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?

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

Seeing Eye to iPhone

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Before Turkey Day, I went to another Thursday event at the Harris Theater, Mix at Six featuring Lucky Plush Productions.

The Mix at Six structure is interesting. Affordable, short performances on a weeknight so people can attend after work at 6pm. They build enthusiasm for the artist’s other full length performances at the Harris Theater.

A social event for young, hip artistic types that otherwise don’t have plans on a Thursday. It’s a smart move to increase audience awareness, but are there some flaws? But what about people who don’t work in the loop? Is the concept popular?

Seats were general admission, which would make it easy to invite friends at the last minute with tickets only $10 at the door. But, everyone at the performance fit on the orchestra level. Considering there are 3 balconies, it certainly wasn’t a full house.

I’m in full support of low ticket cost and promoting theatrical events to make them more accessible to the community. Mix at Six is an excellent test case to see what this type of series could do for a community. I think much smaller scale cities would see brilliant results from this type of program with not a lot of competition for a Thursday night slot. I’m curious to see what it looks like as the series continues.

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Lucky Plush Productions seemed to be a great fit for the evening as well. I’ve wanted to see them perform for a while and admire their mission to create “work that is richly complex while also being broadly accessible.” It’s a challenge to strike that balance, which makes the troop especially intriguing in my mind.

Their work has a delightful fusions of dance with theatrical, comedic story arcs. I was impressed with the honesty of the performance.

Especially the second number, struck me as an inventively realistic critique of reality tv. A part that really stuck with me was one of the performers dancing with her phone between her ear and her shoulder all while carrying on a conversation.

We are drawn to watching one another in “real” form on tv and on stage. This is essential to performing arts, but also eery with technology observing our every move. Even the first piece “The Queue” set in an airport also had awareness of being watched as inherently important.

Lucky Plush reminds us that the performing arts are about being watched. And in our world full of technology, it’s trickier to define what it means to watch or be a consumer of performing arts. And they do so with an affable sense of humor mixed with a critical eye to deliver very entertaining work.

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I’m a fan of this Lucky Plush clip from “Punk Yankees” in 2012    Watch it!

The pervasiveness of technology is used a lot as a theme these days. We are both drawn in and creeped out by all that the capability of the technology we use everyday. Especially for the arts, artists can use technology to help create/stage their work (youtube, garageband, vine etc.), but art can’t be done without humans at all. Different from the work of engineers, artists can’t be replaced by computers because their work is inherently humanistic. And that’s the important part.

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I drew on this theme of technology and the ever watching eye. I recreated the iphone with signature background as a pencil drawing. We spend so much time staring at our phones like little zombies. I thought, what if the phone looked back at us? (…besides from the obviously creepy “periscope”-esque camera functions). So I added a subtle face in the stars peering back at the viewer.-

How much art is around us everyday that we don’t really see? How much art could there be around us if we were just looking in the right ways?

Lucky Plush shows the beauty, the humor and the poignancy of real life. When we engage with the world around us, art can be anywhere from an airport to the cell-phone in our pocket. Mark your calendar for their show Trip the Light Fantastic: The Making of SuperStrip at the Harris Theater on March 3!

Roots of Our Ancestors

Is it possible to escape the mistakes of past generations?

Opening night of Steppenwolf’s East of Eden started with a surge of emotional depth.

Can Steppenwolf escape from its past generations?

There’s been a lot of hype for this performance. Steppenwolf has a famed history with adapting Steinbeck novels and East of Eden is adapted by Frank Galati who adapted Grapes of Wrath for the Steppenwolf stage and directed by fellow ensemble member (and actor in Grapes of Wrath) Terry Kinney who also directed Of Mice and Men (acted by Gary Sinise and John Malkovich who went on to play the lead roles in the 1992 movie adaptation). This production emerged from an illustrious lineage.

There is also a beautiful color ad campaign that I know I have seen everywhere from buses, trains, to the side of my facebook page.

A lot of stops were pulled out for this show.

I’ll start by saying the two intermissions were definitely necessary. An emotional tour de force.

The first act started playfully introducing themes of Eden with Francis Guinan connecting with the audience as Sam Hamilton. Genesis underlies the play. We are all descedents of Adam and Eve and worse, Cain. When give the choice to sin, do we follow in the footsteps of our forebearers or can we escape?

Each intermission, we jump ahead years and see the evolution of the Trask family play out. The pain they cause each other tears at the audience and the line between good and evil blurs. With a family history built on pain and deception, how can the Trask brothers avoid the seemingly inescapable

Time will tell if it will live up to the legacy of Steppenwolf’s past Steinbeck classics.

Can America escape from past generations racial segregation?

Race relations (or sometimes lack there of) were touched on effectively in this adaptation. The character Lee was the Trask family’s Chinese-American servant/mentor. Stephen Park made the character dynamic and likeable while delving into the complications of racial diversity in America that resonated with today’s audience. Lee pretends with guests to not speak English and puts on an over-emphasized Chinese cultural front. But he is relaxed and himself when alone with the Trask family. It was a little shocking to see attitudes about race with one Asian character from the guests and then the Trask family and how his character dealt with the world around him. Lee seemed inducted as an honorary (almost adopted) family member, but we saw him as one of pure goodness unwarying amidst  the horrors of the others. One racial slur uttered toward Lee by Kate Arrington’s soulless character Cathy, elicited gasps of shocked horror.

Racial segregation is alive and well today. In fact, as the city of Chicago, we’re #1.

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Census Race Dot Map

East of Eden was set 1900-1918. Which feels like a long time to us, but 100 years. We’ve both come a long way and are still stalled by the sins of the past. The scars of past take time to heal and social practices become embedded in groups. What will happen to the segregation in Chicago neighborhoods? What can we do to share experiences across neighborhood and across race?

Can art escape its own past?

I drew a case study with the image of a tree, the main set piece for East of Eden. The image varies in each frame, each iteration holds onto some of the qualities of the previous, but slightly more faded or distorted. The symbol of tree represents a family tree branching out and also “deeply rooted” beliefs at the foundation. Similarly, race relations are deeply rooted in the neighborhood culture of our neighborhoods in Chicago. But the tree can grow, change and adapt.

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I started in the upper right hand corner, then the upper left I drew with my non-dominant hand, bottom left I drew with my eyes closed and bottom right I drew with the pen in my mouth. These techniques deteriorated the image until it was basically illegible. That was when I thought to add leaves. I created a stamp with a pencil eraser and put on the leaves in each frame. The leaves reinforce that is it is still a tree, but remind us that leafy trees transform throughout their leaves with the seasons. A tree is still a tree, it still has leaves, therefore, it has the ability to change.

Each tree has the power to change itself and to change its species over time. What about our species? In what ways are we actually capable of change?

In art-making, does “stealing” from or referencing other art works count as being original? Is it possible that we could cease creating original art work? Or even perhaps, is it possible to even create a fully new, completely original art work that would be understood by an audience? As I see it, progress evolves. Artistically and socially we must continue to take steps forward, but we can’t do that without having a foot behind; we evolve from the past to make progress for the future.

Go see East of Eden now until Nov. 15!