Hamilton & hybridity: a response to Adam Gopnik

I’m taking a break from early modern stuff today to write about a more recent bit of theatre history: the Broadway musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s second venture on the Great White Way and the most popular American musical of the year, if not the century. Pitched (reductively) as a “hip-hop musical”, it retells the story of Alexander Hamilton–“The ten-dollar founding father without a father” who “Got a lot farther working a lot harder, / By being a lot smarter”, as the show’s opening number tells us–through an astonishingly complex amalgamation of musical styles, including but certainly not limited to rap and hip-hop. Miranda, as both composer and star, is undoubtedly one of the greatest musical minds of his generation.

Obviously, I’m a fan. But the discourse around Hamilton‘s rise to fame is about much more than musical prowess and progress on Broadway–it’s about the way Americans tell our own histories, and critical responses to the show demonstrate just how fraught that question is. “You have no control / Who lives, who dies, who tells your story”, George Washington tells Hamilton before the climactic Battle of Yorktown. In Hamilton, the story of these white historical figures is being told by a deliberately mixed-race cast: Miranda himself plays Alexander Hamilton; Daveed Diggs, a hip-hop artist by trade, plays Thomas Jefferson; Phillipa Soo plays Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler; and Reneé Elise Goldsberry plays her sister, Angelica. Musically, thematically, and aesthetically, it’s a kind of fantasy portrayal of the “melting pot” we’re constantly told America is. It’s curious and disturbing, then, that Adam Gopnik’s recent review for the New Yorker ties Hamilton expressly to the white musical history of America in classic Broadway shows such as South Pacific, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. 

Respectfully, Mr. Gopnik, I disagree. In musical theatre terms, Hamilton‘s ancestors are not the American book musicals, but operas and operettas, as Hilton Als writes for the same publication (I think it’s worth noticing here that the New Yorker‘s only black critic to have reviewed the show, did so when the show was Off Broadway, whilst its transition to the Great White Way has been covered by its share of white critics who are able to do so without so much as accidentally mentioning the issue of race’). Hamilton is also more like pre-Showboat Broadway, when shows drew explicitly on popular music, than it is like Camelot. But Gopnik’s article also ignores more recent musical theatre history: Miranda’s work clearly builds on the legacy of Rent (whose closing production also starred Goldsberry), Spring Awakening (which also featured Jonathan Groff in the original cast), and In the Heights (also written by and starring Miranda). In some ways, the rap/recitative and leitmotif that drive its plot draw on the tradition of through-composed megamusicals and “rock operas” like Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar, too. Perhaps more importantly, however, Hamilton’s musical influences and its sampling of popular forms run the gamut from jazz and blues to BritPop and Destiny’s Child–there’s a reason Audra McDonald’s recent cover of “Say No to This” as Billie Holiday works so well. Miranda is not the first to attempt this kind of hybridity, but he’s perhaps the first to apply it directly to American Revolutionary history. So trying to tie this achievement down to an all-white, elite, Broadway legacy headlined by South Pacific and My Fair Lady just won’t cut it.

Gopnik’s not the only one to misunderstand this: much of the white press on Hamilton has tried to circumvent or ignore the complex intersections of race, storytelling and American/Broadway history that the show plays with, particularly in the context of Barack Obama’s presidency and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. See, for example, this interview with Chris Hayes of NBC, who manages to talk about Hamilton with Miranda for seven and a half minutes without really talking about the casting, although he euphemistically tells us that Miranda is “re-making our vision of the founding fathers”. And even though Gopnik is quite right to point out some of the contradictions in the casting of Hamilton as an unambiguous hero, his subsequent assertion that the mixed-raced casting of the musical doesn’t change its story is absurd. “Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton and the rest of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) are all played by black, Latino, or Asian-American performers using an African-American musical idiom—and within seconds this seems neither jarring nor even particularly daring: it just makes sense”, he tells us: “Who else and in what other range? “Hamilton” [sic] is about the mutability of identity in American history. The players change, the story stays the same.”

