Hamilton Zealotry – Can We Have a Real Discussion About This Musical?
Over the last month or so, I have been encountering (on certain social media sites), debates regarding the musical Hamilton. The debates I’m referring to were not over whether Hamilton is good, bad, revolutionary, or flash-in-the-pan (though there is plenty of discussion about that as well), but about people feeling slighted or attacked over differing opinions about the musical itself. Is this really where we have devolved to? Are we so assured of our own opinion that we cannot remember that theatre has always been a personal experience, thus rendering it a subjective one? Hamilton and its phenomenal success has incited a zealotry amongst its fans (and a backlash amongst naysayers) that has put everyone in a position where we cannot seem to have an honest discussion about the musical.
Let’s rewind 20 years to when Rent first appeared on the scene and another band of zealots assembled in a frenzy. I was in college at the time and I seem to recall everyone deciding that Rent was a revolutionary piece that would change the direction of the American Musical. The tragic death of its composer Jonathan Larson also cast a magical spell over this musical that made it impervious to criticism. I was one of these Rent zealots, camping out so I could see it with the original cast, getting caught up in what was wonderful about it and ignoring its imperfections, accusing those who disliked it as “behind the times” and “rigid”. Fast-forward 20 years, and time has given us a little perspective on Rent. It’s still a well-regarded musical by many, but some of its subject matter and gravitas has dated and some of its music doesn’t quite hold up the way I remember it. Do I still like Rent? Yes. Do I admit that there are flaws in the show? Certainly. Do I admit I was caught up in something that became blown out of proportion? You’d better believe it.
Before I move forward, let me start by saying that I think what Hamilton is achieving is wonderful. Like Rent (and Cats and Hair before it) did, Hamilton is getting new and younger generations into the theatre, as well as a wider demographic of people, and neither is an easy feat. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has concocted a score that is appealing to the masses and doing so with musical styles that they already identify with: rap and hip-hop. There are also plenty of Broadway regulars enjoying the musical, reveling in it’s uniqueness. Whether detractors like the show or not is immaterial to its success, because it is resonating with a lot of people and the ticket sales and word-of-mouth are proof that it will be around for quite a while. I wish the cast and creators well and hope that they have a long and prosperous run. I am also certain that it is fair to say that that the the show is historically significant for its embrace of diversity. What I will assert is that I think it is too soon to crown the show with accolades for how it will influence future musical theatre because only time will tell whether or not it will. As I have demonstrated, it was the same way with Rent. If anything, I expect a handful of pale imitations that will try to capture the same lightning in a bottle, but will fail. What makes Hamilton stand out may just be the fact that it is not like any other musical, and in creating shows by its template, you will only be considered derivative.
I admire Lin-Manuel Miranda and, if anything, found his score for In the Heights to be far more revolutionary and enjoyable than Hamilton. My guess is that you have probably figured out by now that I am not wild about the music from Hamilton or I wouldn’t be taking the time to write this piece. I am not a fan of rap or hip-hop because it just isn’t a style of music that speaks to me. My brother listens to it and loves it, but he doesn’t like traditional show tunes. I, on the other hand, love Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and Rodgers and Hart and I am just as enamored with David Yazbek, Jason Robert Brown and Stephen Sondheim. I grew up with the styles of rap and hip-hop and these genres are not foreign to me because of my age (another argument that I hear). My feelings didn’t stop me from buying the cast album of Hamilton and listening to it a couple of times. I’m open to the rap/hip-hop score that will someday move me, it just wasn’t this one. What I will say is that I respect the show, those involved with it, and wish it no ill-will. I’m glad for its success. I am sure that the staging has a lot to do with what makes this show work, but musicals are so much about the music for me that I have a hard time justifying the price of a ticket to see something that doesn’t stir within me what I want out of a musical experience. Hamilton will survive just fine without my presence.
My guess is that Lin-Manuel Miranda is enjoying his hard-earned success, but that he would not be opposed to open debate about Hamilton. He is an artist with a great deal of musical knowledge and he is especially cognizant of how musical theatre works and appeals (or doesn’t) to different people on different levels. I think he has probably been inspired by the successes and challenges of those who created musicals before him and has, himself, engaged in open debate on what musicals worked for him and what musicals didn’t. Also, considering that his musicals celebrate diversity, I cannot imagine that he would discourage diverse opinions on the piece. To have your work discussed and debated is an honor, after all. It means you created something worth talking about.
So, here are my real questions: When can we have the open debate on Hamilton without malicious barbs being slung (from both directions)? When will the zealotry die down enough that people won’t be verbally attacked for an opposing viewpoint? When will the detractors speak with an articulate opinion and not a knee-jerk response to the piece, especially when they haven’t seen it (or can’t afford to)? And when can we all admit that none of this is so earth-shattering that we cannot engage in healthy discussion and respectful, open debate? It has always led to a better understanding of art and helped it to expand and evolve in new directions. This is where the real revolution happens.