The Hamilton Cast Album: Has Theatre Been Reinvented?

C. Austin Hill

I don’t live in New York.  I don’t have the funds to travel to see theatre, and I’m so frequently in production (as I am right now) that I frequently feel distant from the Broadway vibe.  And it’s been hard that I’ve not been able to see and respond to Hamilton and the buzz it’s creating.  I’ve had to wait for the cast album, and hope that (unlike so many others) it will simulate the visceral ephemerality of the stage production.  I also felt this way about Spring Awakening…and the cast album failed me in nearly every way.  I suspect that Spring Awakening played so much better on stage than it did on CD—it must have, because I was completely unmoved by the album.  So much so, in fact, that I lost any interest in seeing the show.  So Hamilton has had me worried.  I’m always leery of hype, and always suspect of largely universal praise.  I was very intrigued yesterday when the album dropped on NPR. 

Having listened to it, I’m ready to respond. Maybe I'm overreacting, or maybe I'm taken by the reviews, or maybe it's just a remarkable recording--whatever the reason, this does strike me as an INCREDIBLY important piece of theatre. A few minutes ago, in my Dramatic Lit class, I talked about Marlowe. I told my students about how blank verse had existed BEFORE Marlowe used it, and that iambic pentameter had been around for centuries before Marlowe...but I explained that somehow when Marlowe used it in his plays it forever changed the flavor of theatre. I'm not a hip-hop fan--not usually. But something in this recording strikes me a revolutionary. Like Marlowe's mighty line. Hip-hop has been around for decades. It has been used on stage before. But this FEELS so different. I'm so moved and engaged and enthralled by this piece. What if Lin-Manuel Miranda has just given theatre a new beat? What if he's reminded us how to use "popular music" to do something entirely new (not a jukebox musical or a review)? What if he's shown us how to talk about history, or feelings, or passions, or whatever we need to talk about us in a new and challenging and unelevated vernacular? Sure, history might prove this all wrong...but what if it isn't wrong?

It seems to me, without having seen the show that Lin-Manuel Miranda has found a wonderful way to talk about Hamilton’s life and history.  This doesn’t sound like any other show I can think of—including In the Heights.  In that show, Miranda tells a new story—one from his life and imagination.  Yes, it’s inventive musically, but not necessarily in the same way that Hamilton is.  The earliest drama we have record of—in ancient Greece—retold existing stories in innovative ways.  Myths, legends, and religious stories have been reinvented through emerging theatrical forms ever since.  Histories, too—of course—have been reimagined and re-presented to new audiences throughout theatre history.  That’s precisely where Hamilton sits.  In many ways, the play is like Sondheim’s Assassins—telling historical stories through musical theatre forms.  But unlike Assassins (which I absolutely adore, by the way), Hamilton is telling its story in a language that isn’t like anything else on Broadway—EVER.  The incredible precision of the dialogic sections is breathtaking.  Musically, the dynamics are engaging…even on a recording. This show really seems like a masterpiece.

Let’s then couple this with what Miranda has done in terms of race.  In the casting of this show, race has been inverted and manipulated—and it leads us to have to interrogate it.  We suddenly need to explore our historical narratives, and the ownership over those narratives.  This isn’t color-blind casting—this is something MUCH more interesting—this is deliberate, and groundbreaking.  Taking a narrative about a mixed race man, whose story has either been ignored entirely or has been whitewashed—like so much of American history.  The insistence that Hamilton is white (and therefore acceptable as a “founding father” in the history books), or the relegation of his story to the margins, is PRECISELY what Miranda’s bold production is calling to your (and my) attention. 

So what if Hamilton has changed the rules?  How can we know?  Where do we go from here?