Monday, August 29, 2016

Super Delegates Bonus: Alexander Hamilton in "Hamilton:: An American Musical"

Scene from a Hamilton performance
Welcome to Super Delegates Bonus. As a subsidiary of Super Delegates, the sporadic additional column is meant to explore depictions of politicians on film outside of the conventional methods of the column. This ranges from everything such as political candidates in TV movies and miniseries to real life candidates providing feedback on their pop culture representation. While not as frequent or conventional, the goal is to help provide a vaster look at politics on film as it relates to the modern election year. Join in and have some fun. One can only imagine what will be covered here.

"Hamilton: An American Musical"
Release Date: September 25, 2015 
Written By: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ron Chernow (Book)
Starring: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo
Tony Awards
Won: 11
-Best Musical
-Best Book of a Musical
-Best Original Score
-Best Actor in a Musical (Leslie Odom Jr.)
-Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Daveed Diggs)
-Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Renee Elise Goldsberry)
-Best Costume Design of a Musical
-Best Lighting Design of a Musical
-Best Direction of a Musical
-Best Choreography
-Best Orchestrations
Nominations: 5
-Best Actor in a Musical (Lin-Manuel Miranda)
-Best Actress in a Musical (Phillipa Soo)
-Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Jonathan Groff)
-Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Christopher Jackson)
-Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Delegates in Question:
-Alexander Hamilton
-Aaron Burr
-Marquis de Lafayette
-Thomas Jefferson
-George Washington
-John Adams

*NOTE: For the sake of posterity, I will only be critiquing the available soundtrack featuring the original Broadway cast recording.

While it is true that Super Delegates is meant predominantly to focus on film and TV, it would feel criminal to do this column without dedicating one entry to Hamilton: An American Musical. Unlike most shows that have appeared on Broadway in the past 10 years, Hamilton has pretty much spawned a phenomenon that transcends the market. Lin-Manuel Miranda is pretty close to being a household name and has worked with Disney on the upcoming movie Moana. There's so much to say about Hamilton that to summarize it here would be greatly difficult. The show, which runs 2.5 hours, is rather lengthy and intertwines through a rich tapestry that may be rooted in American history, but incorporates social and cultural touchstones of the late 20th century. Hamilton may seem like a phenomenon only because it's a hip-hop musical about a dull subject, but its craft more than warrants its almost entirely sold out existence. Even those who have no means to get to Broadway know Hamilton, and that is a success not properly felt since Rent.

So, what makes Hamilton so special? There is the broader reality that it's a musical that challenged the norm that 18th century history is nothing but boring white dudes. Yes, the musical's biggest anachronism is casting major political figures with black and Hispanic actors. However, Miranda claims that it was done in part to take the baggage off of visual accuracy immediately. It was going to be about the text at hand, which explores the life of Alexander Hamilton as he became a Founding Father who was shot down by his former partner Aaron Burr. There's jealousy and Cabinet rap battles along with R&B music. Those with a good ear will be able to notice shout-outs to rap icons like The Notorious B.I.G. as well as The West Wing. If Miranda has one gift, it's juxtaposing the modern understanding of "urban" music into history by making a legitimate case that had the music and culture existed then, the media just might depict the various controversies in this manner.

The biggest achievement is in the lyrical department. Miranda's song writing manages to cover everything from bombastic introductions to war scenes, weddings, pistol duelings, a child's death, sex scandals, cabinet meetings, and the various feuds that Hamilton had, specifically with Burr's lack of political focus. The show has a strong central message that justifies its casting and musical choices. The line "Immigrants, we get the job done." sums it up nicely, especially when opening with "Alexander Hamilton" and the story of how he made it to the mainland. Over the course of the next two hours, there will be an understanding as to the tragedy of why Hamilton isn't remembered as well. As the closing song suggests, "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story" suggests that legacy is out of our control. We just have to keep trying to make the world better and hope it comes across that way.

To most people, Hamilton first appeared on Off-Broadway in 2015 before moving to regular Broadway in July 2015. It's been met with sold-out shows frequently and glowing reviews. The cast and crew hold raffles in front of Richard Rodgers Theater that include live performances of various other pop hits. There's a sense of community that goes beyond the music, and it's redefining Broadway musicals in a way. It's bringing in a new audience that doesn't care or could tell you who won a Tony last year. People quoting it are endless and suddenly political figures are starting to take on a new popularity. Because of the musical's popularity, the U.S. Department of Treasury rejected the idea to replace "The 10 dollar founding father without a father." that is Hamilton with a more relevant face. Instead, they chose to replace $20 figure Andrew Jackson with Harriett Tubman - a move that was deemed controversial. 

The very existence of Hamilton is steeped in political entanglement in the real world. In 2009, Miranda appeared at the White House for an Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word. While there for his other Tony-winning musical In the Heights, he performed a raw version of "Alexander Hamilton," then part of The Hamilton Mixtape project that evolved into the musical. To say the least, things have only gotten bigger from there and the meticulous years-long journey to perfect specific songs paid off substantially. Even additional cast members like Daveed Diggs has had a decent acting career since, appearing in this past summer's Netflix series The Get Down. More than say The Producers or The Book of Mormon, Hamilton's music has become iconic thanks to its catchiness and talented performers.

Its biggest success may be beyond its clever reinterpretation of history. It may be that it has gotten students to care about American history. It could just be that the tunes are catchy and well written. However, it also is because one can see Hamilton as an allegory for the contemporary immigrant experience, where blacks and Hispanics fight to be relevant figures in their society. Like Hamilton, they stand for justice and refusing to let go of their beliefs. Much like how Hamilton disliked Thomas Jefferson for hanging out with the French during the Revolutionary War, many today are calling out politicians on their hypocritical ways. Of course, most are just doing their best to memorize dizzying passages from "Guns and Ships" where Marquis de Lafayette blows the roof off of brevity. Hamilton's contribution to lower class schools has also been significant, as they have discounted tickets for them to allow access to a high end show.

Hamilton is likely as popular as it is right now because it feels like perfect timing. In a world where societal challenges are being fought with frequency, it's hard to find a story that represents oppression quite like Alexander Hamilton's. He fought for justice and ended up a footnote. One can look at this as a political allegory where corrupt politicians fight their way to the top while the good man who works hard fails. One can look at the senseless death of Hamilton as symbolizing police brutality on citizens. There's a lot that continues to inspire society for the better through these songs. It speaks to the 1800's as well as the 2000's. It transcends a barrier that many wouldn't think was possible. Because of Miranda, history may reverse its opinions on the various presidents and politicians of the time. Even more obscure figures like Hercules Mulligan may stand a chance of being rewritten into history books because of Miranda. Also because of Hamilton's reference in "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story," Eliza Schuyler Hamilton's real life orphanage received an increase in attention.

As said, it is difficult to fully assess in one piece the impact that Hamilton has had not only in the world of theater, but in politics and societal lives. It is a vital piece of modern culture that only seems dated when read on the page. When listened to with its hip-hop styles and against-type casting, it becomes something far more subversive and fascinating. Considering that its influence to the larger zeitgeist is just a little over a year old, it's difficult to understand the extent to which Hamilton will blend into culture. Still, it has changed how we print money, talk about history, and how we portray it in musicals. This is only the start of Hamilton's impact on culture, and it will be interesting to revisit in five years when the inevitable influence feels more prevalent. For now, it's an audacious, one of a kind story in a sea of familiar stories. It speaks for everything as well as itself all at once. That's quite an achievement.

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