But changing the players always changes the story; that’s why Miranda’s mixed-race casting of white historical figures is so important and so revolutionary. It matters, fundamentally, that the person making this version of American history is the son of Puerto Rican immigrants whose father learned English whilst completing a postdoc. It matters, as Als points out, that, had Miranda’s family stayed in Puerto Rico, they would have been “American citizens [who] cannot vote”. It matters that Hamilton became one of the biggest hits in Broadway history in the same year that millions of people across America were calling for justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and too many other black men killed by police officers. It matters, equally, that Hamilton became one of the biggest hits in Broadway history in the same year that millions of others across America denounced #BlackLivesMatter activists as violent thugs or irrelevant shit-disturbers. It matters that Hamilton is the most popular musical of the decade while Beyoncé (but not Bruno Mars) is getting attacked for her Superbowl halftime show. It matters that Hamilton came to Broadway during a presidential election cycle. It matters who gets to tell those stories because when the players change, so does the story. And that, actually, is the fundamental innovation of Hamilton: it shifts the power of narrative in America’s founding mythology.

 

 

STR New Researchers’ Network Launch

Hello, followers and casual readers of my blog!

I’m pleased to announce that today marks the launch of a project that I’ve been involved with for the past several months: the STR New Researchers’ Network! On behalf of the Committee, I invite you to read the information below and get in touch if you’re interested in joining us (or pass it on to someone who might be)!

The Society for Theatre Research is pleased to announce the launch of the New Researchers’ Network (NRN), a proactive, supportive and well-connected group of postgraduates, young/new scholars and researchers from across a variety of disciplines who are interested in theatre research, history and historiography.

We enthusiastically welcome expressions of interest from all new researchers, regardless of age or academic level, whose interests include theatre and theatre history. 

Through a series of exciting events–including theatre-related visits, lectures, and social outings–NRN will encourage members to share ideas, engage in discussion and develop a network of helpful contacts within the field of theatre research.

Upcoming events include: 

15 October- An informal social dinner prior to the STR lecture

7 November – Events at the Bristol Theatre Collection and the Bristol Old Vic, including a lecture from Catherine Hindson (University of Bristol)

12 March – Guided tour of the Guildhall Art Gallery, London

20 May – Our first Annual Symposium. More information will be available soon.

For more information and details on how to join us, visit:

www.str.org.uk/research/nrn

or email the NRN Committee at:

nrn@str.org.uk

Research Musings:

Just a quick one tonight:

I’ve been continuing to read up on what happens when theatre companies decide to do an early modern play by someone other than Shakespeare, and I came across something I didn’t expect today. This is a quotation from Pascale Aebischer’s article ‘Shakespearean Heritage and the Preposterous “Contemporary Jacobean” Film: Mike Figgis’s Hotel‘ in Shakespeare Quarterly: 

‘In spite of their apparent rejection of Shakespearean nostalgia,  [Susan] Bennett argues [in Performing Nostalgia], the Jacobean revival productions are less transgressive, less oppositional than their harnessing of “the Jacobean” initially suggests, for the imperfect past they invoke is “nonetheless one which can help us legitimise our own defective present. The designation’s function, even as it marks transgression and dissidence, points to a continuous and repetitive history, the inevitability of which we can do no more than accept.” Despite the difference in tone that sets late twentieth-century “Jacobean” productions apart from Shakespeare productions at the RSC and the National Theatre, the impulse behind both is nostalgic. […] A glance through reviews of Jacobean revivals by the RSC confirms the accuracy of Bennett’s analysis: there is much self-congratulation at having made the effort to offer a non-Shakespeare production in the first place and a wistful acknowledgment of the relevance of Jacobean themes to present crises’ (282).

And once again, research slaps me in the face and scrambles everything I thought I knew. I guess I should get used to this, right? I fell into the trap; I assumed that studying someone besides Shakespeare was cool and hip and off the beaten track. In some ways it is, of course, as evidenced by all the dead-ends I’m hitting in research. But it’s so easy to think that by resisting Shakespeare one is doing something completely different, and that is obviously not the case. These playwrights–Shakespeare, Middleton, Rowley, Marlowe, Jonson–all worked in very similar contexts, and while their differences are definitely important, their similarities are just as significant. I still think it’s ridiculous that every other playwright from the early modern period gets compared to Shakespeare, but maybe the actual act of comparison isn’t at fault.

