Hamilton

Hamilton is the life story of the ‘ten dollar founding father’, the forgotten Alexander Hamilton.  And quite honestly, even that’s too much of a description because this musical needs no introduction. It’s become a Broadway phenomenon, currently sold out until January 2017. The Off-Broadway production won 8 Drama Desk Awards, including Best Musical. The original cast recording won a Grammy. Needless to say, it’s practically guaranteed to sweep the Tony Awards in 2016 and for good reason. It’s a good show. It’s a rich historical period piece with Lin Manuel-Miranda’s brilliant use of hip-hop and rap contrasted with sweeping ballads. The multi-talented composer/lyricist also plays the titular character, as was the case with his last show, In The Heights.
I won’t lie, I’m one of those irritating people who listens to it over and over (on my iPod, to be fair). I love it as much as anyone else.

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Hamilton has recently become the ninth musical in history to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s now joined the ranks with Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello!, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park With George, RENT, and Next to Normal. Looking at the past winners, it’s fairly easy to discern the reasons for them winning the Pulitzer. Of Thee I Sing and Fiorello! were political satires. How to Succeed was social satire of the business world and ambition. South Pacific dared to comment on the roots of racism. A Chorus Line finally acknowledged the harsh reality of being an artist. Sunday in the Park with George delved into the mind of a genius and the choices we make in life. RENT talked about HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ issues at a time when they were rampant but largely ignored. And of course, Next to Normal is a raw and unapologetic piece about grief and mental illness. Nine musicals which I hereby dub The Fellowship of Broadway (patent pending).

While most of these musicals are rightly considered masterworks, there’s one or two that are questionable, like RENT or How to Succeed. And while Hamilton is an excellent show, it’s not perfect. No piece of art is, and that’s not even why it won. It’s dramatic, but not hard-hitting like Next to Normal.  The modern musical score contrasted with the colonial time period is wonderful, but nothing new (Spring Awakening, anyone?).  Overall, it’s not making any philosophical statements or social commentary. So what was it that scooped the Pulitzer Prize? It’s just the stage equivalent of a bio-pic.

And that is precisely why it won.

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The checklist re-emerges….

Hamilton’s subtitle is ‘An American Musical’. Truer words were never spoken. Much like historical films which comment on social norms at the Oscars, Hamilton is so red white and blue American it practically had to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Think about it. It ticks every box the academy likes.

Founding fathers of America? Check.
“Forgotten” Founding Father? Check.
Overcame a lot of hardship? Check.
Self-starter? Check.
Glorious telling of American history? Check.
Not-so-subtle stab at the British monarchy? Double check.
War hero? Check.
Tragic death? Checkmate.

Aside from the characters being historical figures and the story being about the founding fathers, every song is raising the flag. The only way you could make it more patriotic is if there was a giant bald eagle on the set and had curtains made out of the star-spangled banner.

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Can we shoehorn the Statue of Liberty in there somewhere?

I’m not saying this to bash Hamilton in the slightest. It’s a great musical. An excellent musical. I love it to death, I can’t stress that enough.  However, it’s so tied to the American culture and history there’s a question of whether it’s going to be as successful in countries outside the USA. A British production has been announced, as well as a production to open in Australia.

My partner and I were discussing this at length after listening to the soundtrack and he pretty much summed up what makes the story so good.
Hamilton doesn’t show whether characters are right or wrong, they just show you what happened and let you make up your own mind,”
That’s exactly right. The historical accuracy is of course down to creative license and what works on stage. But because they are old historical figures, it’s virtually impossible to know exactly what these people were like in reality. Hamilton is very clever at showing the flaws of everyone and the strengths, giving the audience an objective view of the story.

That is, except for one character. King George III.

Mr Burns is there so you can play Spot the Cartoon Bad Guy.

Poor King George. The lone Caucasian male actor in the show, the lone British character. And he is the most stereotypical Broadway villain in recent memory.
King George only appears three times in all of Hamilton, mainly to comment on America’s newly found independence and to gleefully chuckle over the state of their politics. His songs are catchy and fun, but he’s so cartoonishly evil and insane it’s hard to take seriously. Maybe that was the point. But what they conveniently neglect to mention is that the guy had a severe mental illness while he was in power. He shook hands with oak trees (allegedly), started every sentence with the word ‘peacock’ and adopted Prince Octavius.

“Prince Octavius” was a pillow.

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I remember the day we brought him home….

There’s a legit question of how British audiences will react to this. Although to be fair the Brits are big fans of self-mockery….and maybe if it comes to Australia we Aussies can focus on another political drama that isn’t our own.
If Hamilton is to succeed to the same degree outside of America, audiences will need to be aware that this is American through and through. That this musical is fiercely patriotic and with a very distinct sound.

Hamilton is a breath of fresh air for musical theatre. It’s taken a real story and adapted it for the stage, being true to history but still making it interesting, relatable and accessible for a modern audience. The racial diversity of the cast is inspired and the score is one of the best in modern musical theatre.

If you’re one of the two music theatre people who haven’t listened to Hamilton, go and listen to it. Even if you aren’t a musical theatre fan who somehow stumbled upon my blog, I implore you to give Hamilton a chance. You won’t regret it.

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Go ahead. We’ll wait.

I hope Lin Manuel-Miranda continues to share his gift with the world because I know I’m not alone when I say we want more from him. I’m keen to hear what he comes up with for the new Disney film Moana. He’s shown the truth of impoverished life with In The Heights and now he’s touching on American history with Hamilton. There’s a million things this guy hasn’t done yet, but just you wait.

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