The first gift of 2016 was the unexpected opportunity to see Hamilton on Broadway. (Yes, sometimes the theater gods are very generous!) Even without Lin-Manuel Miranda – Jon Rua gave an outstanding performance as Alexander Hamilton at our matinee – Hamilton embodies the energy and storytelling engagement model for today’s audience. There’s no wonder why everyone who sees it is so excited!
Just to let you know, this is not another Broadway Theater review blog. However, Hamilton provides the most exciting example for us theater-makers of innovative elements that WORK, not just because the show is making millions of dollars (which is nice), but because it communicates visually and textually in the language of our time to give the intended message to the audience of our time. Resonance depends on receptiveness and relevance.
Hamilton’s audiences are astonishingly receptive to its main messages: that hard work and diligence lead to success, that America is a land of opportunity, that New York is the greatest city in the world (shameless plug) and that Alexander Hamilton is a founding father of significance. But this is no dry history lesson; as everyone knows, the receptiveness of the message proceeds from the language of performance. Hamilton works because it engages us in the idioms of our time: rap music and performance, ethnic diversity, hunger and struggle, power plays, politics and love. The show sounds like us, looks like us, and is about people just like us. And we love it.
I saw the show with two thirteen year old boys – a tough audience for musical theater to reach. They were mesmerized and excited. They bought the soundtrack on Itunes and are now listening to it constantly. This has never happened before, at least to these kids. What gives? Is it just the music?
Hip Hop music is a large part of Hamilton’s sung-through score, but not the only style. There are also elements of R&B, jazz, pop and more typical musical theater songs, especially in the second act. But the energy and relevance of the sound from the beginning draws the audience in, forces them to listen carefully to every word so as to not miss a beat. The rhyme and delivery is delightful to hear and exciting to watch. It is a “sung through” musical, and the beat continues to energize and engage us to the very end.
The insistent beat moves the plot along and forces us to keep up. It accelerates the action, along with the lighting and choreography, and cannon “booms” that go right through you. The result is a mind-blowing swirl that immerses you in the action of a war for freedom and helps you understand the cost. The Federalist and Anti-Federalist debates come alive when performed as a rap battle as the new nation deliberates the form our government should take.
If innovation and relevance are the point of this blog – which they are – then Hamilton succeeds artistically in reaching its audience through its excellence in the following elements:
- Hip Hop, a major musical genre today, is how many experience music – it’s a “today” sound
- Non-stop movement and contemporary choreography keeps the action interesting
- Contemporary idioms that sound like street language – the language of the audience
- Making history relevant by diverse casting and a text that makes economic struggles and power plays sound contemporary – which is identifiable and relatable.
- A musical theater structure that works.
There are many audiences and many ways of performance. Our job is to speak the language of our audience today, wherever they may be. Hamilton succeeds because of its capacity to engage its audience.