 

Research Musings: Cultural Capital

I’ve been thinking a lot in the past couple of days about Middleton and Rowley’s relationship to Shakespeare. I am now convinced that it is literally impossible to research a play by any early modern playwright besides Shakespeare without also researching Shakespeare. This is frustrating, especially because I deliberately chose not to propose a Shakespeare topic for my PhD.

Take, for example, a book I skimmed through today: Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe by Pauline Kiernan. It reads like a sort of retrospective look at the new Globe’s first seasons, especially in the final section, which is comprised of statements from actors and directors who worked on the first shows to be produced there. The opening season in 1997 was made up of four plays: Henry V, The Winter’s Tale, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, and The Maid’s Tragedy. That’s right folks: two by Shakespeare, one by Middleton, and one by Beaumont and Fletcher. Let’s take a moment to digest that information: the opening season at Shakespeare’s Globe was half Shakespeare and half Shakespeare’s contemporaries. One would never know this, however, from reading the aptly-titled Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe. 

In the aforementioned final section of the book, there are something like twenty or thirty interviews. By my count, only six or seven mention A Chaste Maid in Cheapside at all, despite the fact that most of the interviewees acted in that play. Of those six or seven, only two actually say something significant about the play or the production. I think it’s telling that the director of Chaste Maid notes in his statement that ‘Richard III would be terrific here’.

I’ve been advised that it is, indeed, academic suicide to not address the issue of Shakespeare’s ‘cultural capital’ in my dissertation, at least in the introduction. I know that I have to do it, but I hate that I have to do it. My supervisor, Kate, shared an anecdote with me from her university years when I expressed my frustration that I couldn’t find anything on Middleton that didn’t compare him to Shakespeare: she said that, in a gender studies lecture, her tutor explained how to identify a discriminatory statement. She claimed that if you could reverse a statement without it sounding ridiculous then it was not discriminatory; if not, then the original statement was probably objectively ridiculous, despite being normalised by society. So let’s consider the statement–which crops up in a lot of Middleton biographies and critical studies–that Middleton, in his best work, “approaches” or “comes near to” the genius of Shakespeare.

Turned around, that reads:

Shakespeare, in his best work, approaches the genius of Middleton

or

Shakespeare, at his best, comes near to the genius of Middleton.

No sane scholar would ever use that inverted version. Why? Because Shakespeare has been created as a cultural pillar, a benchmark by which all other playwrights are measured. It’s next to sacrilege to even suggest that Shakespeare would have to measured against the “genius” of another playwright.

So what if, rather than attempting to turn the tables, I try to leave Shakespeare out of the equation–at least the version of Shakespeare that has become a ubiquitous cultural icon. It may not be possible, for example, to leave out a discussion of the allusions in The Changeling to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But what are the theoretical implications of treating Shakespeare like everyone else? What, if any, are the potential problems of treating him as just another playwright?

Research Musings: Webs

I had the kind of day where lots of dots started to connect. This was both a good and a bad thing. It’s great in the sense that I’m finally starting to see points of potential synthesis scattered among all my raw data; it’s terrible in the sense that there are suddenly a gazillion new things to research.

For example, I posted last week about significance in absence, or meaning being created by virtue of something that is not there rather than by virtue of something that is. I applied this in my post to the process and results of cutting text for performance. It occurred to me this morning, however, that this could also be applied to performances that never happened at all.

The Changeling, as far as I can tell, disappeared from stages during the nineteenth century. While keeping in mind Tracy Davis’ caveat that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that there is something significant about the long period during which The Changeling was absent from professional stages, especially because it was not at all absent from literary studies. This is something I’m just starting to explore, so there’s not much more to say about it at the moment.

 

 

On a separate note, I’ve been learning a lot about my own personal research and learning styles in the last week. I’ve learned that I definitely prefer hand-writing my notes to typing them, which I’m very aware may result in a lot of arthritis later on. I’ve learned that I like to think in terms of webs and pictures rather than in terms of lines or language. Kate, my supervisor, tells me that the difference between research or ideas and writing is that ideas can function in terms of webs whereas writing needs to be linear. I’ve learned that I love researching and creating these webs, but I need writing in order to make sense of my ideas.

