I was first acquainted with Hamilton: An American Musical sometime in the past year and, as I am stubborn and often quite reluctant to indulge in popular fads, I ignored the hype and refused to listen to the soundtrack. This attitude lasted until the end of May. As the effervescently brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote, “There’s nothing like summer in the city” and, in this respect, he is right — there is nothing more tedious and painful than staying home for the summer in my hometown, filling my nights with Jeopardy! and awful dermatologist appointments. I decided to give Hamilton a try when I’d finished my tenth book of the summer (and it wasn’t even June — always the charming socialite, I am), in part to combat my anxious and, at times, depressive episodes of boredom and impatiently waiting for the new school year to begin. Truthfully, I am more than a little antsy to jump start a new artistic project that is going to take over my life next year — that I am currently unable to talk about in any way but relates immensely to what I am about to tell you: I needed something to occupy my mind — Hamilton, it seemed, was it. Hamilton, and the absolute genius that is Lin-Manuel Miranda, changed the course of my summer. This summer, that of 2016, has been officially dubbed my “HamiltEnlightenment,” my “Lin-Manuel MiRenaissance,” if you will. Here’s why.
*Note to reader: this is going to be a bit of a longer post because it chronicles my arts-based adventures through Europe — if you’re looking for more Hamilton, you might want to skip to the end. Apologies in advance. I have a lot to say this week.
It begins at the start of May with an extensive summer reading list. I poured through the Complete Plays of Sarah Kane in the first week of the month, while getting ready to embark on my two-week European extravaganza (which, don’t worry, I’ll get to later on in this post). Each of Kane’s plays entrapped me in their web of provocative absurdity, touching on raw and emotive themes such as torture in life and death, redemptive love and raw human connection — riddled with Shakespearean tropes and completely up to interpretation with regards to staging. I had spent the later parts of April attending local Shakespearean lectures and sneaking into alumni association events where I had the privilege of hearing local professors speaking about the dangers of misinterpreting “realism” in the theatre. And so I began my independent studying this summer learning about challenges to the form (in theatre and literature), revisiting A Clockwork Orange, the Iliad, Oedipus the King, and many other favourites along the way. To understand challenges to the form, I thought, I had to understand the form itself and perhaps the earliest examples of it — that’s where my classical Greece craze came from. Let’s move on.
My studies continued overseas in Berlin, where I spent a handful of days dipping in and out of the most renowned museums with some of the (for lack of a more compelling adjective) coolest exhibits I have ever attended. Those of you that know me well know that museum-hopping is a favourite pastime of mine, and to say that the Deutsche Histories Museum (and the others in Berlin) outweighs those in London is a huge deal (as we all know, the English are notorious for stealing some of the greatest artifacts from historical excavations) but it’s true — I loved seeing all of Kathe Kollwitz’s art in the flesh, fawning over Napoleon’s hat and sword from the Battle of Waterloo, seeing French Revolution and World War One/Two propaganda and, most incredibly, all of the mind blowing reconstructions at the Pergamon Museum. The Market Gate of Miletus and Ishtar Gate took my breath away — the exhibitions on Islamic and Babylonian Art were equally fascinating. Another special shout-out goes to the Alte’s German realism and French impressionist collections, and the Neues Egyptian/Ancient Civilizations collection. I took a great picture with the bust of Homer. I have too many photos to recount, but they will be up on my 500pix in time. I was also lucky enough to catch an original production of Tosca at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, which really doesn’t relate to the synthesis of my points at all but is worth mentioning. (*Note to reader 2.0: “Vissi d’arte” changed my life and I feel like Tosca is a breeding ground for sociopolitical allegories).
What I loved about Berlin, and what will end up relating back to Hamilton, is this: Berlin, this city of movement and cultural innovation, once crippled by war — once bullet wounded and sick in hope for restoration — now blooms and triumphs in a bold kind of rebirth, now leaks with remembrance and respect for yesterday but thrives on tomorrow’s energy. On the art and voice of a new generation of skeptics and creationists, of people that dare — of artists, of connoisseurs of the impossible. Berlin is this cool harmonic enmeshment of the past and the present, of the historical and the contemporary, and of progress and tradition. I thought about this a lot during my time in Europe, upon visiting the John Lennon wall in Prague and watching beautiful musicians busking, upon sitting in a church and listening to classical organists while Amy Winehouse blared from a speaker just next door. It was an honour to be there.
As I said, we were off to Prague next, which had an intense amount of personal significance for me as the city itself was a metaphor implemented in my first play, Anonymous — my heroine, Imogen, was (essentially) seeking self-knowledge and fulfillment in the unknown. “Prague” was supposed to represent “the unknown”, because blah blah blah, that’s all you need to know for this post to make sense. I could go on forever, Anonymous is bloody metaphor city. I’m a crazy person. The Franz Kafka museum, and specifically the installation based on The Castle, left me speechless. I visited an old bookstore and sat for hours watching the city after my daily touring, surfing between Voltaire and Sophocles (note to reader: I read Candide in a church. Irony?) But here’s what kept popping up: the art in the galleries of the old buildings and churches — they were all painted in a kind of postmodernist, contemporary style, catering to the form and not idealizations of realism. I saw Macbeth at the Prague State Opera which, by the way, is the most beautiful building I have ever seen in my entire life, which differed entirely from Tosca in Berlin because it was in a sense experimental. All of the costumes were very transhistorical, often a sort of business-casual, sometimes minimal depending on the character — and the set had a degree of abstractedness — but Macbeth and the Lady’s costumes were period, and so much else was contemporary! There we are again — this enmeshment! Here, in the 21st century, that seems to be where all the energy in Europe is concentrated: somewhere between the old and the new, the strict religious and the strict secular, the tradition and the experiment. It stinks of fragmentation! I love it!
