Unless you've been living under a particularly resilient rock over the past months, you know that the hottest ticket in New York, as well as every city on the future tour, is Hamilton: The Musical. Like Cats and Wicked before it, the 2015 Tony-guzzling musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (In The Heights) about Politician Alexander Hamilton has enraptured the hearts of millions.
But, why has it turned into such a sensation? What does it contain that causes the rapture of the general population?
It all boils down to one word: Controversy.
Controversy can turn even the most tepid drama into a national sensation, regardless of success or profundity. Hamilton's controversy stems from its unique use of Rap in its musical settings and the color-blind casting of Hamilton as a Hispanic man, Manuel himself.
Color-blind casting works in every aspect of drama except in Historical Non-Fiction, in my opinion. When you have people portraying human beings that existed in one state at one time or another, changing their race means depriving them of their identity. The same can be said of any race-based casting: If someone wrote a musical based on Barack Obama and cast him as a white man, communities would be in an uproar. Shock for the sake of shock can either foster love, as in Hamilton, or hatred. But is that enough to make this piece a work of a purported "genius?" Dramas such as The Color Purple and Raisin in the Sun show far better the capabilities of the subject of Race in the Theater. Look at Pearl Bailey in the revival of Hello Dolly - the essence of the fictional character perfectly fits a race-blind casting, because Dolly Levi is a fictional entity, not a historical figure. I firmly believe that every person on earth has the right to perform on stage, but in material that fits casting in terms of reason, not of shock value.
Racial aspects aside, the piece is very tepid in its composition. The use of Rap has been done for years in Musical Theatre (and better done, I might add.) My Fair Lady and The Music Man are musicals where Rap-like patter is used as a major backbone of several characters and Sondheim's Into the Woods gives The Witch a major song in the form of a Rap, among many others. The fact that Rap is built into the musical language makes the very essence of the songs choppy, bumpy, and harmonically-stagnant.
While the story of Hamilton himself is interesting enough, this setting adds no nuance or innovation to the well-known historical narrative.
Public interest in this musical has spread to Chicago itself, a flurry of people flocking and fighting to obtain tickets for this overblown potboiler. The first day of sales for the show showed how inept the inner-workings of our Theatre community are, greedy barons buying up sheathes of tickets to sell at inflated prices to a public that will buy anything if they can say they own it and are able to lord it over their friends and relations. The tickets have become the very thing a work of Art should dread to become: a status symbol.
This Mega-hit will sap away attention from other shows in the city which may not be as glamorous as this glitzy piece of work, but carry more profundity in one song than all of Hamilton. I have never been a supporter of the smash hit musicals, for the simple reason that they tend to pander to the lowest common denominator and have less substance than an issue of TV Guide. Wicked was a watery, overblown spectacle that placed technical effects over a coherent plot.
The Musical Theatre machine is becoming reminiscent of the Movie Industry. Character-based dramas are becoming extinct in favor of multi-million dollar blockbusters that place plot to the background and only serve to showcase the newest flash-in-the-pan actor or technical advancement. Musicals have also become less about the people and more about the fluff. Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, The Book of Mormon, The Lion King; all examples of flash over substance.
When a drama comes along that is profound, I will give it all the credit it deserves. My analysis of War Paint at The Goodman Theatre is a prime example of giving praise where praise is due. The show has, at its heart, strong Feminist lessons that never cloy and showcases two performers, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, that chew the scenery in the most glorious way. War Paint isn't doing badly in terms of ticket sales, but it isn't getting nearly the amount of raptured fawning that Hamilton is, and that's a shame.
I don't mean to criticise to chastise anyone's opinion, especially seeing how popular the show is. I hold a particular bias and, since this is my blog, my opinion is the only one I care to share. There have been countless articles written about the positive aspects of Hamilton, and for good reason. Aesthetics are our personal signature, and I hold some very staunch ideals.
As Mavis Staples once said, "You may not like it, but don't knock other people's enthusiasm."
If the focus on Musical Theatre is as positive as it is for Hamilton, I'm excited for a new renaissance on Broadway.