July Calendar

June 17 – July 23 – Ah! Wilderness – Goodman Theatre

July 16 – 17 – New Dances – Thodos Dance Chicago – Athenaeum Theatre

After closing the company in March, it will be exciting to see nine world premieres from Thodos Dance.

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Until July 23 – Paradise Blue – Timeline Theatre

July 17, 21, & 22 – JUBA! Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance – Chicago Human Rhythm Project

No longer at the MCA, this one of a kind festival featuring tap dancers from across the country will be at the Jazz Showcase and the newly remodeled Studebaker Theatre.

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July 22 – A Broadway Romance – Broadway in Chicago – Pritzker Pavilion

July 28 – Aug. 5 – Bricklayers of Oz – Chicago Dance Crash – Ruth Page Center for the Arts

July 28 – Christoph Eschenbach – Mendelssohn Reformation – Ravinia Festival

 

Hamilton: Melody and Narrative

Just in time for Independence Day, I was able to see the musical about America’s founding fathers. I finally got to be in “the room where it happens” last weekend! Yes, I got to see the Broadway hit Hamilton.
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It was an exciting experience seeing a musical for the first time when you already know every song by heart. That hasn’t happened to me since maybe when I saw Wicked. As obsessed as I have been with the soundtrack, I felt able to focus my attention to other details of the show like the staging and incredible choreography. But knowing all the words did make changes stand out.
When you go to any concert or performance, you expect the artists on stage to elevate from the recorded version while maintaining the familiarity which made you interested in buying a ticket.  I had the impression that the Chicago production was trying very hard to tell the story of Hamilton: An American Musical quite closely to the original Broadway show.
One change that particularly stood out to me was a change of the word “narrative” to the word “melody.” Admittedly, a small linguistic difference that only effects maybe 6-7 lines. But it’s clear Lin-Manuel Miranda carefully considers his words just as he prolific muse Hamilton does.
Let’s track this change to understand its impact and why this choice was made.

This site creates visualizations based on the lyrics of Hamilton. Go down to the Explore their Stories section. Click on Legacy 12. It is amazingly effective at picking out the lines Eliza says about narrative in colored coded organization.

“Let me be a part of the narrative” – That Would be Enough

“I’m erasing myself from the narrative” – Burn

“I put myself back in the narrative” – Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

It feels like Eliza stands for the melody and Alexander the story. As she proclaims in Burn, “You and your words, obsessed with your legacy.”
Now the ligaments holding together the story are the music.

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From one perspective, in a musical that is comprised entirely of songs, melody is extremely important and an equal partner with words. On the other hand, in the real world, we don’t go around singing in cabinet meetings or regular conversations. Narrative and story are more important to understanding historical events than music. In this case, it feels like Eliza’s role becomes more superfluous. Instead of putting herself in a narrative, she puts herself in a melody that is fleeting.
Even in the former argument, what has been remarkable in this musical has been Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wordsmithing. There is no completely instrumental overture or interlude. In this musical, music is the background to words. The hierarchical relationship between Eliza and Alexander becomes more unequal with this switch in word choice.
It’s interesting where he musical decides to blur lines of social inequality and where it does not. It is incredibly refreshing to have a minority cast in a musical. But we all know it can’t be perfect and I think the development of the female characters in the show is masquerading as progressive. The number two googled query when you type “does Hamilton…” is “does Hamilton pass the Bechdel test.” And the answer is hmm not really… (see this blog post to read more or this article that has racked up a lot of comments)
Historically speaking, of course Eliza Hamilton took a “secondary” role to Alexander. The musical does give her the spotlight at the end showing her contributions to his legacy. (Read an interesting article about the role of women in Hamilton.) Through melody, Eliza’s story does get told (however sparingly).
Why the word melody?
With the above argument, the word music could have been an acceptable stand in. Perhaps melody was chosen because of its connection to other lines already in the musical.

