Some of you might be sick of hearing of the American musical that took Broadway scene by storm, but I studied theatre in high school. I hope to write a play in the future. Theatre is going to be an intrinsic part of this blog, and if you’re here because you’re passionate about stories, I’ll tell you now – the stage is a medium of storytelling unique from all the others. The Grammy Award-winning musical “Hamilton” is an example of that.
The playwright, Lin-Manuel Miranda found his inspiration in the biography Alexander Hamilton (2004) by Ron Chernow. This little detail is fascinating to me because it’s a moment of inspiration that would never happen to me – I’d never read a biography and feel compelled to write an award-winning hiphop musical! Miranda, however, did, and he did so playing the titular character, which might come as a surprise to many. In fact, with Broadway’s history being what it is, it surprises many people that the cast of Hamilton consists of mostly black and Latino actors… or maybe that’s just because of the focus of white men in history, details, details, I’ll get there.
Before anything else though, this time I won’t beat around the bush. I’ll tell you straightout what gives a stageplay an advantage over a book, a video game, or the silver screen: the moment. When you sit in the audience of a play, you are experiencing a fleeting moment that will never be repeated. The actors on stage are performing live. Their physical and mental conditions are different from any other showing they have done – when you watch a stageplay, you are sharing a once-in-a-lifetime show for everyone, and I think that’s something truly special.
Personally, I believe that despite the strong effort made to bring Les Misérables to the silver screen, it failed because it lost what gave the musical such a strong connection. The songs lose a little bit of power when you realize they had as many takes as needed to get the right vocal quality. The power vested in the stage gets lost to cinematography and close ups. Creative expression becomes restrained by the two dimensional result.
I believe one of the greatest benefits of theatre is its freedom of expression. In high school, everyone has that sarcastic pop culture notion about theatre kids or those artsy types. In essence, all this means is that a stageplay has a lot more room for creative interpretation than screenplays or TV shows get. People enter a theatre expecting something a little different, something… well, theatrical. A woman can play King Richard III. A woman can play a man play a chimpanzee. A man can play a woman who is pretending to be a man. The point is, most people are far more willing to take a black Thomas Jefferson in stride on stage rather than on the screen.
One of the reasons I admire Hamilton so is because of the opportunity Miranda has created through his production. Our society is not currently one that does particularly well representing minorities in creative works. Furthermore, in most any other medium, having a supposedly white character portrayed by a person of color is often seen as some kind of cardinal sin. Immediately, the controversy of Amandla Stenberg’s casting as Rue in The Hunger Games (some people upset that she was black, though the book described her as such) and the more recent controversy of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter: The Cursed Child come to mind.
(Although the eighth Harry Potter installment is also to be performed on a stage, the story’s origins and legacy remain in the novels and the films, rendering it separate from stories conceived and created for the stage.)
What I admire about Hamilton is that Lin-Manuel Miranda had an unconventional vision. People said that hiphop had no business being in a musical, let alone on Broadway. People complained about ‘misrepresenting’ historic figures and berated the idea on that. However, Miranda created a moving production, telling a story only a stage musical could tell in a way that only a stage musical could tell. He proved all the naysayers wrong.
His lyrics are superb, clever – easy on the ears and playful on the tongue. There’s a Shakespearean quality to the wit in his words, and Miranda seems well aware of the impact a well-placed rhyme can have on the telling of a story. An element that struck me as I listened to the Hamilton OST for the first time was how well he assigned riffs to reoccuring words and phrases, and then how intelligently he twisted the moods of those riffs to really punch home a certain mood.
First and foremost, each major character has a theme. I use this word loosely, as there are no songs on the OST labelled so-and-so’s theme. However, I think one of the most understated and most effective elements of Hamilton is that every character has a riff.
Alexander Hamilton has his slow, oscillating tune every time he introduces himself, regardless of the song. Eliza Schuyler has her name announced with a high lilt, youthful and part of a harmony in the first act with her sisters, and by the end of it, a slow and lingering introduction in the epilogue. Hamilton starts his interactions with Aaron Burr with his full name, and a punctuated “sir” tagged on at the end.
