Jackson Prince, Trinity ‘19, knows he’s an insider to the entertainment industry. He thanks his parents for that: his father, Jonathan, is a Hollywood multi-hyphenate, primarily a writer-director; his mother, Julie Warner, is an accomplished actress. Prince grew up in Los Angeles, a city known to most as an ever-shifting pop culture mill with a notoriously narrow pipeline to stardom. But at some point in the last few years, he looked around and realized that his Hollywood no longer resembled the industry’s old vanguard of creative professionals like his parents. Instead, it looked like social media.
Prince cites an article in The New York Times that assigned a face — or, perhaps, a façade — to the city’s seemingly overnight transformation. The piece details a 550-unit apartment complex located at 1600 Vine Street in Hollywood, which has been a hearth for internet celebritydom since 2015. Among its most recognizable current and former residents are Lele Pons, Logan and Jake Paul, Andrew Bachelor (known online as King Bach) and Amanda Cerny, all of whom gained popularity on the now-defunct app Vine before migrating to YouTube. 1600 Vine was only three miles away from where Prince grew up, and he couldn’t shake its presence.
So when Prince opened up an application for StudioDuke — a “virtual creative lab” wherein students with arts- and media-related projects are mentored by alumni in creative industries — in the fall of 2018, he knew he wanted his project to center, in some way, on the apartment complex and its notorious residents.
“I was really interested by the idea of the coming of age story that skips actually having to come to age,” Prince said. “[To be a YouTuber,] you don’t have to go to college, you don’t have to go through any trials. You post a bunch of videos from your home, get a million followers, move to L.A., get a sponsor and suddenly you have a career.”
After his acceptance into the program, Prince was paired with Charles Randolph-Wright, Trinity ‘78, who has directed, produced and written for film, television and theatre. Along with Randolph-Wright came Martin Wilkins, Trinity ‘02, a theatre director-producer who formed a close working relationship with Randolph-Wright following his graduation from Duke. Over the course of the 2019 spring semester and under the leadership of Randolph-Wright and Wilkins, Prince crafted a two-act musical titled “1600 Vine,” which premiered April 21 at the Rubenstein Arts Center. After workshopping it throughout the summer, Prince will reprise his musical — now a single act and featuring new cast members — from Nov. 1 to 3 as a part of DEMAN Weekend.
“1600 Vine” follows a group of young people who have gone viral online and moved to 1600 Vine Street in hopes of capitalizing on their newfound fame. The characters are referred to, appropriately, by their social media handles: @DanteTells (in this production, played by sophomore Eli Kline), @LunaLight (junior Multy Oliver), @JupeStunts (first-year KB Denis) and @CousinsByChance (senior Jaxson Floberg and junior CJ Cruz, who are differentiated only as “Chance One” and “Chance Two”), to name a few. As the characters grow closer to one another, their dissatisfaction with the lives they lead begins to unravel — some for better, some for worse.
Prince mentioned that he chose to present “1600 Vine” as a musical because it allows the audience to view the characters from the “inside out” and removes the physical and emotional barrier of a screen. (The “multimedia musical,” as Prince calls it, still uses screens to incorporate the characters’ pre-recorded “vlogs,” but their presence only underscores the tension between reality and virtuality.) The most remarkable part of “1600 Vine,” however, is not its presentation, but its production: Prince had barely begun the writing process when he cast his actors and assembled his music team, who then collaborated with Prince on shaping the arc of the show, writing lines and composing the musical numbers.
“The idea of [a conventional musical] is that the director handles the scene work, the music director teaches the music, the choreographer teaches the dance,” said senior Samantha Jackson, who has been a music director and orchestrator for both Duke productions of “1600 Vine.” “With this experience, I’m helping [Prince] with script changes ... and he’s saying ‘Let’s change this lyric’ or ‘Maybe this chord would sound better in this progression.’”
Prince noted that this intense collaboration between students not only added a diversity of perspectives and experiences into the show’s production, but also reaped the benefit of authenticity.
“The show is written in the language of 22-year-olds, because it’s written by 22-year-olds,” Prince said. “‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ ‘Be More Chill,’ ‘13’ ... they’re all about young people, but they’re written by adults who would like to make a statement about young people. ... There’s no show out there written from the perspective of us that feels like it’s not being written for us.”
It’s kind of funny, then, that Prince and his student collaborators were mentored by Randolph-Wright, who is 63 years old, and Wilkins, who’s approaching his 40th birthday. And yet, while both men admitted that their exposure to internet celebrities and apps like Vine is minimal (and mostly through nieces and nephews), they also stressed the universality of a show like “1600 Vine” — which, arguably, focuses more on mediations of the self through social media than on identifying specific stars or references.
“Every generation deals with the allure of celebrity, and also the struggle of telling the truth,” Randolph-Wright wrote in an email. “We are living in a time where truth does not matter. ‘1600 Vine’ looks at this from a 2020 lens.”
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Wilkins pointed out that anyone pursuing a career in a creative industry, whether young or old, must now take steps to craft an online “brand” through social media and maintain its consistency, which often means posting on multiple platforms every day.
“I’m in a business where self-promotion is paramount,” Wilkins said. “It’s still really odd for me to think about how I use social media platforms as a way of presenting my personal self versus my professional self. ... [Prince has] asked very important questions about the long-term effects and impacts of people using these platforms, which are very curated, and how that reflects on you then living your life.”
Optimism says that internet fame, in its very essence, is fleeting; someone’s 15 minutes of virality rarely last longer than that. This, too, shall pass. But on the other side of the pendulum’s swing, a pessimist points out that this is how celebrity works: Pipelines to stardom expand and contact, household names come and go, but the get-rich-quick scheme is always at bat with an ever-changing façade. Musicals like “1600 Vine” can help us understand that, but what Prince really wants to know is: Who’s responsible for pressing the brakes?
“The weird thing about the show is that there’s an urgency to it, because it feels like this could end anytime,” Prince said. “This is not sustainable. Hollywood knows it’s not sustainable. ... And yet, I don’t know what stops it. I always think, this thing can’t last. But then it lasts.”
“1600 Vine” will be performed Nov. 1 and 2 at 10 p.m. and Nov. 3 at 3 p.m. in the Rubenstein Arts Center. The runtime is 100 minutes with no intermission. Admission is free.