Originally in “The World was Wide Enough”, there is the line “There is no beat, no melody.” There is no beat or accompanying music at this art of the song when the bullet is coming toward Hamilton and the musical replays in fragments like his life passing before his eyes. Here’s more about the inspiration for that scene:

The solution came to Miranda at almost the last moment, early in the morning on New Year’s Day. He was lying in bed, with his infant son sleeping on his chest, and [his wife] sleeping next to him. It was the quietest Miranda could remember his life being for a long time. Quiet, he thought. That was the one card he hadn’t yet played in “Hamilton.” What if he didn’t write any music at all? He took his dog out for a walk, leaving his headphones at home this time, occasionally stopping to scribble in a notebook. He stayed up working until five the next morning, hearing Hamilton’s final moments at last. -Rebecca Mead, New Yorker Meet the Hamiltons

After tracking the word melody from Eliza throughout the musical, it stood out to me as particularly poignant when Hamilton said “There is no beat, no melody.” The statement now gave the impression that he was thinking about Eliza and their life together.

Along this line, the Hamilton’s son, Philip, is shown always changing the melody when playing piano with his mother. With Philip, first we hear him change the melody without it explained by words. Then as he is dying Eliza says “You changed the melody every time.” The music shows us this example first and then the words do. If Eliza is the melody, Philip changes her.

Philip not only plays the piano, but he is also a self-proclaimed poet. He is also interested in writing rhymes. He is the perfect combination of the Hamiltons in his interest in both melody and words.

The choice to change the word narrative to melody may seem like a small decision, but it has some implications that effect Eliza Hamilton’s role as a woman and the relationship between the Hamiltons.


For my art project, I thought about the effect when you read lyrics and process both the words and the melody.  I find that when I read lyrics for a song I am familiar with it takes me about halfway through the sentence to switch from reading the words flat to singing them in my head. It takes a second to recognize the words from the song and then recall the melody.

I pulled quotes from famous songs and highlighted where in the song I switched from reading to singing internally. I wrote down about 15 lines, but these ones stood out the most.

It was easiest to identify when the longest syllable was later on in the phrase. Such as “I got chiiillllls,” the famous melody from Grease is elongated on the word chills, so the brain has time to switch to singing on that word. Also it was quicker when slang mirrors the way the words are uniquely articulated in the song. For example, “I got a feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night” is a very particular way of phrasing that sentiment that bring the Black Eyed Peas song to mind. If it was “I have a feeling that tonight will be a good night,” that would not make the song come as easily to mind.

In these cases, words and melody are inextricably linked if you know the song.

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At the bottom, I wrote out part of the rhythm for not throwing away my shot as sung in Hamilton. I morphed the notes into soldiers to connect the melody to the narrative of Hamilton. The staff easily lends itself to turn into an American flag.

We see lyrics from songs everywhere. After beginning this project, I started seeing them everywhere. Especially around patriotic songs, these songs are plentiful around the 4th of July and feel easier to recall than famous words spoken.

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Like this flag hanging outside my parents house this weekend. 

In Hamilton, George Washington’s final song, One Last Time, draws directly from Washington’s Farewell Address. Does that help us remember his words? For me, it makes them more accessible.

I love this performance that unites politicians with the historical One Last Time.

Political figures will also do the reverse and call on songs to create a feeling of cultural unity by quoting songs everyone knows.

One of the greatest speeches of all time, Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream speech, calls on biblical passages, patriotic songs, and spiritual songs to connect with the audience’s collective knowledge. Ending famously with:

“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

He quotes both “My Country Tis of Thee” and the spiritual “Free at last.” It is a historic masterpiece that intertwines words with song. His cadence of speech is memorable and those who hear the speech can easily recall phrases he uses by the way they sound.

As we celebrate Independence Day this year, it is important to look back on our American cultural memory. How do our narratives and melodies let every voice be heard? Where have we come from and how can we honor the past while building a better future for our country and all who live here?