I didn’t stay long enough in Budapest to see anything to add to these points, but what I did see was an incredible Picasso exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery, right up in the Buda castle complex. And many other cool things. I wrote some music on a red bench by this field overlooking the city, and saw some beautiful churches and lookouts. It felt as the other two did, though — fragmented, scrapbooked if you will.
And now, back in Hamilton (ha-ha), my [Alexander] HamiltEnlightenment. Why the craze?
The first song I heard from Hamilton was its opening number, Alexander Hamilton, describing the protagonist’s early life in the Caribbean as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore…” (ask me to rap anything in the show. I’ll do it). I was attracted to the show at first because — well, who couldn’t be?! The show thrives on incredible poetic lyricism. Just look at the intricacies of the rhyme schemes in Lafayette’s fast raps, each play on words a fireball. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard in a recent broadway show — just listen to Eliza’s haunting ballad, Burn, about “erasing [herself] from the narrative.” Every song is brilliant.
The songs themselves, however catchy, weren’t what really raked me in — it was Miranda’s sheer ingenuity behind the very idea that got to me. Alexander Hamilton, in his day, was known for his power of speech — his extraordinary voice that fuelled the American Revolution. What LMM does by taking this biographical tale (inspired by Ron Chernow’s book) and translating it to hip hop acts as a sort of retelling of history — juxtaposing the revolutionary “voices” of the past/of the forming of America with the revolutionary “voices” of the present — this of course being hip hop artists, many of which are of visible minorities in the States, who face as much discrimination as immigrants and anti-Brits did in the days of Alexander Hamilton. Despite these cultural and ethnic biases, however, Hamilton prevailed and reached success through the power of language and speech; hip hop, because of Hamilton, now does the same. According to the show’s creator in a 2009 performance at the White House (when the Hamilton Mixtape was still a barely-developed concept album), [Alexander Hamilton] “embodies hip hop” because of this. Hamilton asks us to consider again and again, “who lives? Who dies? Who tells [our] story?” It is a landmark cultural event not just in the development of musical theatre, but for visible minorities in North America — especially performers! We see non-Caucasian actors playing iconic “white” historical figures such as George Washington and Aaron Burr… imagine the impact this production is having on any previously held notion about “type-casting!” The perfect example of cultural and historical enmeshment! Oh, boy! It’s everywhere! Art!
Anyways, I could go on for hours, but the whole thing really is brilliant. Hamilton is telling a story in America’s history that looks and sounds like what America has become, what it is now. It deserves every Tony it is nominated for. It is REVOLUTIONARY in so many contexts.
Here’s the point I want to make moving forward — look how much Hamilton is in the public eye. Look at all the (much deserved) critical acclaim [Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, you name it] it has been receiving by (again) challenging the form, daring to be unconventional, daring to make a social and political statement — just by its own artistic genius. Hamilton is the landmark cultural event we need in society today, to bring people together and to urge them to create and dare. I have no doubt it will shed a lot of light on the theatre industry, and (I hope) bring audiences to respecting and loving these new changes to the stage. I talked a little in one of my last posts about being open to change and unique interpretation on classical/Shakespearean works, and how important it is to embrace your local to be universal. It all comes back to Hamilton. For a lot of the general public, it will start with Hamilton. And here I am, in my hometown (ALSO “Hamilton” — whoo! Look at how that worked!), back from travelling all around Europe just to rediscover the muse here, right in my bed in the city I’ve always known, my Hamilton: The Revolution book beside me and my hair in thick, curly, blonde knots.
I even started a scrapbook that toys around with this idea of personal, social, and artistic fragmentation, because it’s clearly taken over my life.
There’s a note I wish I could end this on. I wish I could talk about how I intend to move forward with this idea, how I want to use all that I’ve learned abroad with that I’ve learned at home to make something new of my own — something toying with fragmentation — something accepting of the past but thriving on today’s energy… but, like I said at the start of this post, there are some things (happening in the near to distant future) that currently lie outside the range of things-I’m-allowed-to-talk-about… however, when the time comes, I’m sure you’ll all be the first to know.
I don’t know how to end this — it’s been one hell of a post. It still feels unfinished, but I want to get back to my crazy reading schedule and I’ve got an orientation retreat and job training this weekend. I have to wake up early, wash my hair, and cover my acne scars. Hey, I’m not perfect! Scars are pretty, too.
Oh! And, by the way, everyone should read Hamilton: The Revolution. It’s worth the money.
I’m sorry I don’t post much but, when I do, it’s always a doozy.
Camille over and out.