Sunday, July 5, 2020

On Hamilton


So, we finally finished the filmed release of the Broadway musical Hamilton, performed by the original cast, streaming on Disney Plus, last night. This is obviously one of the most popular works of art in recent years, and the filmed version has been released at a pivotal a time in the history of the nation, while the cries for justice from the voices of people of color seem to be reaching enough of a groundswell that the country is actually, finally, listening.

I have some thoughts.

Let’s start with my bona fides (FWIW):
  • I was a child actor. I myself have performed in multiple operas (and other productions, but I bring up operas for a reason). I have been in productions of La Boheme, Das Rheingold, and Siegfried, with the Seattle Opera, when I was a boy.
  • As a twenty-something, I was a union stagehand working for the IATSE Local #15, backstage at the Seattle Opera, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the Fifth Avenue Theatre, the Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Paramount Theatre, and many others.
  • To this day, I work in hip-hop as a side gig. I am the co-owner of Butterbeat Records, and have executive-produced multiple releases, and have worked with many talented and well-known emcees, almost exclusively men of color.
  • None of this is meant to argue I am some kind of expert on musical theatre or Broadway productions or hip-hop or the technical operations going on back stage, or that I have any reason to consider my opinions about this show more important than anyone else’s, only to say that I know a bit about this stuff, and to let my friends who are interested in my opinion know where some of my understanding and enjoyment of this production comes from.
So, to the review:

First, I need to cover some negatives:

1)     Hamilton, is like, kinda low-key sexist. For one thing, it utterly fails the Bechdel Test. Further, this issue is particularly evident in the number “Helpless,” in Act 1. Perhaps I’m missing something, but “Boy, you got me helpless!” is not exactly the kind of empowering line I would choose to write for a female character I was trying to give any kind of nuance to. It also doesn’t help that in this scene both sisters are fawning over Hamilton, turning him into a kind of lazy Gary Stu trope, and really making the whole thing a little cringe-worthy.
a.      Now, this is somewhat redeemed in “Burn,” and in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” but even then, whenever the women are centered, it’s only in how they can relate to Hamilton (or not, as in Burn, which is really clever in how it deconstructs women’s often removal from history and the narratives that follow), and relate his story to the audience.
b.     The Reynolds Affair though, treats Maria as an object and frames Hamilton as being completely unable to control himself. There are especially problematic cues such as putting Maria in a red dress and putting a bed in the lyrics but not on stage. This is toxic masculinity.
                                                               i.     That being said, everything I’ve found in my research says this all really happened. So, in a way, this is the show and LMM attempting to humanize Hamilton by admitting to his deepest flaws, and not attempting to gloss them over.
                                                             ii.      For this reason, I find this part less offensive than “Helpless.”
c.     To be fair, most of this is historically accurate, but, although I’m no expert, in what little research I’ve had the time to do, there seems to be little proof that Angelica was as in love with Alexander as the show depicts.
d.     Some links:
                                                               i.      Why Aren't We Talking about Gender in Hamilton
                                                             ii.      The Schuyler Sisters and Sexism
                                                           iii.      Hamilton - The Diverse Musical with Representation Problems

NOTE: I only finished this show last night. I have not had time to properly research. I welcome all dissent and debate and education on my part. I am definitely interested in learning more. I will also probably watch it again soon, so please consider this a reaction to a single viewing of the film adaptation only.

2)      I have seen some critiques making the argument that the production is lionizing a man who fled slave rebellions in the Dutch island of Nevis in the Caribbean, in order to capitalize off slavery in the burgeoning American colonies. Also, that Hamilton is and was a hero of the financial elite. There may not have been billionaires in 1776, but there was certainly wealth and wage inequality, and many of Hamilton’s policies only served to exacerbate these issues.
a.      Historically, this is all true. But I must disagree with these critiques of this modern production. This show is not some academic treatise attempting to somehow explain Hamilton’s flaws or turn him into someone he was not. It is an artistic retelling, full of poetic license, of one of the men who played an outsized role in founding this country, from a new perspective. One oft forgotten.
b.     The show does not lionize Hamilton, not to my mind. It paints a nuanced picture of a man who was clearly very deeply flawed, especially in his relationships with women. There are some scenes that compare and contrast Hamilton with Jefferson that may feel to some viewers to be attempting to cast Hamilton in some kind of abolitionist light, (and there are moments toward the end where Washington realizes Hamilton could have done more about slavery if he’d lived) but I don’t see it that way. Yes, there is a framing of state’s rights versus federalism, and we all know state’s rights became a euphemism for supporting slavery soon enough in the young United States, but the show never really touches on what Hamilton thought about slavery. Not in any detail. It’s not about that, so to speak.
c.      My mind comes back to a story: I once heard my daughter singing in the other room. She sang “I’m only 19 but my mind is older.” I rushed out there to ask her when she had started listening to Mobb Deep. She explained it was a line from Hamilton, and then I went down a rabbit hole researching all the influences hip-hop had had on Lin-Manuel Miranda, and his writing of the show, and it was utterly fascinating. Havok and Prodigy, the two artists who made up the duo Mobb Deep, were not good people in their younger years. They did release their first album at age 19, but a lot of the stuff they rap about is things they actually did, such as robbing people, and violence, and selling drugs. But that doesn’t take away from the quality of their music. Art is art for art’s sake. It’s subjective, and sure, you can have more of a taste for conscious hip-hop like A Tribe Called Quest, or De La Soul, but you cannot deny the impact of Mobb Deep on the genre, just as we should not deny Hamilton the man’s role in the founding of this nation.
d.      Making the argument that Hamilton the production is terrible because Hamilton the man was terrible (or mostly terrible) is like making the argument that you hate Breaking Bad because you’re against people cooking meth and selling it to folks who use it and then have their lives ruined. That is fundamentally not how stories (or the characters in them) work.
e.      Some links:
                                                               i.      Hamilton and History - Are They in Sync?
                                                             ii.      You Should be Terrified that People Who Like Hamilton Run Our Country
                                                           iii.      Sandy Incitar's Public Facebook Post
                                                           iv.      Hamilton is Fanfic, Not Historically Inaccurate
                                                             v.      Hamilton's Hip-Hop References

