Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Hamilton: Salt Peter This

When the young Revolutionary War upstarts in a tavern shout "Showtime" and burst into rap, it's a massive collapsing of history and culture and says those rowdy upstarts who dance through the L train breaking the rules, shaking things up, and causing havoc, and music, and magic are part of the lineage of the foundation of this nation. And it may be the greatest revolutionary act of Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton. This ain't no powdered wig 1776 and thank god.

Lin-Manuel Miranda has written the book, music and lyrics of a musical revolution within the Revolution.   In this musical inspired by Ron Chernow's book Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) becomes a rising star in the colonies.  He is the center of rebellious thought alongside Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), and John Laurens (Anthony Ramos).  King George III (Brian D'Arcy James) is none too pleased.  Eventually Hamilton falls in with George Washington (Christopher Jackson) and becomes his right hand man.  Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) struggles for recognition and becomes Hamilton's frequent rival.  As Hamilton climbs he acquires a rich wife (Phillipa Soo), a sister-in-law who has feelings for him (Renee Elise Goldsberry), and a mistress (Jasmine Cephas Jones).  His precipitous climb naturally comes with a fall when his personal life issues interfere with his political ambitions.    

Miranda's first act of challenging the status quo comes in casting all men of color to play the founding fathers.  With one white guy playing fatuous King George, he extends this further.  The casting makes clear that outsiders, rabble-rousers, visionaries, writers, and young men of color are America. They are a critical part of its DNA.  Of course these young men are mythologizing as they go. As they tear down the fabric of their past and charter an unknown future, they (well Lin-Manuel Miranda and team) are doing so with a consciousness that the steps they take matter. Representation matters.  Everything we see in this musical matters.

And there's a narrative motivation for this aggressive push forward. Hamilton is seen as the outsider even among his peers. He's the immigrant, a Creole, an orphan, and a big mouth. He has no place. He doesn't fit into the elitist social structure of English society in America. He  represents exactly the idea that this country will become. He's the misfit who finds a place to fit in.  He made this country a place for people like him to fit in.  And that's massive when what you're saying is that immigrants made this country and shaped its foundation.  And yes one can extrapolate to mean all immigrants but when early Americana rhetoric gets tossed around the white, elite vision of those founding fathers is what people are invoking.  Miranda subverts that with his Latino hero.  Again he's collapsing timelines to connect Hamilton's personal immigration story to later waves of immigration to America and taking us right into the present.

Identity is made as important to Hamilton as it is to us today.  The story is also structured with a wholly self-conscious narrative.  Overt storytelling and authorship of the story is omnipresent.  I was reminded of Taylor Mac's explanation for the indefinite article judy (Mac's preferred pronoun) used in judy's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Mac was not writing THE history. Mac was writing judy's version of things. And yet all history is someone's version of things. We've just stopped questioning whose version we are paying attention to.

Miranda is focused on the outsider voices but these are men's voices.  He acknowledges in part that he's leaving out a woman's history of these events.  There are female characters with interesting voices which he dabbles in but let's face they too are marginalized.  But he does not just leave it at that, accepting that marginalization.  He makes a conscious choice in the storytelling to  make clear they could have a whole musical unto themselves and in doing so seems to be showing that he's aware of leaving them out completely but in a three hour musical he could only do so much. It's an incredible act of  unprecedented self-awareness to say--I know I left you out but you are worthy of your own story.  When most new musicals barely know what to do with women, he manages to create dynamic female characters, he gives them passions and ideas of their own, and though they may be trapped in the circumstances of their times, he shows us how remarkable they were.  Even if he can't hand the reins of the story over to them completely.  

The music and lyrics incorporate a mixture of hip-hop and musical theater ballads.   We've seen hip-hop musicals used to reinterpret the work of old dead white guys before (The Bombitty of Errors was one of my favorite shows when I saw it).  But Miranda's usage here feels organic and earned.  He's blending musical traditions in a way we don't often see.  He's combining American musical voices in a truly unique American tapestry. Musical theater fans will hear familiar references.  Hip-hop fans will hear homages to their music heroes.  And Miranda somehow makes the marriage of the two feel effortless and obvious--like what were they waiting for. They should have always been married.  He's helped in this task with his talented cast.  But more on them later.  He also uses the music format to extend his narrative.  Political debates become rap battles, with insults, mic drops, and some badass lyrics spit. 

Identity politics aside, the work is also successful because all creative elements are working together. Thomas Kail's direction and Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography all sync perfectly with Miranda's book, music, and lyrics. The dancers move like structured anarchy--expressing revolt, frustration, and change through movement.  Kail's direction brings together the rapid fire lyrics, the relentless pace, and the mountains of history to be traversed and hones it into some elegant and crystalline direction.

In one of the most sumptuous and perfectly staged sequences I have ever seen, he puts Renee Elise Goldsberry, in the eye of the hurricane of staging as she remembers and flashes back to meeting Hamilton for the first time.  Expressing the time shift, her emotional state, and the complexities of her feelings for her brother-in-law and her station in life as the eldest daughter who had to marry for position, Kail creates this cinematic and time-bending sequence which fits with the song so perfectly.  I could watch this scene over and over again until the end of time. 

And these elements click because of the cast who are perfect in their roles.  First, Daveed Diggs is a rapper and performer but not really known in musical theater circles.  But HOLY JESUS GOD.  He plays both Lafayette where he raps in French and is all bravado and Thomas Jefferson where he's an opportunistic and elitist jerkface.  They are distinct characters and he imbues them both with just enough, je ne sais quoi that you will likely be blinded by his star-quality shining through.  With one sidelong glance and a knowing smile, he becomes charm, danger, and rebellion all wrapped up into one man.  I want to see everything this guy does from here on out.  Musically (he performs with clpping), theatrically, everything-ly. Renee Elise Goldsberry and Leslie Odom Jr. who have been terrific in other musicals get these complex and rich characters to dig into here.  And as always they deliver moving performances through their incredible voices.   Brian D'Arcy James is hilarious as the uptight and put-out King of England.  It must be said that Miranda is a wildly talented composer and lyricist but in the company of these voices he is musically a weaker link.

The litany of my analysis, praise, and criticism could go on and on.  I found Act 1 to be nearly perfect (I could have done with out the odes to babies and I hope from the preview I saw some of this got cut--there's a streak of sentimentalism throughout that is not my jam at all). Act 2 like Alexander Hamilton's real-life second act was a lot messier.  Traversing the political and the personal, it felt a little more rudderless at times.  But it's harder to plot the confusing self-destruction of a man than it is to build his meteoric rise.  Nevertheless I wasn't bored or confused or lost (but I noticed the meandering more).  Even with these criticisms Hamilton remains leagues above most new musicals.  This show is really special and I think we all need to take a moment to appreciate what a real gift it is to this generation and all those that follow it. 

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