Hamilton Is Not That Great18 July 2017
Hamilton is not great.
It’s certainly a good musical. As a piece of musical theatre, it captured the zeitgeist in a way that hasn’t been done so for at least two years. That’s very nice and shouldn’t be discredited. But, zooming out, checking the macro – Hamilton as a piece of theatre, as a hip hop chronicle of the United States of America’s founding – is not excellent and it is not great. It is simply good.
This is wildly incongruent with conventional wisdom, of course. Hamilton is, allegedly, a revolutionary musical (about a revolution, no less) that stormed the Tony Awards, changed the musical theatre game and propelled composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda to international stardom. Unfortunately, its praise is greatly exaggerated. Hamilton as a musical is well-written and well-performed and that makes it good. Not great. Just good.
But, some would say, it’s so artistically beyond what anyone else has done. It uses new forms of music in a way unseen on Broadway before, and in incredibly effective ways – it’s got hip hop, it’s got rap, it’s got colour-blind casting.
This is not a new statement. We’ve been here before, many decades ago. Oklahoma!, the brainchild of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III, stormed the stage when it first premiered in 1943. Here was a musical that actually dared to further plot, character and narrative in song. It was the summation of a new kind of musical, the ‘book musical’, and would become “the single most influential work in the American music theatre,” according to historian Thomas Hischak. All that from a musical named after a state. Rodgers and Hammerstein, they were absolute madmen.
Yet we don’t think much of Oklahoma! nowadays. So it invented the modern musical? No big deal.
And here comes Cabaret and Company, two musicals that would catch musical theatre up to where plays had been for a while. These were two musicals from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that incorporated contemporary techniques in musical theatre. Directly addressing the audience! Commenting on the dramatic action! In doing so, they singlehandedly invented the ‘concept musical’. Beforehand, musicals needed plots, but now musicals just needed ideas, whether that idea was Nazism and power or marriage and relationships. Plot was just plot – these musicals were more.
We recognise Cabaret and Company’s greatness. Alongside Oklahoma!, they got their recognition. All three find revivals in schools and companies. But, again, they invented a new mode of musical to which Hamilton owes significantly.
Throughout the history of the modern musical, pieces took a chance on different techniques and invented entirely new ways to do theatre. Hamilton is not new for following in their footsteps. Even In The Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s previous musical, used techniques Hamilton would incorporate, like the staging of hip hop inflected composition. It would be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It, arguably, did Hamilton’s thing first.
And yet, do we praise In The Heights as much?
Hamilton is a good musical for doing these things, but is it great? Is it really great? Well, at this point, you might protest: what about those awards? Hamilton set records for Tony Award nominations, and nearly beat The Producers’ win record. Surely that indicates greatness?
Let’s look at the Tony Awards then. The big thing this season is Dear Evan Hansen, a play about mental illness, death, friendship – you name it. It’s a big thing. And that’s not the only big thing in recent memory – the memory still lingers on Book of Mormon’s ‘record-breaking’ Tony’s haul and success on Broadway. That is, until Hamilton rewrote the script.
And what’s become of Book of Mormon? It’s currently showing, right here in Melbourne. Audiences go to see it, every night. And the world goes on, unperturbed and undisturbed. The world doesn’t treat each new opening as an Earth-shattering revision and reclamation of theatre as we know it. It’s just another show
This happens time and time and time again. The problem with theatre and awards, and especially the Tony Awards, is that they can’t predict the future. Pulitzer Prize-winner Sunday in the Park with George lost the Best Musical award to La Cage Aux Folles. Into the Woods lost to The Phantom of the Opera. All four of these shows are still well known even outside the theatre-going public, unlike Tony Award winners for Best Musical such as Contact, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and City of Angels. But the big thing doesn’t win every time, not by a long shot. The Tony Awards are practically useless when it comes to talking about big things, or theatre excellence, or theatre in general. They’re just awards.
So what are we to do? How are we supposed to measure the quality of theatre if its benchmark awards are useless? Let’s start with the obvious. We can’t call Hamilton great because of its ‘record-breaking’ haul. Hamilton is a big thing and the Tony Awards simply cannot even comprehend what a big thing even is. But that goes to theatre as a whole. How do you measure the quality of work when performance is itself ephemeral? Each performance is different – how do you recognize excellence in a form as transient as the tides and the wind?
Well, time passes. Our memories fade. But one way to be sure is by waiting. If in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years or more, Hamilton is still being studied and listened to and revived, then perhaps that will elevate it to greatness. Maybe then. But it won’t be our feelings now that do it, a year after it blew down the record-breaking doors. It won’t be how ground-breaking and stylistically new it is, like those words haven’t been used before. It certainly won’t be the accolades showered upon it, as if those accolades mean anything at all. It’ll be time. Pure and simple. If the ephemeral becomes permanent, if transience calcifies – that’s the transition from good to great. Hamilton, Book of Mormon, Dear Evan Hansen and every other show needs time before they can achieve greatness, if greatness is their fate. It needs, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics, ‘to wait for it’.
Perhaps Hamilton’s modern, cosmopolitan retelling of history will make it stick. Maybe the songs really are good enough to stand the test of time. Or will it be the colour-blind casting, where old, white Founding Fathers of America are portrayed by African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans? The latter may be one of the most significant choices in casting of musical theatre and Broadway over the past decade. Certainly, no other production so publicly broke the rules and opened their pieces up to the same degree – but will it stick? There’s no way of knowing. Father Time knows, and he’s awfully slow. So, once more, we have to leave it up to history and memory.
We do not make great theatre. Time makes great theatre. We’re just along for the ride.