floor was cold enough for me to scrape most of it up before it spread further.

Alas, I didn’t think about taking a picture until after I cleaned it up. 🙁

Skin Texture tutorial

I’ve been using a technique to retouch skin for a while, and thought I would share it. It is fast, and if done well, fairly seamless. It is not perfect, but it is faster than perfection.

The basic premise is that when you do major changes to a person’s skin, you have to leave the texture behind in order to rebuild the features smoothly. This is especially true when retouching the neck and jaw line, but this technique can also be used on the cheeks, forehead, chin, and other places where the underling skin, absent of it’s texture, is nothing but a smooth complex gradation. This technique allows you to build the gradation, and then go back and put in the skin texture.

1. The first image shows how I like to set up my work. As you can see by the contents of the Layers Palette, the initial image layer is named by the file name (that way I can find the darn thing later).

2. Here is where I do my retouching. I make a duplicate of the initial image (so I can always refer back to it if necessary), and I name the duplicate RET. In this example I went ahead and retouched the neck, especially where the skin was clumpy, and got rid of a some bulges as well. All work was done loosely with the Clone Tool. If you look closely you can see some soft spots where the retouched skin has no texture. Normally this is a problem, but not if we replace the texture.

3. This is my next step, adding a blur layer. To get this layer, I duplicate the RET layer, after I’ve cloned out the major flaws. The blur should be large enough that it covers the smaller flaws and imperfections, smoothing out the potholes and such. In this case I did a Gausian Blur of 5.1, but half the time I end up doing a Median instead as it keeps the gross features, while blurring the fine ones. The number isn’t important, as it is based on the pixel size which will vary depending upon resolution, and the size of your image. The trick is to blur it enough.

4. Here I am adding a new layer which will by my texture layer. Essentially it is a layer set to Overlay, with a 50% grey fill. Nothing fancy here, if your used to working noise in on a separate Overlay layer.

5. This is where the texture it added to our layer. I’m using Grain, and in this case the Grain is the Enlarged setting. The grain from the Grain filter is larger than a Gausian Noise (which is why I use it). The trick here is to try the different settings until you get something close to the native skin texture. This may take a while to get. At first it will appear WAY too sharp (which is okay, and we can turn that down with the layer’s opacity) and the colors will be way off. Do not worry. Complete the steps, and then go back an undo if you don’t like it. I usually test in a small patch, and then apply Grain to the whole layer once I found something close. I also will scale the grain sometimes up or down to get a more precise match. You should not have to go up or down more than 50%. If you do, then you chose the wrong settings for the Grain, and should go back and try another set.

6. Once we have the Grain the right size, we then have to fix a few flaws that the filter does to the Grain. The first one I do it remove all saturation, so the final Grain is completely greyscale. You might wish to leave a dash of color in, but usually it just gets in the way.

7. Now we need to balance the color as the Grain filter tends to leave it too dark or too light. To do this I use Levels on the layer, and pull either of the top ends (darks or lights) until the middle point lines up with the darkest part on the Histogram. In this case, Enlarged tends to go dark, so I drag the dark side up (8-9 usually, but sometimes as high as 14-15). Some of the other Grain settings go lighter, so make sure you don’t skip this step. It is essential that the grain ends up neutral, so it will add a texture to the image without darkening or lightening it. At this point, I usually turn down the Opacity of the Texture to 50% or 40%. Rarely do I need more than this.

8. The final step it to add a layer mask to both the Blur layer, and the Texture layer. I usually fill the mask of the blur layer 100% black, and then working only in the mask I airbrush in its smooth gradation in just the spots I want. I use a light brush doing multiple strokes, rather then try and get it right with just one stroke. Once I have this mask, I apply it to the texture layer. This is a good starting point for the texture as you are only putting it where you covered it with blur to begin with, but I find I need to add a bit more texture to help blend some of the transitions.

9. This last image shows a before and after so you can see the changes to the skin. I don’t usually use this on such a small area, but rather I fix the all of the areas on the skin that need it.