The Forefathers of Hamilton
You would have to be burrowed away in an artistic hibernation if you haven’t noticed a little musical quietly tip-toe to Broadway this season called Hamilton. Yes, I know that there hasn’t been much buzz around this show, so you are sure to have missed it. I am telling you though, it is there and this little sleeper is bound to catch on. To get you up to speed, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also gave us the musical In the Heights, assembled this musical which tells the story of our forefather Alexander Hamilton (who is perhaps most-notable for his establishment of the US Banking system as Secretary of the Treasury). He took his inspiration from the biography written by Ron Chernow.
The reason why many people may not be taking notice of this piece is that Miranda has gone out of his way to confuse us by telling the story through styles of music that we seldom associate with Broadway musicals. Hip-hop, rap, and R&B are the primary styles utilized, but Miranda also as the audacity to intermingle them with the traditional show tune, jazz and tips of the hat to the old-fashioned standards of Tin Pan Alley. You would think that this would be jarring and anachronistic, but instead this composer-lyricist- book writer finds a way to meld all of these sounds together into one cohesive, refreshing musical that is bound to catch on when people notice.
Hamilton apparently was a bit of a hit Off-Broadway where it did some solid ticket sales for its three-month run at the Public Theatre. It may have been nominated for a few awards (I think it may have even won a few), so maybe Broadway will prove to be a good move. Only time will tell.
Okay! Okay! So I am purposely being obtuse. Hamilton is a sensation, perhaps the hottest ticket in years and certainly the most coveted of this season. Audiences are losing their minds over the musical that celebrates our forefathers and that also manages to make contemporary commentary through a story and characters that are roughly 240 years old. There is so much about Hamilton that speaks to modern audiences. It is not, however, the first musical to paint a picture of our forefathers as human, fallible, and with a theatrical flair.
One of the earliest musicals to invoke the spirit of our forefathers was Rodgers and Hart’s Dearest Enemy. Adapted by book writer Herbert Fields and based on a real life incident where Mary Lindley Murray was ordered by George Washington to do her level best to detain British troops while Washington reassembled his broken and fleeing army is Washington Heights. Murray did so by hosting General Howe and his men at a ball in their honor where she plied them with food and liquor. The production ran a healthy 286 performances in 1926 and went on to receive a TV movie version in 1955 (a soundtrack of this telecast floats around and is a treasure of many collectors).
In 1964, Mark Sandrich, Jr. (music) and Sidney Michaels (book and lyrics), with a little help from Jerry Herman, created a mostly-forgotten musical called Ben Franklin in Paris. It starred Robert Preston of The Music Man fame, as the title character. It explored Franklin’s real-life experiences in Paris, though most of what happened in the musical was a fictionalized account of his sojourn. It mostly followed Old Ben as served as a diplomat and ambassador to France in an effort to secure their backing of the Colonies in their war for independence against England. The show held on for 215 performances which was more of an “also-ran” than an out-and-out flop, but you won’t find too many people singing ditties from this one at their next Straw Hat auditions.
The most compelling (and successful) of all forefathers inspired shows is, of course, the 1969 musical 1776. Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics) and Peter Stone (book) put together one of the most riveting musicals ever, managing to create suspense and intrigue over a topic for which we already know the outcome: the quest for American independence. John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and John Hancock are all present while this highly comedic musical unfolds. Proponents of America’s break from Great Britain must try to convince those opposed to the separation that the time has come for the United States of America to be its own nation. The music is delightful, in the vein of the great Gilbert and Sullivan scores, but with far wittier lyrics. The book can be so tension driven that you actually wonder if history, as we know it, will unfold with the conclusion we know to be. 1776 is also just sharp, sarcastic, silly, and at times, deeply moving. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Most recently, we have seen the short-lived, but highly entertaining, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson move from Off-Broadway to Broadway in 2010. The story of one of our country’s most raucous and controversial forefathers (and presidents) is told with rock music, with the titular Jackson portrayed as an Emo rock star. One of the musicals best numbers is a caustic ditty called “The Corrupt Bargain” which features John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay as they employ maneuvers to keep Jackson from being elected president his first time out (1824). Jackson, however, spends his next four-years exacting revenge and he emerges as a political rock star and wins the presidency in 1928. With music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and a book by Alex Timbers, the musical was a hit Off-Broadway, but a bad economy and a loss of intimacy in a larger house kept the piece from being a smash on Broadway. It closed after 120 performances.
In many ways, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson was so unconventional and anachronistic that it paved the way for Broadway to embrace a musical like Hamilton. This latter takes the former’s audacity and nerve to an even higher level, and it seems to be paying off. Going into another presidential election, audiences will enjoy the timeliness of a musical that treats our leaders like human beings but elevates them to their arguably deserved iconic status with a smack of irony. Though he died in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton is sure to live on for seasons to come.