Sunday, July 12, 2015

Hamilton, And Why Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Modern Day Shakespeare

Get ready, everybody. This one's a doozy. Because The Cinematic and Other Cultural Endeavors of Miles Purinton is about to take a journey down one of my more rarely discussed cultural endeavors. This time, we're not talking about film, and we're not talking about television. This time, we're talking about theatre. Specifically the new musical Hamilton which played a sold out run at the Public Theater and starts previews on Broadway tomorrow.

A number from the brand-new Broadway musical Hamilton

I typically don't talk about theatre on this blog. Not because I'm not passionate about it (I'm probably more passionate about theater than film, and that's saying something) but because theatre is less accessible as it's limited to one location. While films are broadcast worldwide and can be preserved and accessed years after their initial release, a theatrical production is isolated to a distinct place and time. So if this blog talked about a great show I saw recently, anyone who's not in New York City is probably not going to be able to see it and share in that experience. And as someone who doesn't want to exclude any of his faithful readers (there are dozens of you, dozens!!!!) I often fear that rambling on and on about a great show might be met with a collective "meh."

But Hamilton is not like most shows. I saw it at the Public and, like everyone who saw it (with the exception of, perhaps, Madonna) I was blown away. And while I have not seen it on Broadway yet (for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it hasn't started performances yet), I can only imagine the success it will have. Hamilton is a big show, and as good as it was on the Public's stage, it is meant for Broadway. For anyone who doubts Broadway's credibility in the contemporary world of theater, or who feels like it's a venue that highlights commercial appeal over artistic integrity, I encourage you to see Hamilton. It makes a case for Broadway's relevance. There is no other stage that can possibly live up to the grand, epic scale that this show is designed for. It is the rare type of show that surpasses the limitations of the genre and becomes an event. Across the world, people know about the stage version of The Lion King. Shows like Rent, Les Miserables, The Book of Mormon, and...sigh...even Cats transcended their staged locations. And Hamilton will easily be the next show to do so.

It even looks Les Mis-esque in this picture.

Rather than simply review the show, I want to talk about why this is the case. And while the production is incredible in its design, choreography, and cast (there are standout performances from Daveed Diggs, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr., and Phillipa Soo in particular), I will mostly be talking about the script--the elements of the show that can be presented as a document. Because these elements (written entirely by Lin-Manuel Miranda) are where the show thrives, and by looking at them we can get to the crux of the show's success. So, bear with me, and at the end, we can all buy full-priced Broadway tickets together.

For the uninformed, Hamilton is about Alexander Hamilton, founding father and creator of the national bank who is probably best known as being the face on the ten dollar bill. His story is fascinating and probably unknown to most. While we might remember little snippets from history class (he founded the Federalist Party, was the first Secretary of the Treasury, and was killed in a duel with sitting vice president Aaron Burr. Spoiler alert.) I doubt anyone other than a historian will know every facet of Hamilton's life and influence. There were plenty of details about many of these characters that I know will be brand new, and rather illuminating, for the majority of the audience. Eliza Hamilton, Alexander's wife, for example, is a FASCINATING individual whose story was completely unknown to me until the show's epilogue. Because of this, the story that unfolds on stage is a welcome mixture of familiarity and surprise, with various plotlines unfolding in new and unexpected ways.

This is what the American Revolution looked like
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about the show is its contemporary aesthetic. Despite the setting, the show is undeniably modern, from its hip-hop score to its incredibly diverse cast. In a world where people complain about unconfirmed speculation that a black actor might play James Bond, you might think it would be jarring to see black actors portraying such historical figures as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But the casting undeniably works, and I have yet to hear a single person complain about it. And while I'd love to think this is due to the more open-minded nature of the theatrical community, I think that wouldn't give enough credit to the show, because it makes such a great case for why such characters would be played by these actors. As Miranda said in an interview, "This is the story of America then, told by America now. It looks like America now." For a show set during the American Revolution, the revolutionary feel of the show makes it impossible to imagine these characters portrayed any other way. "We take it as a given that hip-hop music is the music of the revolution," Miranda said. The show makes it evident why.

George Washington and Alexander Hamilton make a deal.

At a very young age, Miranda has already become a superstar in the theatrical world. He won numerous awards (including a Pulitzer nomination and a Tony) for his first show, In the Heights, and earned further accolades for the criminally underrated Bring it On: The Musical. But it was not until watching Hamilton that I realized the full extent of Miranda's powers: he is the William Shakespeare of our generation. Once it occurred to me, I couldn't help but find further matches between these two figures. Both are actors, neither came from a traditionally theatrical background, and both write in rhyme, although Miranda has traded in Shakespeare's iambic pentameter for rap. That rhyming connection should not be underestimated. It makes me sound like I'm in a really bad, overly-earnest movie where a nerdy guy teaches Shakespeare to inner-city youth by going "Shakespeare is a lot like your rap music!" but it's true. In both Shakespeare and in Miranda's lyrics, the rhythm is just as important to the meaning of the dialogue as the words themselves. It creates a distinct atmosphere that only a skilled craftsman can perfect.

