For those of you who have heard of it you'll get what I'm talking about, for those of you who haven't read on... For those of you from New Zealand 'Hamilton' is not a musical about a little town/city in the middle of the North Island (famed for being the shooting location of the shire in Peter Jackson's take on Lord of the Rings). This excellent piece of musical theatre takes its name from one of the lesser known founding fathers of the United States of America, Alexander Hamilton. Most of us will have heard of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but for some reason Hamilton's story never really stood alongside them in popular consciousness... until now.
When Lin Manuel Miranda (Tony Award winning composer/lyricist of In The Heights) was on holiday he picked up a biography of Alexander Hamilton by a fellow named Ron Chernow. By all accounts he was instantly drawn to the story of the impoverished immigrant child who, through sheer determination and the force of his writing, lifts himself up from the gutter to become a hero of the American revolution, and one of the founding fathers of modern America. He was drawn to the fact that the young Hamilton wrote a poem about the the hurricane that nearly took his life as a boy, and that poem was his way of saying he would not be defined by his circumstances. Miranda, himself the son of immigrants has said he is aware of the strong parallels of the story with his own life, and it's a story he is clearly passionate about telling. Not only did Miranda write the music, lyrics and the book for the show, he continues to perform the lead role every night on Broadway,
So why has everyone gone nuts for 'Hamilton'? I can only tell you what I think.
People have said that the show has broken new ground in bringing hip hop music into the theatre. People have said that it has broken new ground with its colour blind casting (the cast is predominantly African-American in the show) and such is the power of the music and the performances that occassionally I have to remind myself that in reality they were white men.
People have said these things, but for my two pennies I don't believe this is the reason why the show is so successful. After all, hip hop music has been in the theatre before (Into the Hoodz - London), and colour blind casting has been done before, actually the term has its own wikipedia page where the history of colour blind casting is well documented. Of course what the production team involved in Hamilton have done is push these two elements slightly further than before.
I have heard the British theatre industry bemoan the lack of innovation in musical theatre in the UK. They seem to be constantly looking for the 'thing' that has never been done before, that is going to blow everyone's minds away with its originality. What they don't seem to get is that true innovation is the result of painstaking incremental changes.
Think of it this way... somewhere, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a tiny fissure in the earth cracks open, allowing some of the earth's molten core to rise to the surface, the water cools the lava and the seabed rises in a tiny mole hill. Repeat that process, cut forward a few million years and that tiny mole hill finally hits the surface of the Ocean... shit, we'll it doesn't look like much to the people in the canoe then, but give it another few million years and a few larger eruptions and one day the descendants of those people are rowing in the same spot as their ancestors and they're looking up into the sky at a massive volcano. Well, shit. Where'd that come from? They stare in amazement.
But that volcano didn't just appear. It was being built for a damn long time before people turned up and started sacrificing virgins into it.
The same is true of any innovation in technology, in music and of course in theatre. Everything is built on top of what already exists... that isn't to belittle the achievements of those who make us see something new, but as theatre makers we would do well to be aware of all that has gone before us in order to better understand where we are headed.
This is something Miranda understands all too well, he has paid homage to the debt he owes to past musical theatre heroes on numerous occasions. He is aware that his work stands on the shoulders of giants, and deservedly so. If you listen carefully to the extraordinary score (and I recommend you do so immediately if you haven't cos it's frickin awesome - buy it here) you can hear the brilliant homages he pays to his predecessors in the music and the lyric (Even W.S Gilbert is given a moment "The very model of a modern major general"). Miranda is clearly not afraid of telling people that he knows, loves and respects the musical theatre canon.
One of his favourite shows is currently playing next door to Hamilton, the classic revolutionary story of Les Miserables which Miranda describes as his first show. And again, you can hear the influence in the structure and the use of recurring themes, indeed the fact that the show is sung-through takes alot from both Les Mis and Jesus Christ Superstar by Rice and Lloyd Webber. In fact, look closely at Superstar and Hamilton and you will find several remarkable similarities. The first person we hear from in each is the man who was friends with the hero and then ended up killing him. Both Judas in Superstar and Aaron Burr in Hamilton are jealous, tortured souls, both deeply human when faced with a heroic/tragic figure whom they can never truly understand.
I'm sure Miranda would be the first to admit these similarities, but this is not plagiarism, this is taking an idea that works and applying it to make something new, that is innovation.
INNOVATION AND THE UK MUSICAL THEATRE INDUSTRY
I am particularly interested in the matter of innovation. It's a real buzz word in the industry in the UK at the moment and yet I believe it's processes are being gravely misunderstood by those who should know better. Whilst in America it is clear the musical theatre makers of the present venerate, love and respect the work of their predecessors (even if they don't say it you can hear it in their work), it is my humble opinion that there is a shadow on the UK musical industry that does the opposite. All too often I hear new musical theatre writers pissing on Andrew Lloyd Webber... that's fine, piss all over him... but I'd be very careful of completely disregarding the influences of him and other giants from the past (Gilbert & Sullivan for example) too quickly. Lloyd Webber is one of the most successful musical theatre composers of all time and yet I often hear people belittling his contribution and that of his collaborators. But we don't innovate by taking something that has been hugely successful and disregarding it. We innovate by listening to something that is hugely successful and building on it's strengths by increments until there is an eruption that everyone sees.
Musical theatre is ALL about structure and storytelling. What Hamilton does so brilliantly and the main reason I believe it is so successful and will endure is because it's structure is rock solid. It's storytelling is clever, heartfelt and strong and within its powerful walls, Miranda has populated his cathedral with beautiful/funny/brilliant adornments. But he didn't do that by going, 'I'm going to come up with a completely new way to tell a story." No he built a structure based hugely on the well known 'Hero's Journey', based on the "Les Mis' style of storytelling with elements of Jesus Christ Superstar and the fast, clever, political wordplay of W.S Gilbert and he did it with an established and popular style of music in hip hop. What Miranda did was to take all these elements, tried and true, put them in his melting pot to make a new dish.
He didn't use any strange, wierd ingredients no one had ever heard of before... he just combined good old ingredients in the same soup. And voila... the result is delicious!
I would encourage anyone looking to 'innovate' in the UK musical theatre industry to look back at the work of our brilliant predecessors, to be inspired and excited by the amazing canon that populates British theatre and use those ingredients to make your soup. Apply the strong principles of structure that Hamilton uses, steal some of the tunes that Lloyd Webber uses (some were by renaissance composers anyway), and go and tell a story to an audience.
We need to celebrate our past musical theatre history, reference it, pay homage to it in our writing and then maybe one day, one of those critics who doesn't really know what the word means, will go "At last! A truly innovative new British musical bursts on to the scene."
But all they've done is look up from their canoe and suddenly seen the massive volcano in all its splendour and glory... and that's ok. Because we'll all know the truth... that the volcano was there all along, slowly growing on top of a thousand other volcanoes.
So, our industry needs to think about that... if we want a British 'Hamilton' we need to stop worrying about whether we are innovating or not... after all, we're all creative people. We can't help but innovate... one small step at a time.
I realise that the title of this blog is somewhat misleading now that I've finished it, but in reference to my own writings I'm going to leave it as it was at the time that I wrote it... after all everything I wrote afterwards started from there.