March 23, 2018

In defence of Musical Theatre as a modern creative platform

Musical theatre. Two words which, when combined, usually create either a swelling of lightness in the chest or else a rising of acid in the throat. MT suffers an enduringly bad rap due to a snobbishness perpetuated in our culture about the likelihood and reality of characters bursting into song and/or dance when the emotion (or the stage direction) demands it. I’ve known and loved many a man, colleague, journalist, stranger on the Tube and ingrate at a party, who indulge in smacking down the artform – usually to provoke a response – while smirking into a tepid Chablis.

As a hoofer myself, I take the defence of musical theatre intensely seriously. Dramatists bemoan its triviality while the opera world is happy to ridicule its lack of musical merit. Society in general is quick to dismiss it as juvenile or tacky. The grand dame of the West End, Lord Lloyd-Webber, is potentially responsible for this after decades of mixed and matched repertoire that haven’t changed much since the seventies, but his commercial successes (Phantom of the Opera) have also given way to disasters of taste and tact (again, Phantom of the Opera). Every generation has a moment or movement across culture that they can claim as their own, whether it be punk or pop art. Similarly every ten years a musical comes along that speaks to (and for) the hunger of the audience. In the nineties it was RENT, for the noughties it was Wicked, and for this generation it happens to take shape from a complicated, dusty history that incorporates the siege of Yorktown and the protest of the Boston Tea Party.

The original London cast of Hamilton with Jamael Westman, centre, in titular role

This Saturday, I saw Hamilton. A piece about the first US Treasury Secretary, otherwise known as the dude on the ten dollar bill. A show which was originally intended to be a concept album, performed at the White House three years ago (this week!) under the Obama administration. Since then, it has won an unheard-of eleven Tony Awards and is up for a record-breaking thirteen Oliviers this summer. I waited a feverish two years and eight months to be able to even buy my ticket (in January 2017) and fourteen blistering months later, the day came. But enough numbers – with great hype comes great responsibility, So what’s all the fuss about? Put simply – it’s thematically a bit like Les Mis but with significantly less Hugh Jackman.

In our industry we know that the power and regulation of social media can cause great movements, especially as a marketing tool. But with 9 out of 10 major productions following similar blueprints creating buzz, this show isn’t here to prove any different. Hamilton establishes itself beyond social media and press reports because the entire piece – from scenography to score – completely changes the form. To paraphrase one of the songs, it’s both revolution and revelation.

 WhatsOnStage called it ‘a beacon of hope’. Like most thespy types I am guilty of hyperbole, but if you ask me, Hamilton is one pudding that doesn’t need over-egging. For me, Hamilton is a vehicle for composer Lin-Manuel Miranda to give lyrical deity Stephen Sondheim a run for his money. Littered with unbearably clever and witty lyrics that far surpass poetry and their roots in rap, Hamilton commentates American history with a perspective dripping in verve and pathos. Single lines in the score make you want to jump on your seat and roar like a gospel chorister (my date managed to sedate me. Briefly.) Case in point, the line “immigrants – we get the job done” gets a round of applause every night on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s enough to make Mr Trump quake in his toupee.

At Unity, our inherent belief is that people are the most powerful media channel on earth, and when properly engaged can deliver incredible things for brand and business. The Hamilton audience are the epitome of fan engagement so what sets it apart from its more established West End competitors?

Cheap seats. Or, practically on stage, whatever

It’s feminist. Angelica Schuyler practically demands of the audience that women are included in the sequel to the Declaration of Independence. It’s radical. The mere act of casting America’s founding fathers as non-white men and telling their story in a genre that is principally (though not exclusively) hip hop, has essentially not been done before. It does what few London productions do, dismissing the Rent-A-Star mechanic and placing even recent graduates in both lead and ensemble roles. Twenty-five year old Jamael Westman finished at RADA about five minutes ago, and the eponymous role is his second professional credit – EVER. Employing unknowns is something even the lionised National Theatre isn’t fully taking responsibility for: they would be wise to learn fast that there are more actors than just Rory Kinnear. It’s oddly familiar, full of hip hop Easter eggs from Grandmaster Flash to Biggie Smalls to Gilbert & Sullivan (yep – seriously). Its choreography nods to other icons of the game from Bob Fosse to Fred Astaire to Michael Jackson.

It’s also political. Hardly coincidental that Miranda’s inaugural invite to Washington came from then-President Obama in 2009, the year he came to office. Hillary Rodham Clinton references the show several times in her book What Happened. It’s also no coincidence that just days after Trump came to power, incoming VP Mike Pence’s visit to the show on Broadway was met with boos from the audience and an open letter by the cast – from the stage – for tolerance and inclusivity. While I don’t ever condone illegal filming in the theatre, the stunt was recorded on an iPhone and currently holds 524,954 views on YouTube (it’s glorious, you can watch it here)

Musical theatre. Like it or loathe it, it’s not going anywhere. The plot, the dramaturgy and the score of Hamilton is overflowing with complexities and nuance that has its sold out audiences (until December 2018, currently) ravenously rebooking for another bite of the cherry, clamouring to watch one of the most relatable performances of our – and all – time.

Now I’ll drop the mic before anyone asks for my opinion on La La Land.

By Aggie Holland, Account Executive and performer at BROS Theatre Company