Thursday, May 12, 2016

Alexander Hamilton! Redux!

For the record, I was a Alexander Hamilton fan before the hit musical Hamilton became a pop cultural phenomenon. When it was leaked in June, 2015 the Treasury Department was intending to replace Hamilton's image on the $10 bill, I blogged here about the decision being a colossal mistake. Fortunately, that mistake has been apparently rectified.

The musical Hamilton opened on Broadway in August 2015. Sometime in the fall of that year I listened to the cast album from the musical and fell hard. Hamilton has garnered much media ink since it's opening, centered mainly upon the diverse cast, the musical's relevancy to the immigration issues debated today, and it's power to make American history meaningful to our most precious resource, students and children.

That road runs both ways, however. Hamilton managed to introduce a middle aged man to the power and beauty of hip-hop. It turns out an old dog can sometimes be taught some new tricks. 

It has become part of Hamilton lore how Lin Manuel-Miranda, the face, force and the actor in the titular role came to conceive the idea of Hamilton. Miranda read the Ron Chernow's biography about Hamilton, they later met, with Chernow becoming a willing, if skeptical, historical advisor to the fledgling musical. In a recent, wonderful story about the love of language that imbues the musical, Ben Zimmer of Slate writes about Chernow's initial misgivings:
While Chernow did not initially appreciate how the idiom of hip-hop could be a vehicle for Hamilton’s story, Miranda set about educating him as he had done for [Stephen} Sondheim. Chernow learned two things right away. First, 'with hip-hop, you can pack an enormous amount of information into the lyrics,' he said. And second, hip-hop’s reliance on rhyme, both rhymed endings and internal rhymes, allows for all manner of wordplay to delight audiences. Chernow realized that what Miranda was constructing was no less than a return to the verse dramas of an earlier age, when people would 'sit all evening listening to rhymed couplets and quatrains,' immersed in the pleasure of language.
Chernow gives some really good examples. Here is one: 
Chernow was struck immediately by the heightened language in the first stanza introducing Hamilton’s story: 'by providence, impoverished, in squalor.' And then the second stanza takes a turn for the colloquial, with the 'ten-dollar founding father without a father, who got a lot farther by working a lot harder.' 'It’s delightful how the language keeps shifting back and forth,' Chernow remarked.
The potential to reach young students was recognized immediately by the powers that be:
The plan for student matinees was hatched before Hamilton moved to Broadway, soon after it opened [off Broadway] in early 2015. At one show, Chernow, who attended many performances, spotted Lesley Herrmann, executive director of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. When he asked what she thought, Herrmann exulted that 'this is the greatest opportunity in our lifetime to interest schoolchildren in American history, and we have to take advantage of it,' Chernow recalled.
Hamilton won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The show has won a Grammy award and the Tony awards in June should be renamed "The Hamilton Award Show." It is also teaching old dogs like me. 

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