This is not from Hamilton. This is from Bring it On. Which I've sung the praises of before. Seriously, more people should talk about this show.
In Shakespeare, the language is intentionally stylized, and the characters use it to show their status. When Shakespearean characters utilize clever wordplay, it's not just Shakespeare showing off, it's the characters showing their own way with words. Miranda does the same thing with rap here--his raps are lyrical and poetic, and with the passion of great statesmen on the stage, their ways with words are a natural fit. Sung through, we get the grandness of an opera, but the wordiness of a Shakespearean epic. Simply by saying his lines, we are able to appreciate Alexander Hamilton's intellect and skill, because those lines are so strong. When Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton debate in front of the senate, Miranda turns it into a rap battle. Which isn't too far from the truth--two noted politicians trying to outwit the other with their words and ideas is perfect content for a rap battle. But it also put me in mind of Julius Caesar when Brutus and Antony have dueling eulogies, each more eloquent than the last (ending, of course, on Antony's famous "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech). The "winner" of each scene is not just who has the best argument, but who has the best verse.

Miranda must be aware of this theatrical link--he has Hamilton compare himself to Macbeth in several scenes. But if we look at Hamilton from a Shakespearean perspective, it's not a tragedy, it's a history. The founding fathers are like the great kings whose stories Shakespeare set to stage. And in that historical context, Miranda finds wonderful characters and brings new life to the names we know from history books. Even by simply titling the play with the name of its protagonist put me in mind of Henry V or Richard II, as Miranda examines these well-known figures as human beings with faults and nuances.

Jefferson and Hamilton in a rap battle. For democracy.

Shakespeare is famous for being a champion for unrecognized voices. He took characters who ordinarily were not seen on stage and gave them voices. Shakespeare's plays were incredibly diverse for the time, including characters of different ethnicities and backgrounds when his contemporaries were not. A great example is Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, who I've talked about briefly before, who is written problematically, but still treated with more respect than by any other playwright at the time (if you doubt me, read Marlowe's The Jew of Malta which features a terrifyingly anti-semitic caricature in the title role). With all of Shakespeare's characters, he tried to find a certain grey area. His villains (with a few notable exceptions) are not treated as purely evil. He finds the best in them. In Hamlet, the traitorous king Claudius has several moments to show his humanity, such as a scene of him praying. Macbeth may be evil, but shows much tenderness in his scenes with Lady Macbeth and how much he cares for her. Shakespeare's characters have endured so well because they are so well-rounded, and shown at their best and at their worst. Miranda affords the same careful consideration to his characters. You could say that Hamilton himself is an unrecognized voice--an immigrant who was often unpopular amongst his contemporaries for his intellect and abrasiveness, he's not the first person you'd think would be the main character in a musical. Then there's the eventual villain in Hamilton's life, Aaron Burr, who at both the start and the end of the show laments how he is forever marked as a murderer in the history books. Thomas Jefferson, who was famously at odds with Hamilton throughout history, is portrayed as a cocky and self-important ass (albeit a smart and oddly likable one). You leave Hamilton feeling differently about every single character than you did when the show began. You understand their motivations. You understand what drives them. You understand them as humans.

Aaron Burr and the Schuyler sisters

Miranda matches Shakespeare not only emotionally, but on a technical level as well by demonstrating ability with a great number of writing styles. While the score is mostly rap and hip-hop, Miranda also draws upon a number of musical styles, especially those traditionally associated with black culture. The three Schuyler sisters (one of whom is eventually Hamilton's wife, Eliza) seem distinctly modeled off of Destiny's Child. Elsewhere, there are clear undertones of jazz and ragtime. My favorite number in the show, a showstopper led by Burr called "The Room Where It Happens" has a decidedly Dixieland feel to it. Miranda not only excels in these styles, but blends them together beautifully. It's not just an enjoyable score, and it's not just a memorable score, it is an unbelievably smart score.

Like Shakespeare, Miranda is also an actor, and he stars as Hamilton. He gives an undeniably strong performance, but it is clear that his primary function is as a writer rather than an actor. I think Miranda would agree with me--during Hamilton's run at the Public, Miranda would often watch the show when his alternate (Javier Munoz) was on, taking notes so as to improve his own performance. Miranda certainly holds his own, but in this stupendous cast, his performance is not the immediate standout. And yet, it is amazing to watch him on stage. His artistic voice is so strong, and so integral to the success of the show that he is absolutely magnetic. Miranda's portrayal is more than a performance, it's a complete presentation. Just as Hamilton is more than a show. Hamilton is an event. I feel privileged to be able to have seen it now and already look forward to seeing it again. And more than that I look forward to the tremendous work that Miranda will continue to do. Miranda has already merited a great amount of praise for his work, all deserved, but I truly think that the extent of his talent cannot be underestimated. He is that rare artist that challenges the way theatre actually works. When Miranda is in his prime, he doesn't just excel in the genre, he reconfigures it to fit his own expectations. And if Hamilton is any indication, it is only the start of what Miranda has to offer the stage. If Hamilton is Miranda's Julius Caesar, I can only imagine what his Hamlet is going to be.

Eliza and Alexander Hamilton. I ship it.

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