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?

Chicago’s Nutcracker

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photo by Cheryl Mann

The Joffrey Ballet’s new presentation of The Nutcracker came in with a flash, but fully demonstrated its intention to become a fixture in the Chicago performing arts scene. Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, the production will run until December 30.

I appreciated the connection to Chicago with the production taking place during the construction for World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. It’s a musicologist and dramturg’s dream. Continue reading

What is Artistic Quality? On Dog Art, One Minute Plays, and The Musical of a Generation

 

Rent was a huge component of what got me interested in adaptation. La Boheme turned 90’s Aids Crisis, how did Jonathan Larson, musical wizard, create this masterpiece?!? That sincerely spoke to me when I was in high-school, full of angsty and artistic dreams.

But there are moments of the story that can come across as heavy-handed or cliche. It’s not perfect. A 1996 reviewer for the New York Times states it well as “one forgives the show’s intermittent lapses into awkwardness or cliche because of its overwhelming emotional sincerity.”

This staging of RENT at Theo Oubique had a stunning balance of pluck and intimacy. It was an incredible set for the performance and the artists made the audience feel as if they were another member of the circle of friends.
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This staging made the elements that are still relevant today shine.  Continue reading

Inside, Outside

I scanned my book shelf looking for something that was a classic and had some artistic depth. I ended up pulling out Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”…

Good news friends, I’m starting a new page to stage project! I’m adapting classic literature into musical pieces. There is more that can be explored in the relationship between music and writing than just song lyrics. I intend to replicate moods, tones, structures, characters of great works of literature through music alone.

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BUT in my process of digging up research for exploring music related to “A Doll’s House,” Continue reading

What Makes Cinderella (Cinde)Really?

With a vibrantly modern look, Cinderella brought humor and light-heartedness to the Lyric Opera stage. I was enthusiastic for the magic of the performance, but left thinking a lot about adaptation.

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Rossini’s Opera hits the major plot points of Cinderella, with some slight changes from the story I was most familiar with. The stepmother is a stepfather, the shoe is a bracelet, and we didn’t get the payout of a grand ball, just a fancy intimate dinner.

As for the show itself, Lawrence Brownlee stole the show as the prince. The chemistry between him and Isabel Leonard was sweet and endearing. But when he sang the big aria in Act II, “Si, ritrovarla io giuro,” it brought the house down. In the scene, he gets into the set piece of a carriage that flipped over from the panels of the courtyard set. He came around the back and popped out the window of the carriage to a grand finish. This moment was the climax of the show for me. The right amount of flash, surprise and emotional longing. (These were things that were somewhat lacking with the simplicity of the staging, it felt like Brownlee put the production on his back and lifted it up at this point).

Here’s a great video of Brownlee singing “Si, ritrovarla io giuro” in 2009. The way he sings the ornamentation is so rich and full, and even more impressive in real life.

From the LA Opera production

Same Carriage set from the LA Opera production

But what is Cinderella in Opera, really? 

I also got my butt up early two weekends ago to commute down to Humanities Day at my alma mater, UChicago. (Luckily there was plenty of coffee and interesting ideas flying around)

The keynote speaker for the day was David Levin who aptly discussed opera in modern life. He used the example of an interpretation of Strauss’ Elektra (Zurich, 2005). We’re developing a new vocabulary for opera with today’s technology that shies away from “blanket celebration or denunciation.”

The format of how opera is being consumed is changing with technology, the MET streaming in movie theaters around the country, home dvds, pbs, youtube. Not to mention all the competition with Netflix etc., to get people in theaters to see Opera is somewhat of a feat.

The Lyric Opera modernized the stage design and costuming. The masks on the mice were nice and the way the carriage was portrayed through the set and then again as a miniature added a dynamic element to the production. But other than that, it was just Cinderella.

Cinderella is a name that people are familiar with. And a Rossini comedy, great! People will buy tickets for it based on name alone. But if there’s one thing we can agree upon, our gut reaction is that Elektra has much more potential emotionally and psychosocially than Cinderella based on libretto alone.

Some stories are better than others. And some stories sell better than others. 

Cinderella tonight!! Excited for opera and royal love! 👠💎👑💃@lyricopera #cinderella #fairytale #opera #music

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But how do we really see Cinderella?

Barbara Herrnstein Smith has some things to say about the narrative form of Cinderella and its variations in her “Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories.” We use the term “Cinderella Story” loosely from Superbowl wins, to a happy children’s book. Hernstein-Smith argues that “no narrative can be independent of a particular teller and occasion of telling” which is why Cinderella is a perfect example because it is a story that is an abstraction without one root story of origin that adaptations follow, but rather, many unique interpretations that share qualities. Performing arts performance is unique because each staging is a different telling for a different audience.

How does this translate visually? Visual signifiers are something I’ve been thinking a lot about with Halloween! How do you minimally signify you are dressed as a character? A good example of this is, if I were to dress as Taylor Swift, what would be required for me to pull it off? Likely, blonde hair. But in her latest music video for wildest dreams, she is brunette. We still know this is Taylor Swift without her signature hair color. That’s because of her face, her voice, lots of other signifiers that make it immediately obvious. But if I was to dress as Taylor swift in wildest dreams, without the blonde hair, you would have no idea who I was supposed to be. If I was to dress up as a princess and wear a blue dress, I think it’s likely people would guess Cinderella right away. If I dressed up as Cinderella in her rag look, people would know. But say I wore a pink dress, would the first guess be Cinderella? That’s how ingrained in our minds Hollywood has cemented this simplistic image. What about things we can’t control as much, hair color, skin color? How far are we willing to recognize that a character is Cinderella?