As I said to my mother today, I am now in week 2 of 132. I’d love to have more weeks in which to write this thing, and I’d love the luxury of seven or eight years of funded research. I’m hoping, however, that these three short years I spend working on this project will lead to more projects–otherwise, why bother?–and I really like the idea that I won’t peak with this dissertation. Maybe this is the young, naive optimist in me coming out, but I think it’s okay that my PhD will not be my life’s work, that it won’t be the piece of research that defines me twenty years from now. I hope that there is still work to be done in my field and that people still care to read that work in twenty years, but it’s kind of liberating to think that I’m not bound by the webs I’m weaving now. I’d like to be able to weave many more webs, in new places and with interesting new shapes.

And I cannot believe I’ve been comparing myself to a spider. Gross.

Set Me Free: Notes on a Director’s Note

I always struggle to write director’s notes for the programme. This is what I have so far for Set Me Free. Comments and suggestions are very welcome.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that The Tempest ‘addresses itself entirely to the imaginative faculty’. In our version of the play, we have sought to imagine ways in which movement and music might substitute for poetry. As a result, the text you will hear tonight serves a storytelling function rather than a poetic one. As Laura discusses below, we’ve cut away a significant amount of Shakespeare’s words and attempted to create The Tempest with bodies in space and with non-verbal sounds as much as possible. This means that certain parts of the play as it is set down in the Folio have been abstracted or obscured, whilst others have been highlighted. We have imagined a world in which a lovely young woman on pointe can play Caliban, Ariel can be comprised of four actors, and Alonso and Anthonio can have female bodies and male voices. We also have the advantage of having a practicing pagan as our Prospero, lending us the opportunity to explore the realities of magical arts, both in Shakespeare’s time and our own.

Our inspirations range from Sir Ian McKellan to a sea shanty to a production of The Tempest done in Buffalo, New York; our movement vocabulary has been drawn from Viewpoints, yoga, Laban, ballet, modern dance, stage combat, and everything in between. We’ve significantly rearranged and sometimes reinterpreted what text we have left. Our cast is a collective of postgraduate and undergraduate students with a huge range of movement backgrounds and abilities. And, somehow, we hope to create a cohesive and entertaining experience for you here this evening.

It’s been a challenge, to say the least, but we’ve had an awful lot of fun along the way. I think I speak for the entire cast when I say that this has been a journey of learning, and one whose lessons we will never forget. We’ve been stretched creatively and intellectually, and we hope that you will be, too.  Now address yourselves to your imaginative faculties, and enjoy the show.

Set Me Free 4 : Killing Our Babies

Of all the nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from working with the incredible Kelly Straughan last year, perhaps the meatiest was this: learn to kill your babies. 

I’m obviously not talking about real babies (the fanatic pro-lifers can calm down now). I’m talking about intellectual babies. Brain-children, if you will.  All directors have them, and we all need to kill them. That super-awesome genius-level idea you hatched at 3am and brought into rehearsal and spent hours perfecting might not read once it’s on stage. Or it might not work with the costumes. Or it might be impossible to light. Or it might not fit the actor you imagined it on. Or it might not be in the budget. Or there might not be time to rehearse it. When faced with these or countless other scenarios in which an idea doesn’t work, it’s time to kill that baby.

I realise that framing this in terms of dead babies makes it all seem unfairly insensitive, but the baby analogy works for a reason. Directors love their brain-children. We grow attached to the vision we’ve created of how a particular project “should” look or sound or both. The vision, the idea for how the play is going be, has been cultivated over a long(ish) period of time and is ideally grounded in painstaking research. We’ve considered the semiotics of our approach; we’ve considered our audience demographic; we’ve thrown out other ideas in favour of the One–and yet, sometimes, all that theory still falls flat in practice.

What we all so often forget is that that’s ok. Sometimes, despite all the hard work done to make it fit, we have to kill that baby for the good of the rest of the piece. Killing a baby doesn’t make you a failure or a bad director; in fact, judiciously killing a baby will make your show better than it could ever have been with that dead weight hanging around its neck. It’s actually quite a liberating feeling for the director: all the stress of trying to actualize the vision is suddenly gone, and more focus can be given to the rest of the play.

Kelly’s advice has served me well so far, and I hope that it will continue to be with me as we head into the final week of rehearsals for Set Me Free.

 

 

…Just to clarify once again: I do not in any way advocate killing any actual, human babies. I do, however, enjoy eating lamb.