Remixing The Genre

Fall 2017
Daniel Leibowitz and Nicole Anisgard Parra

Pallavi Samodia felt overwhelmed walking under the neon marquee, through the wooden doors and into the gilded lobby of the Hollywood Pantages Theatre.

When she entered the theater, she saw the intricate wooden scaffolding standing against a simple solid brick background. It marked the first time Samodia, a third-year financial actuarial mathematics student, had ever seen a Broadway musical. The show hadn’t even started, but she could feel the electric energy in the air as the audience awaited the start of “Hamilton: An American Musical.”

“Hamilton” is one of the rare musicals that has transformed from performance to phenomenon.

Although the show originated on Broadway, there are two additional productions underway in Chicago and London, and two on tour, one of which will perform in Los Angeles until the end of December.

While many musicals only influence the theater community, “Hamilton” has burst into mainstream pop culture with an unparalleled momentum. It has impacted musical theater as a genre, as well as the lives of audience members and fans.

The show’s first song, “Alexander Hamilton,” begins with emphatic orchestral chords, which don’t sound out of place in a musical. However, as character Aaron Burr steps onto the stage, he begins to rap rather than sing, and hip-hop remains the dominant musical style throughout the show.

The concept of a rap opera isn’t new – ”Hamilton” writer-composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda used the genre in his 2008 show “In the Heights,” and other rap operas have emerged over the years. However, none of them have risen to prominence like “Hamilton," which dominated Billboard charts, won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and collected a record-setting 16 Tony Award nominations and 11 wins.

Jabril Muhammad believes the show has helped make rap and hip-hop valid styles in musical theater. The fourth-year sociology student explained that “Hamilton” demonstrates the power of rap as a storytelling tool.

“It was a statement that Black forms of music, that are typically criminalized or trivialized by the populations who are consuming the musical, are legitimate,” Muhammad said. “That has major implications for how the people who create those music pieces are seen and how they're treated, and the extent to which they're legitimized as people, as human beings.”

For some, the show was an introduction to the world of rap.

"I'm a person who appreciates pop or pop-rock and doesn’t listen to rap music,” Samodia said. “But ever since I've been back (from seeing the show), I've been listening to the whole album again and I kind of have a new appreciation for the whole thing."

Stefanie Chordigian, who hasn’t seen the show in person but has listened to the soundtrack countless times, said “Hamilton’s” use of rap made the musical feel modern. She loved the playful back-and-forth rap banter between Burr and Alexander Hamilton in the show’s second song, “Aaron Burr, Sir.”

“A lot of the time, old musicals ... like ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Cats’ ... they feel so irrelevant,” she said. “Listening to ('Hamilton'), it was just phenomenal (to realize) that a musical could be so fun.”

The use of hip-hop helped make both the musical and history more accessible, said second-year history student Sean Sedey, who saw the show for the first time at the Pantages.

Sedey was initially skeptical about the idea of a musical that blended rap and history. It wasn’t until his roommate and his roommate’s girlfriend begged him to give the show a chance and played him a few songs from the soundtrack that he changed his mind. Sedey’s love of history and appreciation for the musical’s ability to connect with audiences of all ages and interests converted him into a “Hamilton” fan.

“(The musical) exposed history to a mass audience and in some way, made it cool,” Sedey said. “I have younger cousins who are 12, 13, 14, who never would have known anything about it.”

Musicology professor Raymond Knapp used “Hamilton” as a starting point for a Fiat Lux seminar he taught in winter 2017 called “Racial Politics in American Musical.” Knapp’s class centered on the role of race in “Hamilton.” Rap was one of many elements in the show that fostered complex discussions on race and identity.

Although the class examined the history of race in musicals, it became clear to Knapp that many of the students were there to talk about “Hamilton." Knapp used his lessons about productions like “Show Boat” and “Memphis” to provide them with historical context before they examined “Hamilton” in the last third of the class. They discussed the function of color-blind casting in modern theater and whether it will ever truly be achieved, as well as the treatment of slavery within the musical.

In "Hamilton," people of color play the main roles of the Founding Fathers, which complicates the show’s brief mentions of slavery – audiences and actors have to reconcile the fact that George Washington, despite being played by a Black man, owned slaves and created conditions to safeguard the future of slavery, Knapp said.

The class also discussed the musical’s gender politics, such as the fact that all three of the main female characters fall in love with the show’s hero.

“Lots of really interesting things like that happen with gender,” Knapp said. “The notion that you can cast (nonwhite actors as) George Washington, Hamilton and other figures (is there, but it) didn't cross over into casting them as other than male.”

Muhammad was intrigued by how the show’s largely white audiences had the chance to financially support a production that features marginalized voices, as well as engage with the stories they had to tell. The soundtrack has sold more than 1 million copies, making it the sixth best-selling cast recording of all time, and the musical has sold a record-breaking number of tickets.

Photo by Daniel Leibowitz, Illustration by Nicole Anisgard Parra
/ daily bruin

“You create this system that ends up representing and centering people like me, but it's being supported by the people who have all the power in the society,” Muhammad said. “That's what ('Hamilton's') revolution is, or what it's supposed to be.”

Whether “Hamilton” is able to sustain this revolution is another question entirely. Despite the progressive nature of the show, musical theater still has a long way to go in terms of racial diversity and equality, Knapp said.

Recent revivals of “The King and I” maintain the show’s Orientalism and use of stereotypes, a sign that Broadway needs to improve on how it represents marginalized populations, he said.

“There's a lot of things that still have to happen in terms of race on Broadway,” Knapp said. “But it's a big step, and I hope that one of ('Hamilton’s') legacies will be that that progress will be entrenched on some level, that it will be stabilized at a higher level than it was, even if it's not ever all the way there."

"Hamilton" has many overarching implications and legacies, and has also inspired its audience members on an individual level, as they become the next generation of artists.

As a dancer and aspiring choreographer, second-year theater student Haleyann Hart found particular meaning in the show’s choreography and staging. Hart saw the show in San Francisco, and was particularly struck by the moment in the climactic duel in which a dancer launches the bullet that kills Hamilton across the stage in slow motion.

"I thought it was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful visual art forms I've ever seen,” Hart said. "Everything was so representative and representational, and so specific – each little movement meant something.”

“Hamilton” inspired Muhammad to write a spoken word piece that builds upon a line from “My Shot.” In the song, Hamilton sings, “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.” Muhammad used the words to explore Black mortality, meditating on the idea that he must regularly contend with death because of systemic violence perpetrated against Black people. From there, Muhammad began working on a full-length play that begins with the spoken word piece and further develops its themes.

"'Hamilton' valorized my own creative capacities to the extent that I'm confident in creating these things. I don't really have a second thought about them,” Muhammad said. “It was that trajectory that was triggered by 'Hamilton,' and I don't really see myself having those same thoughts without it."

For Chordigian, the song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” led her to contemplate her own life and legacy. The show’s emotional closing number features the entire ensemble reflecting on Hamilton's legacy, which made Chordigian consider the impact she would make as she pursues a career in theater.

“It made me really think; we've really only got so much time on this earth,” Chordigian said. “What are we doing if we're not making our lives a story worth telling? Even if it's by one person, who just tells your old stories, then I think you've done your part for the world."