In pop culture, it’s interesting how Disney seems to have completely taken over our perception of Cinderella.

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To interpret this adaptation, I decided to make my own display with standing paper doll cut-outs of Cinderella. Paper dolls were kind of passe at the turn of the century, though they were more widely used in teaching magazines (read about paper doll history). I think these types of paper displays go a long way in educational settings. They are visual and kinesthetic and develop story with spacial reasoning.

I wondered what characters in different interpretations of Cinderella looked like and what would appear when compared to each other.  I cut out pictures of Cinderella and the prince from different western interpretations of the story, Disney Cinderella, Rogers and Hammerstein Cinderella, “La Cenerentola” by the lyric opera  and by the MET in 2014.

mixed couples

The people playing the characters are of different ages and races. I expected great differences in style, but all the adaptations had a bluish white ball gown. Considering all the interpretations took place after the Disney movie, this can’t be a coincidence. That is how we picture the Cinderella look, it’s what registers for us when someone says Cinderella.
The costume director for the Disney live-action remake this year, Sandy Powell had some comments on her choice of the blue dress. “I then went through every other color and then I thought well it could be white, but, no it can’t be that because we have a wedding scene to do later and that really should really be the light colored dress. After that I kind of got a bit stuck on thinking green would be wrong, yellow would be wrong, red would be wrong.  I came back to blue because it actually is the most attractive color and it just seemed appropriate.  Then of course it went back to the fact that the original one is blue.  And then once I’ve come to that conclusion I realized there’s no way in the world I could have made it any color other than blue because it just is.  Cinderella’s ball gown is blue.  And I think there would have been like millions of little girls around the world like horribly disappointed or telling me I’ve done it wrong.” (Read more)
Why has this element become so quintessential for our vision of Cinderella today? A classic story with so many variations, yet after the Disney movie, we are almost unwavering that the one thing that makes Cinderella cinderella visually, is a big blue ball gown. Out of all of the possibilities for adaptations of Cinderella, there are many exciting interesting options that satisfy the telling to audiences today, but one surprising detail that we passionately resound with is that dress.
Low and behold,  "the dress" is actually white!

Low and behold, “the dress” is actually white!

Cinderella closed last week, but the Lyric has a lot of other programs this season! I’m particularly excited for Romeo and Juliet, another frequently adapted tale. Check that out this February and March! We’ll see what is essential in making Romeo and Juliet.

Reigniting the Fire(bird)

I’m still in awe of the Chicago Sinfonietta’s 2015-16 season launching program “Tap in. Turn Up.” The performance featured Clinard Dance Theater’s Wendy Clinard and Tap Master Cartier Williams layering rhythmic dance to the symphonic texture.

Wendy Flood Clinard

Wendy Clinard was simply divine. Her every move award-winning photograph worthy. In her solo, she struck beautiful poses that layered intensity to the music. Movement and sound struck a balance in her work.

Cartier Williams’ Firebird adaptation brought down the house and roused a standing ovation (which was not even the last performance before intermission!).

He came on the stage with arms flapping and giggles circulated through the audience. He must be making some literal mockery of Firebird. But after several minutes of repeating the flapping gesture and elaborating upon it, the audience saw more clearly that movement was in bold reference not in gest. It reminded me of Michel Fokine’s (also main contributor to Firebird) famous choreography for Saint-Saens’  Dying Swan. Williams seemed to be referring to the ballet tradition of Firebird through this winged movement. For the whole opening sequence, he moved swiftly without even tapping.

For the infernal dance movement, he erupted. Tapping almost unfathomably quickly, hitting syncopations with ease. His technique and focus were stunning. His rhythms sounded derived from the percussion score (signature Stravinsky, notoriously unnatural in complexity), but added something more. Accentuated the rhythmic elements and turned them to something visual.

Elements came back that he incorporated in the beginning and throughout the piece in a flurry in the Finale. Recapping and going beyond. (sometimes literally as at one point he jumped off the stage into the audience): There was one moment in the Finale that really got me. When he transitioned from pull backs to pop up to a beautiful arabesque, reality was suspended.

Tap in
He adapted The Firebird by drawing on its history, but reinventing it in his characteristic style.
While watching the performance, I couldn’t help but think, this will forever change the way we think about Firebird and I really hope there is a video, A) because I want to watch it over and over again and B) because this evolution should be documented and shared.
Music and Dance found new harmony on this evening. It was an inspiration to watch The collaboration exhibited in this performance also resembles the history of The Firebird‘s conception. Diagliev and the Ballets Russes set out to commission a piece of music. The story combines the mythical Firebird with the tale of Koschei the Deathless. When completed, the ballet fused together story, dance and music.

 Art can thrive and come alive for us in new light when interdisciplinary connections are made. Adapting The Firebird through different mediums is a challenge that has captivated many.
Like Disney in Fantasia 2000. Animated along to the Firebird Suite, the Fantasia version of the story tells of a “spring sprite” through the forest. A fire explodes and then the forest is reborn. Animation, meets music, meets story.
For my piece, I adapted the characters of The Beautiful Tsarevna, The Firebird, and Koschei as a cast of could be punk high school kids. Then I overlayed their transformation into the characters of the ballet using a clear sheet (..and whole of lot sparkles). They can forever flip between their alter egos.
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As an extension, the transformation of the characters from everyday to magical resembles the transformation art undergoes when seen through the filter of another art form.
Collaborating on adaptation is not always an easy feat, but when art overlaps, shared qualities between forms reveal shared qualities among ourselves. We are multipulous human beings as artists and audience members and when our many interests combine, we can find commonality and push existing forms further.