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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Hamilton the Musical

When a friend of mine told me that she could not get tickets to Hamilton this summer --- or in fact for the rest of 2016, I was flabbergasted. Last summer, after it opened on Broadway in July, I bought 2 tickets in August for a Saturday (!) matinee show in September. How could the wait become a whole ye... Damn you online scalpers!

I have tried to explain to a few people just what is so successful about Hamilton that has caused such a breathless sensation. It's hard. I don't think Lin Manuel Miranda, the writer of the musical who adapted it from a biography written by Ron Chernow, can fully explain it. Everything clicks in various surprising and mind-tickling ways. So many things could have gone wrong in this rather daring re-telling of American Revolution from the point of view of Alexander Hamilton. It could have been too cynical or too earnest, too reverential or too disrespectful, too serious or too silly, too boring or too absurd ... Somehow by some miracle of not only Miranda's skills but also his personality, it has circumvented every gaping pitfall and kept the tone to an improbably perfection that pleases everyone. Unless you are a raging white supremacist who carry the Klan membership card in your pocket, everyone from a rabid liberal to a recalcitrant conservatives is thrilled and charmed by this portrait of a young United States. It's so universally flattering, except to maybe a British royalist, that you don't even feel the flattery.

Of all the things that have been vehemently praised by pretty much every talking head associated or unassociated with musical theater, one extraordinary thing is the fact that it has a cast of almost entirely minorities. The key actors are primarily black, some Hispanic (including Miranda himself who is Puerto Rican), and one Asian (Phillipa Soo). Of course it was a conscious decision to give many underrated and underappreciated actors a place to shine. Miranda has said in several interviews that he wanted to represent the faces of America then --- European immigrants fighting for independence --- with the faces of America now, as recent immigrants have predominantly darker skin. But, I can't help the feeling that the casting was initially dictated by his writing voice.

LM Miranda can juggle multiple music styles, but his specialty has always been rap, as shown in his previous musical In the Heights. He admitted in one interview that he started thinking about writing the show as he gobbled down Chernow's book for the first time. The voice in his head was the voice most familiar to him: rap. In 2009, he wrote one rap number summarizing Hamilton's life and performed it at a White House event. It was well received. From the beginning, the basic voice of this musical had to be rap.

The next logical conclusion must have been that he would have to cast several black actors to perform his rap lyrics. I don't know if the image of a cast of white Broadway actors rapping as Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and Aaron Burr crossed his mind. It did mine and gave me a shudder. It would have been so wrong in so many ways, not least the suggestion of cultural appropriation and reminder of repeated insults to minorities from the birth of this nation. No, his lines would have to be sung/spoken by black actors (and himself) who know what they are doing. As such, a minority-dominated cast is not only preferred but practically inevitable. Indeed, he had to convince a professional rapper friend, Daveed Diggs, to suspend his tour to join the cast. Diggs turned out to be an absolute highlight of the show.

Would this pose an issue as Hamilton goes on a National tour to Chicago and Los Angeles? Can they find a predominantly black and Hispanic cast who can handle the demanding lyrics and rhythm? We'll have to wait and see.

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