In case you’ve been too busy rebelliously tossing tea off the side of a jet ski, there’s a show currently on Broadway that sang and danced its way off with a majority of this year’s Tony Awards. If you’d like a ticket, first you’ll have to sponsor a fund-raiser. After that, you’ll have a very, very long wait at the box office. Our guest correspondent, Ron Carmean, takes over marc’s blog today. He’ll clue you in on all this. I think you will find it a moment of genius. Here’s Ron’s piece..
Talent hits a target no one else can hit…
Genius hits a target no one else can see.
Examples of Genius: the theories of Einstein; the plays and Sonnets of Shakespeare; the music of Gershwin or Beethoven; the plays of Arthur Miller or August Wilson; the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. And “Hamilton,” from Lin-Manuel Miranda.
On his way to a vacation in Mexico, Miranda needed something to read. He picked up Ron Chernow’s “Hamilton” biography. The rest, as has been said, is Broadway history.
The book told Hamilton’s story, in part, because his contemporaries erased him from history —literally, due to his duel with Aaron Burr. Disagreements with Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Adams led to his accomplishments being ignored or minimized. Can you list Hamilton’s major achievements: chief aide to General Washington, founder of nation’s financial system, founder of US Coast Guard, founder of New York Post newspaper, first Secretary of State, established a national bank, wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers? I don’t remember the list being in my high school text books. That’s quite a list of accomplishments.
Plus, as Miranda himself has pointed out, “Hamilton produced over 27 volumes of written work.” How would such an immense amount of ground be covered? By using rap as a musical’s primary method of communication, obviously. Obviously? Miranda again: “I think it’s appropriate that we would need a musical style that transmits more words per minute than any other genre.” Yes, obviously.
Take “Hamilton’s” opening number.
How does a bastard
Son of a whore and
The middle of a forgotten
The Caribbean by Providence
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
As a critic explained it: “the emphatic cadences of rap, with witty rhyme pouring out over a tolling beat” conveyed large amounts of information and emotion. What was Hamilton’s” author, Ron Chernow’s, reaction to Miranda’s style choice? That was the question Miranda asked him, after singing the lyrics to the author in his living room. “I think that’s the most astonishing thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” Chernow answered. Miranda “had accurately condensed the first 40 pages of my book into a four minute song. And he had forged a unique idiom that blended formal 18th century speech with 21st century slang. Filtered through Lin-Manuel’s extraordinary mind, the lyrics sounded natural and spontaneous and all of a piece.” So, rap it would be.
Throughout the play, the personalities of Hamilton and Aaron Burr interact. At first they form a friendship. Gradually, disagreements mount. While Hamilton acts, writes, and talks quickly, Burr is cautious. He holds back his actions and emotions. In the show stopping number, “The Room Where It Happens,” Leslie Odom Jr’s performance as Burr earns him a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. With Burr, Hamilton talks of having an impending dinner with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. “Decisions are happening over dinner,” Hamilton explains. So, “Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room,” Burr says. And, later adds, “they emerge with a compromise, having opened doors that were previously closed.” Too late, Burr realizes Hamilton’s actions and eagerness enable him to have “skin in the game” and make a trade: he gets control of the banks and Virginians get the capitol’s new location, moved South from New York. Burr laments: “I wanna be in the room where it happens. I’ve gotta be…in the room.” But his realization comes too late. His hesitation makes him a political outsider. His frustration turns to anger, and anger ends with a duel —you know the outcome.
Throughout the production, actors and actresses alike, using rap to deliver and explain their thoughts and actions, give memorable performances. In addition to Odom’s Burr, both Daveed Diggs’ Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette (in a dual role) and Renee Elise Goldsberry’s Angelica Schuyler win Tonys for Best Featured Actor and Actress in a Musical. The speed and rhythm of the lyrics convey feelings and information effectively and entertain, as well. Miranda’s method of delivery works for George Washington and King George alike.
But has there been an audience for Miranda’s creation? “Hamilton” won 11 Tonys, including Best Musical. The Tonys had their highest TV ratings in 15 years. Nine million viewers tuned in. In the week following the Tonys, “Hamilton” grossed over $2 million dollars for the first time in its run. Michelle Obama saw “Hamilton”. (I wonder how she got a ticket; it’s not easy, you know.) She described it as “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.” For myself, I was taught that our Founding Fathers were dull, conservative, out of shape (not George, of course), wealthy white guys. Imagine my surprise to realize, on Broadway, they appear —almost uniformly— to be people of color, immigrants occasionally, full of ideals and energy. It gives one some hope for the future, not just respect for the past.
A final note: As I was writing this article, I had a strange feeling. Alexander Hamilton reminded me of someone. At first, I could not remember who. Hamilton was ambitious, a man of action, and he wrote constantly. The other person was always busy, as well. That man was on TV a great deal: guesting on The Sopranos, playing Dr. Gregory House’s roommate in a psychiatric hospital and appearing on Modern Family. He also strolled down Sesame Street, plus he wrote Spanish language dialog for, and worked with, Stephen Sondheim on a revival of West Side Story. He created “In The Heights” which won a Tony for Best Musical, and, finally, in May, 2009 he wrote and performed at the White House’s Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word. He did a rap about…wait a minute…what a coincidence! You won’t believe his name.
Reference at end: New York Times, July 8, 2015; The American Revolutionary; Jody Rosen.