US Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton sounds about as interesting a premise for a Broadway musical as our own Reserve Bank Governor Bernie Fraser. Ditties about currency fluctuations and tabulating the balance of payments don’t exactly sound toe-tapping.
Sure, Hamilton’s one of America’s Founding Fathers, those guys whose wisdom appears to be inviolate in much of their society, especially on the right of American politics – but why should Australians care about Hamilton? After all, as splendid as it is, Keating! The Musical hasn’t exactly had a lengthy international run.
And yet of all the movies I’m looking forward to, the promised adaptation of Hamilton has to be the most exciting of all. (Sorry, Star Wars Episode VIII).
Seeing as my chances of getting to NYC and finagling a ticket are about as likely as someone writing a bestselling musical about my life, I was devastated by the recent news that it will probably take the best part of a decade to hit our screens.
This isn’t surprising when the producers sell out every show they put on sale, and Hamilton is set to go global over the next few years. They won’t have time to do it properly for a while yet. But I want to see Lin-Manuel Miranda in the role, so I only wish they’d stick a bunch of cameras in a regular performance so the rest of us can at least see what the fuss is about.
There’s something truly special about Lin-Manuel Miranda, as can be seen from the plaudits given to his acceptance speech comments speech about the Orlando shooting.
I haven’t had the chance to see many stars before they were big, but I’m definitely bragging about my encounter with this guy. The Melbourne Comedy Festival features hundreds of comics every year, and you can guarantee that by the end, some of the ones people are talking about will be stars of the future.
Back in 2006, I saw a show called Freestyle Love Supreme, the name a tribute to John Coltrane’s album rather than pizzas with the lot. They were a musical troupe featuring a beatboxer, a singer and a rapper, among others. They took audience suggestions and crafted them into songs on the spot, and while they were all brilliant, it was the rapper who really stood out. His mind worked so quickly that not only could he freestyle rhymes like Eminem and his pals in 8 Mile, but you could throw him just about any word, and he’d work it into his lyrics, almost instantaneously. It was incredible to watch.
I started following him on Twitter, and a few years later, he opened his first musical, In The Heights, about a small community in the New York City neighbourhood of Washington Heights. He played the main role, Usnavi the bodega owner, while the singer from Freestyle Love Supreme, Chris Jackson, played the romantic lead. It soon transferred to Broadway and won lots of awards.
There were three particularly fresh things about In The Heights. It portrayed a vibrant community who aren’t normally seen on stage, it was infused with the Latin sounds Miranda had grown up with as part of the Puerto Rican diaspora, and, probably unpredecentedly, he rapped his role. The others sang conventionally, but Miranda squeezed a lot more lyrics into each line because of the density of verses – and they were extremely witty, as you’d expect from someone who cut his teeth in a comedy troupe.
In The Heights was amazing enough, but his next major project was the one that would take America by storm. (Let’s skip over Bring It On: The Musical, shall we?) In 2009, he was invited to the White House for a musical evening (presumably because the Obamas loved In The Heights) where he performed a song from a project called The Hamilton Mixtape. I thought he was kidding when he said he had a song about the first US Treasury Secretary, but he wasn’t.
It was a great song, but I presumed I’d never hear about the project again. A few years later, though, his Twitter was full of plugs for the full show’s first version at NYC’s Public Theatre. Now it’s on Broadway, and it’ll be playing there roughly forever.
Another really distinctive thing about Hamilton is the diversity of the cast – Miranda has insisted on having the roles played by non-white performers. It’s a tale about people arriving in the US and building a new society where their dreams can come true. I generally find that kind of rhetoric fairly nauseating when it’s trotted out by politicians, but in Hamilton’s day the American Dream was new and real. The most talented people really could climb the ladder and run the country, at least for a time.
Miranda’s point is that the Hamiltons of today are to be found in America’s immigrant communities, carving out extraordinary new lives for themselves. It’s certainly true of Miranda himself, the rapping, composing, lyric-writing, performing and improvising polymath who’s already the pre-eminent musical theatre phenomenon of his generation.
Many people are desperate to see Miranda in the role he wrote for himself, but their chances are remote. The soundtrack’s on most streaming services, but I can’t bring myself to listen before I get to experience it properly. So I’ll just have to hope Miranda and the other producers stick a bunch of cameras around the theatre and give us something we can experience in the interim.
As for Miranda, he’s still pulling off the same incredible improvisational feats I saw in Melbourne all those years ago. Only now it’s the likes of Jimmy Fallon who are supplying the random words he has to squeeze into his rhymes – and even, extraordinarily, President Obama.
I can’t wait to see what incredible things he does next – but first, I can’t wait to see the incredible thing he’s doing every night on Broadway. So please, Lin-Manuel and co – let us watch at least some version of Hamilton.
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