06 December 2016

A Note About 'Hamilton'

by Kirk Woodward

[I’m envious that Kirk has seen Hamilton because I haven’t yet.  On the other hand, though, I'm mighty glad, his having seen the hottest ticket in town, that he’s elected o share some of his conclusions with ROT and its readers.  I would feel that way even if Kirk had merely written an ordinary report on the performance as he’s done before on occasion (see “An American in Paris (Part 2),” 13 November 2015, and “Something Rotten! 1,” 11 May 2016—not that they’re really ordinary).  But Kirk has carved out a notion concerning the hip-hop musical which he says he hasn’t seen covered before and has devoted “A Note About Hamilton” to discussing a fascinating angle on the play and the production.  In addition to being an analysis of one aspect of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, “Note” serves as a suggestion for playwrights of both musicals and straight plays about freedom of expressive form.

[While reading his article, a certain parallel to Kirk’s idea occurred to me, and following his discussion, I’ll have a few thoughts to express myself.  If you can manage to wait till then, consider Kirk Woodward’s thoughtful examination of one element of Hamilton, albeit a central one, and see what you think.]

One cold day in November 2015 I walked from work to the box office of the Broadway musical Hamilton and asked for the next available tickets. I saw the show on that next available date, October 12, 2016.

Eleven months isn’t all that long a time to wait to see a musical as good as Hamilton. It doesn’t need any more praise from me; it’s gotten plenty already. It opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway on August 6, 2015, after an initial sold out run at the Joseph Papp Public Theater (January 20–May 3,  2015), and seems likely to run forever. It has won an astonishing number of prizes, including eleven Tony Awards.

So the show doesn’t need any help from me, but I do have one observation I haven’t seen made elsewhere, although, considering the amount written about the show, it probably has been made someplace. It’s difficult to describe, but I think it’s worthwhile to consider.

As everyone knows, Hamilton uses hip hop musical styles, including extensive sections of rap music, as it tells the story of the life of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. It’s not the first show to employ hip hop music; notably, Lin-Manuel Miranda (b. 1980), the author and composer of the musical Hamilton, used rap extensively in his score for the musical In the Heights, which ran successfully on Broadway from 2008 to 2011.

Rap, Salsa, and similar forms of music are appropriate musical forms for In the Heights, which takes place in the largely Latino-populated Washington Heights area of Manhattan. However, hip hop music was unknown during the lifetime of Alexander Hamilton, and for quite a while afterward. Why is its use in Hamilton so successful?

One answer involves a theatrical phenomenon seldom seen and highly prized: the show is embodied in an approach so surprising and yet so appropriate that it might be described as a new theatrical language.

Instances of this phenomenon are few and far between. The first of which I am aware is Peter Brook’s unforgettable production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970) for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Brook used international circus techniques to embody the magical elements of the play. (An example, a video of a few moments that I’ve remembered since I originally saw the production, can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-XdfK0ntHwn.)

Brook did not just come up with a “concept” for his production of the play; he embodied the play in an entirely new “world” with its own “language.” Although Shakespeare could not possibly have had Brook’s idea in mind, Brook’s production seemed integral to the play, as though the story could hardly exist without it.

The same is true of Hamilton. One can imagine other plays about the first Treasury Secretary’s life. In the musical, however, hip hop sensibility and Hamilton’s sensibility seem to be one and the same. That unity of presentation seems to me to be the factor that links an “interpreted” work like Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and an “original” work like Hamilton: both seem to spring from the very essences of the characters, instead of being imposed on them.

Directors often come up with “concepts” for their productions. Frequently these end up being nothing much more than new settings for the plays. That is not what happens in Hamilton, which creates a whole “world” in which its story exists.

The difference between a “concept production” and a “new theatrical language” can be seen in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Jon Jory directed at Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) in 1971, shortly after Brook’s production opened.

Whereas Brook invented, in effect, an entirely new context for Shakespeare’s play through the use of international circus techniques, Jory set his production in a circus. This kind of “concept,” described by the critic Eric Bentley as a “Bright Idea,” imposes a setting on a play, and seldom feels organic. Examples abound in opera, with, for example, Wagner’s Ring Cycle playing host to Nazis, hippies, industrialists, and so on.

Jory’s “concept” was imposed on Shakespeare’s play instead of seeming to inhabit it, and the result was comic, as when, in the first act, the lion tamer of the circus pleaded with the ringmaster to put his daughter to death for falling in love with a roustabout – surely a first in circus history.