And these recurring sequences of notes are not constrained to characters’ names – I don’t think I will ever be able to forget listening to “Helpless” for the first time, a jaunty and whimsical tune about Eliza Schuyler’s love-at-first-sight with Alexander Hamilton, and then listening to Angelica Schuyler’s “Satisfied” immediately afterwards. The shift in moods was immediate, but what still gives me a welcome chill even now is when words begin to repeat. We revisit the same encounter as Eliza’s scene, but we are seeing it as a devastating moment through Angelica’s eyes.
“Handsome, boy does he know it!
Peach fuzz, and he can’t even grow it!
I wanna take him far away from this place,
then I turn and see my sister’s face and she is…”
“Helpless,” Eliza Schuyler sings, almost the same as her own cheery song, but coming after Angelica’s passionate rap and juxtaposed with the mounting notes of strings in minor key, the tune the audience has grown so familiar with just the scene before serves to make it abundantly clear that Eliza’s unassuming happiness will result in her sister’s despair.
Sorry if this post gets a bit disjointed now – I’ve just tucked in my earphones and started listening to “Satisfied” again, so I got wrapped up in Angelica’s regret (I love it) and seem to have lost my train of thought.
In any case, by the end of this song, unknown to me, Miranda had set up another keyword. Angelica closes this song with a haunting acceptance, “He will never be satisfied. // I will never be satisfied,” and on all accounts I should have expected it. However, I was thrilled and even now close my eyes and relish when later, in “Non-Stop” after Hamilton once again chooses his ambitions for the nation over now-wife Eliza, Angelica sings her rising declaration in the same tune as before:
“He will never be satisfied,” she sings over Eliza’s desperate inquiries, “What would be enough? // To be satisfied”
And this isn’t even touching upon Alexander Hamilton’s secondary theme, his sharp proclamation in staccato, “I am not throwing away my shot!” which makes a resurgence at the end of the song, just to play its part in wrapping up Act I, and it succeeds. The repetition of the riff emphasizes the relentless, obsessive quality to Hamilton’s ambition.
(I will also remark now that “Non-Stop” is a great song for writers to guilt them into actually writing.)
“How do you write like you’re running out of time?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write ev’ry second you’re alive?
Ev’ry second you’re alive? Ev’ry second you’re alive?”
In any case, the aside aside, each of these riffs function as a mini-reprise without being labeled as such. However, Miranda does not shy from labeled reprises as well. Although Stay Alive is a powerful piece rife with the stress of revolution, I was struck a blow by the use of the same tune in Stay Alive (reprise) which takes the same melody and places it in direly different stakes. Miranda cleverly crafts the song so that the heart of it is desperation and a mark of change. Be that the independence of a country or the death of a son, the audience draws the parallels and feels that connection.
I could talk about the Hamilton song for days – each song could have its own essay. However, due to time constraints, I suppose I must leave it off here for now. Above all else, I am grateful to Lin-Manuel Miranda for his vision. Honestly, it’s also appalling to me how this musical manages to be educational – it just goes to show that learning can be delightful and a far more inspiring process than our current education system makes it out to be. Despite the fact that I would probably kick one of my professors in the shin for a Broadway ticket to Hamilton, despite the fact that a little bit of the magic will be lost, I will patiently await the stage play’s recording so that I may see the show for its full visual experience.
Okay, but I’m going to just throw in that despite all the praise for all the prim and proper aspects that I cast above that make me sound a lot more sophisticated than I am, the first song I heard from Hamilton was “You’ll Be Back” and no one’s going to convince me that King George was not the best character. Give me his creepy, abusive love song to America or his gleefully vindictive “I Know Him” any day, and I’ll be singing “da da da dat da” right along with him.
“And when push
comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion
to remind you of my love!”