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HAMILTON--My Thoughts

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Here is a story, embarrassing but funny in an ironic sort of way. Arriving in Manhattan in March 2016 to see an opera at the Met, I spotted, in Port Authority, a poster for Hamilton. Instantly, I thought—now, bear in mind that I knew absolutely nothing about the show and had never even heard of it—“A musical about Alexander Hamilton. That will never be a hit!”

I was laughably ignorant of the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical version of Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography had opened in August 2015 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre and was fated for a run there that only the Coronavirus of 2020 could halt. Though I have yet to see the phenomenon that is Hamilton (I’m waiting for it to hit the community-theatre circuit), I do own the original Broadway cast recording, which I want to visit here with the opening caveat that, to me, rap music was that noise blasting out of people’s cars when I went to high school in the 1990’s. One of the reasons I bought Hamilton on CD was to see if I could enjoy rap in a dramatic context. As it turns out, I can.

The show has, of course, a controversial production concept that can be summed up by stating that the sole Caucasian member of its principal cast is the actor (Jonathan Groff in the original) who plays King George III. The show’s musical style, moreover, contrasts with rather than conforms to the Colonial setting reflected in its period costumes and set. Composer-lyricist Miranda’s score comprises rap, hip-hop, R & B, and various Broadway styles; there are lyrical and musical references to South Pacific, The Pirates of Penzance, and Les Misérables, among other classics. His lyrics are decidedly modern, and in this Hamilton contrasts with that Founding Fathers musical of 1969, 1776, whose songs “Molasses to Rum” and “Momma, Look Sharp” merely implied the then-contemporary relevance of the Founders’ slavery debate and of young men being sent off to die in the Revolutionary War.

Not that there is anything “just for shock value” in Hamilton, which would seem to be a good encapsulation of the Chernow biography and whose battle scenes would be nowhere without the Les Mis model. Neither the historical show’s modern sound nor its concept of non-white actors playing white characters is novel; Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin, in which Ben Vereen danced Bob Fosse’s choreography, also filtered a public-domain story (that of Prince Pippin, eldest son of Charlemagne) though a contemporary (to 1972) sensibility. The riveting opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” is on par with classics like “Tradition” (Fiddler on the Roof), “Wilkommen” (Cabaret), and “Magic to Do” (Pippin) and sounds “period” in at least one way: a biographical narrative sung in turn by several main characters, it resembles one of those tales told around a campfire in the days when oral storytelling was important. And yet, by the number’s end, it is clear that Hamilton aims to imply a parallel between “the ten-dollar Founding Father without a father” killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, and the sort of rapper (e.g., Tupac Shakur) who is gunned down by a rival before his time. I would call this the show’s subtext.

"Alexander Hamilton” sounds like the opening number of a smash hit, not a flop. And yet even the greatest of works are capable of evoking doubt—“But is it really so great?”—in their observers. In his book Not Since Carrie, Broadway expert Ken Mendelbaum describes two “historical” rock-musical disasters of the 1970’s and ‘80’s: Marlowe, in which Shakespeare’s rival playwright Christopher Marlowe wore a silver lame ́ jumpsuit, and Rockabye Hamlet, in which Hamlet sang the words “Loving does strange things/Messes up your mind.” Very occasionally, the fear nags that Hamilton in fact looks and sounds the way those campy shows did. (Also, the old radio comedy team “Bob and Ray” once did a sketch where a failed actor was considered for the lead in a biopic of Martin Van Buren. The very title Hamilton makes me think of that sketch.)

On the whole, though, Hamilton is witty where it might have been silly; certainly the principals’ costumes and that heavy wooden set prevent it from looking undignified (by contrast, Marlowe’s “flimsy” set was “made out of tinfoil”). The wit is in the lyrics, of course. Miranda’s parents were born in Puerto Rico, but he was born in New York, and it is a wonderful thing to have such an outstanding American lyricist on Broadway today. I stress “American” because two of the must-see musicals of my own teen years, Les Mis and Miss Saigon, have lyrics that are merely adequate—because they are translations of the original French lyrics, which are probably superior. While it’s really too early to judge Miranda’s place in the pantheon of great Broadway lyricists, anyone who writes, “A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists?/Give me a position; show me where the ammunition is!” clearly has talent worthy of Irving Berlin.

It is ultimately the orchestrator who is responsible for the way a Broadway score sounds onstage. Typically, this professional works with the composer to create a soundscape consistent with the “flavor” of the show’s setting; but, since most of Hamilton’s score sounds nothing like the music of Hamilton’s own time, Alex Lacamoire’s orchestrations must be judged on their own terms. They have a “rightness” about them, from the ominously low keyboard tones that underscore the show’s first lines and the cello that draws pathos from the introspective phrases in “My Shot,” to the harpsichord effects in the score’s one Mozart pastiche (the Continental Congress number) and the nerve-wracking percussion in “Right-Hand Man.”

One wonders how a single man could possibly have conceived all of Hamilton’s extensive score. Actually, Miranda didn’t conceive the score solo but had “help” from pre-existing song hits. Freely using others' output is, I’m told, an inescapable part of the hip-hop genre and has been called “theft.” Yet technically it is only theft, or plagiarism, if the sources are never credited; at the back of Hamilton’s CD booklet is a credit list. In the context of Broadway musicals, what Miranda did at certain points in his score is not much different from what Wright and Forrest did when they used the music of Alexander Borodin as the basis for the songs in Kismet (1953).

It is the artist's prerogative to decide what she or he wants to focus on, and I want to focus on the inspiring aspect of Hamilton’s creation. That a composer-lyricist-performer could pick up a book while on vacation, read it as his leisure, recognize its unique musical potential, write the musical, star in it, and see it through to a rewarding run seems a story too good to be true; in fact, this is how Hamilton happened. Even better, the show’s style has been almost a genre in itself; its influence on the arguably more imaginative yet much shorter-lived musical hit The Great Comet (2016), based on a portion of War and Peace and starring pop singer Josh Groban, was obvious. For its ten-month run at the Imperial Theatre, The Great Comet joined Hamilton in defining the look and sound of Broadway for the remainder of the decade. Even if it never reopens, Hamilton has set a trend in source material, in score genre, and in production concept that could only be broken by another massive hit.

Photos are of the Hamilton marquee on Broadway; Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.) with the daughters of Philip Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry, Philippa Soo, and Jasmine Cephas Jones); and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton.

Updated Oct-12-2020 at 02:43 by Bellinilover

Classical Music , Personal , Non-Classical Music , Musicians , Recorded Music