Jory is a fine director, but at least with that production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream he fell into a trap that regularly presents itself to directors in our time – to do something to, in effect, “make a play interesting,” as though that were necessary for a play that is interesting, or possible to do with a play that is not.

Still, extraordinary artists do extraordinary things in theater. Julie Taymor (b. 1952) has demonstrated in her production of The Lion King, which opened on Broadway in 1997, that she is one of them. So is Peter Brook, and so without a doubt, at least in the case of Hamilton, is Lin-Manuel Miranda, a fact that may go a long way toward explaining that musical’s popularity.

[With regard to Kirk’s point, I agree: I don’t recall having read anyone else who’s made this observation about Hamilton.  I want to make a comment on what I think he’s saying, however—in particular about Miranda’s using ”an approach so surprising . . . that it might be described as a new theatrical language.”  

[I ran an article on ROT called “Similes, Metaphors—And The Stage” (18 September 2009) which I followed with the republication of a New York Times article by Robert Brustein called “Reworking the Classics: Homage or Ego Trip?” (6 November 1988, sec. 2 [“Arts and Leisure”]: 5, 16; posted on ROT on 10 March 2011) on which my post was based.  What Kirk describes as Miranda’s “surprising approach” for Hamilton is encompassed by what I contend Brustein means by theatrical metaphor.  Note particularly Kirk’s paragraph about the “world” Peter Brook created for Midsummer Night’s Dream and Brustein’s definition of theatrical metaphor.  (Brustein even uses Brook’s Midsummer as a prime example of metaphorical theater.)  “Poetic metaphor,” writes Brustein, “attempts to penetrate the mystery of a play in order to devise a poetic stage equivalent” through which to generate “provocative theatrical images . . . that are suggestive of the play rather than specific, reverberant rather than concrete.”

[Kirk’s dismissal of other “concepts” is what Brustein defines as “prosaic simile” productions (and what a teacher of mine at Rutgers disparaged as “Hamlet on roller skates.”)  Brustein asserts that simile directors “assume that because a play’s action is like something from a later period, its environment can be changed accordingly.”  Their “innovations are basically analogical—provid­ing at best a platform for ideas, at worst an occasion for pranks.”  Kirk’s subsequent comparison of “concept” and “new language” seems exactly parallel to Brustein’s distinction between “simile” and “metaphor”: Brustein writes that “simile productions are rarely as powerful as those that try to capture the imaginative life of a classic through radical leaps into its hidden, sometimes invisible, depths.”  (Kirk’s description of Jon Jory’s Midsummer at ATL reminds me of an Arturo Ui directed by Carl Weber I saw at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in 1974 that was also set in a circus.   I distinctly recall Givola—played by Stanley Anderson—in a swing.)

[Now, both Brustein’s and my articles are about adaptations and interpretations of classical plays, not original works, but I think the concept’s the same.  The difference between Miranda and the examples Kirk cites is that Brook and Jory were all (re)interpreting someone else’s existing work while Miranda’s creating his own with the “new language” built in.  Julie Taymor’s Lion King is a hybrid: she reinvented the Disney cartoon, but her stage version’s original; she even “reinvented” (that is, “Africanized”) the music.  Kirk’s view of Hamilton is an extension of Robert Brustein’s view of reinterpretations of classics: it’s an application of the same principle to original work.  If Tennessee Williams is right to call on playwrights to incorporate all the levers of playmaking into their scripts—this is his “plastic theater” concept, on which I blogged in “‘The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theater,” 9 May 2012—then Lin-Manuel Miranda’s on the same theatrical track as Peter Brook and the metaphorical auteur director—Brustein named other great examples: Vsevolod Meyerhold, Bertolt Brecht (also himself a playwright), Ingmar Bergman, Liviu Ciulei. Lucian Pintilie, and Andrei Serban (I would add filmmaker Akira Kurosawa on the basis of his Shakespearean adaptations Throne of Blood [Macbeth] and Ran [King Lear])—who, he explains, “‘authors’ the production much as the au­thor writes the text.”  Miranda—and others who may follow his example—simply integrated his stylistic metaphor, in this instance, the hip-hop medium for telling Alexander Hamilton’s story—into his dramaturgy, just as Williams proposed, instead of turning the task over to a director.] 

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