For the last two years, popular culture has been increasingly influenced by the musical, Hamilton. First, at the Public, then the Richard Rodgers Theatres in New York and now on its first national tour, Hamilton has garnered more acclaim, and awards than any show in recent memory (I think the last show to pick up the Pulitzer, as well as the Tony and the Grammy for Best Musical was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying). Nevertheless, this polished, game-changing production did not appear, full-blown overnight. Hamilton had a long, slow, evolutionary journey, and the story its creation is almost as fascinating and complex as the subject, itself. Thanks to its composer, Linn-Manuel Miranda, and columnist/critic Jeremy McCarter, we have an insight into that creative journey through the book, Hamilton, the Revolution. Reading it doesn’t leave you thinking (ala The Grateful Dead), “What a long, strange, trip it’s been.” It reminds us how good minds, and generous natures, can create works of genius.
Take one feature of this revolutionary musical, its employment of Hip Hop and Rap. These were chosen, not just because the composer knew and loved the mediums but because he knew they were the best modes to use for this musical. As McCarter points out, before the American Revolution was a battle of weapons, it was a battle of words and ideas with essayists like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson leading the attack. To recapture the feeling of those verbal Molotov Cocktails and set them to music would require a text-heavy medium, something Hamilton’s composer well understood. Add this to the edgy, street-wise intelligence omnipresent in Rap and Hip Hop, and you have a revolutionary form of music to tell a revolutionary story. Like some genius concepts, we only see in hindsight, how obvious this is.
However, as gifted as Mr. Miranda is, his creative partners should not be slighted. When I first saw the images of the musical’s set, I assumed it was a “bare bones” stage. All you see, if you Google these, (Sorry, I don’t own any I can add) are roughed in brick walls, wooden catwalks, some ropes and a pair of movable staircases. It turns out this was an intentional choice the set designer came up with through research. He learned early colonists built their first shelters with materials and techniques borrowed from ship-building. Consequently, the first act’s set suggests a site still underway and under construction. By moving a few walls and removing the ropes during intermission, the second act set lets us know we’re at a New World, both bigger and a little more settled.
The reader learns every choice in the Hamilton production was intentional, including costumes, casting, and props. There were debates, and disagreements, and mistakes on the way as well as a ton of revision. The personal lives of the cast and production team often align with the musical, sometimes in heartbreaking ways. Through it all, the composer and his creative team focus on each moment of the show, making it stronger, swifter and more focused. If nothing else, Hamilton the Revolution reminds theatre-goers that plays and musicals aren’t the static dramatic pieces we know so well. Those are simply the final, evolutionary results. There is a world of story and song behind each one that ended up on the cutting-room floor.
So, before you put the soundtrack of Hamilton back into rotation or start the Herculean labor necessary to get tickets, open a copy of Hamilton, the Revolution and get to know the story behind this show. Sondheim and Lapine wrote that “Art isn’t Easy”. This book shows that Art is still worth the work.