As "Hamilton" arrives for its local debut, Buffalo News staffers Jeff Miers and Colin Dabkowski along with contributing writer Ben Siegel participated in a sparring match in an attempt to ascertain the true merits of this groundbreaking play’s radical use of music.
Jeff Miers: I was suspicious of “Hamilton” before I heard the music. Hip-hop and musical theater make strange bedfellows, at least on paper. The danger was always that it would succeed as neither genre. What’s your take? Does it work as hip-hop? As musical theater? Or as a new hybrid all its own?
Ben Siegel: While the entire show evokes the spirit of hip-hop, it is sonically front and center in the two-part “Cabinet Battle.” Here, Lin-Manuel Miranda pits intellectual cabinet members against each other to debate legislation through a rap battle. This is raw, gritty passion for language, usually improvised in the proverbial ring. Imagine the founding fathers in a stately room, dressed in coattails, debating with raucous energy how to set up this new country. Now imagine that argument held outside, two contenders fighting with intellect and competitive rhyme, their supporters cheering them on from the sidelines. Everyone roots for the smartest response.
Colin Dabkowski: Before it blew me away on Broadway, I was also suspicious of “Hamilton.” That’s mostly because I had seen Lin-Manuel’s much clunkier show “In the Heights” and found its insertion of hip-hop into a more traditional musical theater frame to be an awkward fit — like, “Hey, ‘South Pacific’ fans, rap is cool, too.” I think it’s a gross oversimplification to call “Hamilton” a hip-hop show. Yes, the characters rap. But they do so out of a totally genuine impulse — because they have something they need to say — that seems completely natural within a score woven through with Afro-Caribbean rhythms and addictive melodies. Hip-hop, whatever that amorphous term may mean to each of us, is one of many colors in the show’s palette. The result is a masterpiece.
JM: While I’m confessing to preconceptions, I’ll admit that, for me, the stiffness and self-consciousness of musical theater is the polar opposite of the street-wise swagger and inherent funkiness of good hip-hop. Do you agree? Are musicals ever really funky?
BS: The best rappers are poets. They speak in prose. They work in rhythm and couplets, tempo and pulse. It’s nice to imagine the founding fathers being that poetic.
JM: That is unquestionably true. Still, though the raps are complex and interesting and very cool here, the music does sometimes indulge in rock, ballad and show-tune tropes that, to my ear, clash with the hip-hop-based delivery of the text. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. It’s also completely possible that my, let’s say beleaguered, relationship with show tunes and musical theater is encouraging me to be overly critical. I am, after all, the only person I know who thinks the music from “Jesus Christ Superstar” sounds like a bad Styx tribute band.
Colin: Oh, Jeff. While I join you in your assessment of “JCS,” I think your beleaguered relationship with show tunes and musical theater is encouraging you to be overly critical. A musical is never going to be a jam session, because it lacks spontaneity. Then again, a Jackson Pollock is never going to be a performance of “The Nutcracker.” We have to evaluate art on its own terms, instead of projecting our own terms onto it.
With “Hamilton,” what’s important is how well its form fits the originality of its conception, its reason for being. In this case, to shock middle-class white America into a true understanding of this country’s multicultural roots and the importance of African, Caribbean and non-white cultures in defining the very soul, language and power of this country. I think it does that extraordinarily well.
JM: Well said. That “shock value” you speak of is the soul of the piece, and its apparent even if you're just listening to the music. It feels important. Necessary. The music came first for Lin-Manuel, and for many people, the music has been their sole experience of "Hamilton." Is this unusual?
CD: For me — and I am in the minority here — the show did not come alive through the cast album. I have very little interest in it. But it absolutely overwhelmed and shocked me when I saw it live. I think that’s the issue you’re grappling with here, Jeff. It’s true that this musical, which started as a mix tape and through a de facto audition in front of Michelle and Barack Obama at the White House, had an unusual gestation process. What sets “Hamilton” apart in terms of the way it’s spread into the culture is that it has been digested as a cast album at least as much as a musical. But I think its true genius only becomes evident in performance.
JM: Hip-hop has a sense of improvisation and off-the-cuff virtuosity that is not apparent in the Hamilton music, which sounds like it was the product of incredibly hard work, a project that was slaved over and refined relentlessly over time. Do you feel that it still retains an air of in-the-moment improvisation, even though this is clearly not the case? If yes, then how did he/they pull this off?
BS: It plays as authentic here, though these raps were carefully written by Miranda, who’s as much a rapper as he is a theater star. Miranda’s thesis on Alexander Hamilton is that he is fundamentally a hip-hop figure—a visionary who, through language and tenacity, hustles his way through an unfair life to achieve greatness. Thus, he packs his words into dense packages of truth and mission; he doesn’t have time to waste on a languid lyric.
CD: One of the wonders of live theater is how, when done well, it allows the effortless suspension of disbelief despite all the visible wires and all the knowledge you bring with you into the theater. Therefore, when we hear Hamilton and Jefferson duke it out, the quality of the performances and the writing makes you feel like you’re in the room where it happened, watching this battle unfold for the very first time. You know it was written down on a sheet of paper, like Hamlet’s soliloquies or the Gettysburg Address, but that doesn’t matter. You know the language is hip-hop, but it could just as easily be iambic pentameter or a limerick. The production puts you in the moment and your brain’s imaginative impulse takes over from the smarty-smart part. Feels like magic, if you let yourself experience it.
Story topics: Hamilton