This is a song from the Hamilton Mixtape, which I believe is pretty well known and popular at the moment. (I don’t even totally know, I live in Europe!) It’s a song that is sung by George Washington in the original show and is an insightful, touching song about how history is written.
But in the remix, sung by John Legend and a choir, the song feels, to me, to be more a call to action. More than saying “this is right”, “this is wrong” or “we are better” and “these people are horrible” it asks the question: what will history write about you?
We can all get caught up in the political mess that the US seems to find itself in at the moment. Sometimes voting, protesting, and getting involved seems futile. I get it. But when I think of it in terms of zooming out—wondering how history will view ME—then I feel more pressed to do something. To physically manifest into action what I stand for in spirit. This piece shows to me, in short, the power of song.
Given how much I love Lin-Manuel Miranda, I had to include another one of his amazing shows. Many people have heard about the musical Hamilton. Winning award after award, it’s an international phenomenon. It is definitely one of my favorite shows, even though I have not had the pleasure of seeing it live yet. I think one of the most amazing things about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music is that he always writes such poignant lyrics.
I saw In the Heights about 5 times when it was on Broadway. I love this duet and the role of Nina. At a young age I always felt connected to Nina. I was born in the Bronx and I moved to New Jersey when I was young but as I grew up I wondered how different things would have been if we never moved. Would I be more connected to my Latin heritage? Would I have gone to performing arts school? Would I be where I am today? In the end I love this song because though those questions exist it does show that you can go home and be welcomed back with open arms.
Last week, my dear friend and colleague Miles Mykkanen wrote a beautiful post on this blog about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash-hit musical Hamilton. Miles wrote very well about the piece as a whole, and many other very smart people have done so also – I recommend these two articles in the New Yorker. For those who don’t yet know the musical, let me say only this: Hamilton transcends the genre, it has redefined crucial figures in American history in ways that will resonate for generations to come, it is deeply, radically progressive in its racial politics, and it’s an absolute joy to listen to. If you don’t know it yet, you have a wonderful experience ahead of you.
For those who do know Hamilton, I wanted to talk about one small part of the overall practical tactical brilliance of Miranda’s dramaturgy: the depiction of King George III. While Hamilton delves deeply into the subtleties of American post-revolutionary politics, and spends time exploring the stories of early American heroes who would otherwise be footnotes in most history books (Hercules Mulligan, you are my spirit animal), the massive power of the British Empire is depicted exclusively through one whiny, somehow charming man: the King himself.
The actor who plays King George, Jonathan Groff, is also famous for his role, Melchior Gabor, in the original cast of Spring Awakening on Broadway, and his performance as Patrick Murray, the star of HBO’s Looking. He is a charismatic, very handsome leading man, who has an irresistible charm, as well as two Tony nominations and a Grammy win. Almost any other Broadway producer would never consider casting him as the de facto villain… but somehow, in Groff’s hands, King George doesn’t feel like a villain. His music is too much fun, and he seems somehow aloof from the high dramatic stakes of the piece. Speaking with an adorably affected British accent, the language he uses to describe the American revolution is almost that of a teenage breakup – he proclaims, after learning that the colonies want to revolt, “I’m so blue,” and it’s difficult not to want to comfort him. At one point, during the chorus of “You’ll Be Back,” he invites the audience to sing along, and it’s easy to imagine the whole house roaring, singing along with the enemy of the American revolution. This is, to say the least, dramatically atypical.
There’s another fascinating element to Groff’s portrayal. Much has been made of the racial and ethnic diversity of the Hamilton cast, and rightly so: King George is the only white leading character. Instead of one character of color reduced to a supporting, usually comedic role on a stage otherwise inhabited only by white folks, we have the opposite: in Hamilton, the stage is full of actors of many colors and ethnicities, portraying complex characters capable of love, loss, vulnerability, and growth, with one token, comic white guy. There’s something immensely satisfying about seeing the racial tropes of contemporary media turned on their head. While this in itself would be deeply radical and progressive, Lin-Manuel and company go even further.
Where they might have opted for a less sympathetic white character actor for King George in the model of William Sanderson, Christopher Lloyd or Jonah Hill, they chose a leading actor instead, who would provide some measure of humanity and dignity in the role along with the comedy. In the white-supremacist model of entertainment, that breaks the mold: the comedic black (or white in blackface) actor is purposefully denied that kind of dignity. Think of the tradition of blackface Minstrel Shows, or the TV show “Amos ’n’ Andy,” or what Spike Lee has referred to as “coonery and buffoonery” in modern Hollywood. To truly invert this model, the single white character would have to be a partially-humanized stereotype as well. But in the world of Hamilton, no one is denied their humanity: whether it be the hero, Alexander Hamilton, the anti-hero, Aaron Burr, or the enemy of the cause, King George. This is progressive theater at its best, most intelligent, and most successful.
With the biggest hit in Broadway history on his hands, Lin-Manuel Miranda is in the midst of his first “Golden Age” and he’s only 36 years old. Hamilton: An American Musical already won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, currently has sixteen Tony nominations, and is sold out well into 2017. Critics praised the show immediately and I knew it was groundbreaking and changed the Broadway stage, though I’ll admit I was skeptical if Hamilton was worthy of all the hype. Then I had the good fortune to snag a ticket and see it a couple weeks ago. Folks, it deserves the hype.
In a year when we have so many racial inclusion problems in Hollywood and television, it’s a relief the theatre community is on the other side of that issue (I’m not just looking at Hamilton, but The Color Purple, Eclipsed, Shuffle Along all have representation in this season’s awards.) While I was watching Hamilton, my thought during the opening number was, “This isn’t just a show about creating the United States two-hundred and forty years ago, but it looks and sounds like America in 2016.” I laughed, I ugly-cried, I learned new things––it was everything you want from a night at the theatre. You’re watching an American history lesson, but the plot never feels stuffy or dated because its presentation is relevant.
The groundbreaking aspect comes from how the information is delivered. Hamilton’s libretto clocks in at over 22,000 words, but Miranda knows how to do what Sondheim mastered: economize the lyric. There isn’t a word out of place or unneeded; every word propels the story forward. It takes a lot of focus and really active listening to get all of the character’s subtleties, especially upon first encounter, but Miranda does give the audience some levity with catchy tunes and ballads.
When I was invited to write this week’s Song of the Day blog, I knew I wanted to include something from Hamilton, but I’ve been struggling with what to feature. I waited to listen to the soundtrack until I saw the show because I wanted to experience Hamilton the first time like a piece of theatre. Therefore, I’m not going to feature a song today that pertains to the main plot of the show (I’m saving those surprises for you!) Instead I’m including a segment from the musical when Alexander Hamilton meets his wife Eliza Schuyler. Eliza’s older sister, Angelica, introduces Hamilton to Eliza and two weeks later Alexander is asking their father for permission to marry Eliza (this is all recounted in Eliza’s Beyoncé-inspired song “Helpless.”) At the end of “Helpless,” Eliza and Alexander are getting married. But that’s only half the fun! Miranda pulls a brilliant theatrical convention and follows “Helpless” with Angelica Schuyler giving a wedding toast to the new couple, but halfway through the toast we rewind back to the night Hamilton met Eliza and Angelica reveals she’s been in love with Hamilton ever since (“Satisfied”). Cue the love triangle between two sisters and one of America’s Founding Fathers! This was real life, folks!
Phillipa Soo performs “Helpless”
Renée Elise Goldsberry performs “Satisfied”
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