Now, to the good:

There is so much to cover but let me start by saying that this is the most hip-hop theatre production I have ever seen.

I’ll start with a bit of a metaphor. I don’t know how much Broadway audiences would have noticed, but the film adaptation makes it clear that the center of the stage is a literal, physical turntable.

DJ Kool Herc invented hip-hop in 1973, in the Bronx, in New York City, when he brought influences from his Jamaican roots in Soundclash Dancehall culture to America, most specifically by connecting two turntables to a mixer so that two copies of the same record could be played and rewound and the signal switched back and forth, over and over without losing the “loop” of a breakbeat drum solo from funk or rock records of the era or the decade before. Before breakdancing, or beatboxing, or graffiti, or emceeing, hip-hop was born of juggling vinyl records, and the DJ’s ability to make it sound seamless. Later, Grandmaster Flash invented scratching vinyl, which also plays a part in Hamilton, but I digress.

To me, as a former actor, former stagehand, and current fan and active producer of hip-hop music, this level of attention to detail blew me away. The writer and composer, Lin-Manual Miranda, may have had nothing to do with the set design (and likely didn’t, from my experience in theatre), and that’s fine, but someone thought about it, and someone cared about this show enough to make sure the references go three and four levels deep.

Now, not unlike champagne requiring French origin, there are some interesting rules about what makes opera, “Opera.” Most operas are sung in Italian, or German, or French, and I don’t know exactly why, but technically, musical theatre productions, even if completely void of spoken dialog, sung in English, cannot be considered “Opera.” So, we end up with people calling things like Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat “rock operas,” or “musical comedies.” But really, Hamilton is kind of opera. Or, if you like, “Hip-Hopera.”

But Hamilton, as groundbreaking as it is, is not the first Black Opera (or not-opera, depending on your perspective). Many may not have heard of it, but Porgy and Bess, though not free of controversy, dates back as late as 1925 in its origins and is so well known in communities of color that Lauryn Hill references it in The Fugees song Ready or Not.

Yet, to quote Lin-Manuel, “This is a story about America then, told by America now,” which says so much to me about why this story resonates, and why it matters, in the contemporary America of now.

I’m going to paraphrase something my friend Susan Kay Quinn wrote:

Hamilton refreshes the ideals our country was founded on, reimaging them performed in the bodies of actors of color, sung by the voices of people of color, directly tackling some of the sins of our past, while still cherishing the upstart spirit that made the American experiment so radical at the time.

And to quote her directly:

We're deep in the valley of broken glass. Pandemic raging, record unemployment, the rich getting richer while everyone else suffers. But we're also, potentially, in the midst of a great transformation. We're taking to the streets, demanding the country live up to those ideals, demanding racial justice. We're seeing all the cracks split wide open, from our broken hyper-capitalistic system that doesn't value our essential workers to a broken healthcare system that doesn't protect the health of our nation. The suffering that was there all along has been made savagely worse by the pandemic--which only highlights it and gives us a unique chance to fix it.

Point being, Hamilton is more than Hamilton.

It’s not only the greatest remix of classic American history told through the methods of hip-hop, an art form that is entirely based on borrowing from the before (be-bop, jazz, funk, etc.), by composers and actors of color, but it is, at least, or especially, in this filmed re-release, a modern act of revolution. In the media we have today. I fully hope and expect that Hamilton will be rivaled, in 200 years, by a production that chronicles the Black Lives Matter movement and resulting revolution that followed to break down systemic racism in this country, much in the way that Hamilton shares the original American revolution with people who may not have been fully versed in it before.

Not to go on forever, but it is not lost on me that Hamilton brings (while perhaps omitting some things), education of US History to young people in a way that traditional education cannot, or at least will not. Remember, in high school, how every book you were assigned to read was written by an old white man? Or, if you got lucky, an old white woman? Hamilton says fuck that noise. It’s written and composed by a Puerto Rican man. It’s performed by something like more than 80% Black actors. The major roles that aren’t performed by black actors are performed by other people of color, such as Phillipa Soo, a Chinese-American actress, as Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, or the Puerto Rican actor, Anthony Ramos, as John Laurens and Philip Hamilton.

The only white actors in it are Mad King George and a couple other minor villains.

This isn’t just about giving folks of color work. This is about code-switching. This is about co-opting history. About centering an immigrant in the birth of the United States of America. About taking the past, putting it in a grinder, and peppering the shit out of the youths chomping at the bit for the next revolution that is inevitably coming.