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Friday, November 27, 2015

November 27, 2015: Cultural Thanks-givings: Allegiance and Hamilton

[One of the best parts of being an AmericanStudier in 2015 is the abundance of impressive cultural works with which we’re surrounded. So for this year’s Thanksgiving series, I wanted to give thanks for five great works and artists about which I haven’t had the chance to write in this space. Share your own cultural thanks in comments, please!]
On what links and what differentiates two important new musicals.
I haven’t written a lot about American musicals and musical theater in this space, but when I have they’ve been socially progressive and significant ones: Zitkala-Sa and William Hanson’s Sun Dance Opera (1913); DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935); and Jonathan Larsen’s Rent (1996). Each of those works is complex and in need of more extended analysis, but all three, it’s fair to say, broke from their genres’ conventions and traditions to portray American identities and communities in groundbreaking and important ways. And what that would mean, to make the complementary point overtly, is that the conventions and traditions of American musical theater tend to be socially conservative (perhaps more so than many of our cultural forms), to feature on the stage identities and communities in ways that flatter our mainstream ideals rather than challenge, complicate, or broaden those narratives. Which is to say, what the Tom Shows did with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, turning a divisive and clearly activist work into a safe and stereotyping mainstream popular entertainment, could be read as a symptom of a much larger trend in American musical theater.
Whether or not that’s really been the case overall (and I welcome comments on other ways to read our musical theater histories!), the last few months have witnessed a couple very prominent steps in the more progressive direction. Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione’s Japanese Internment musical Allegiance, which debuted in San Diego in 2012, opened on Broadway in October, featuring George Takei (on whose experiences in an internment camp the musical is partly based) among its acclaimed cast. And in August, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Revolutionary War and Founding era musical Hamilton moved from its award-winning Off-Broadway run to Broadway, where it has continued and extended its popular and critical successes. Along with their shared attempts to bring American history to the stage, these two musicals also utilize casting to advance their progressive goals: Allegiance features a richly diverse group of Asian American actors (including the three leads from the San Diego debut) amidst its impressively multi-ethnic cast; while Hamilton has famously gone even further in the direction of diversity, casting all Hispanic and African American actors as its European American characters (including Miranda himself in the title role) and reserving the role of King George for its only white actor, Brian D’Arcy James. In who as well as what’s on the stage, both these new musicals are unquestionably changing the genre.
Yet in another way, the two musicals offer two quite distinct illustrations of the nature and politics of the musical as a cultural form. (To be clear, I haven’t had a chance to see either live yet, but have heard many of their songs and am also responding to numerous reviews of each. Again, I welcome further comments below!) The songs and musical numbers in Allegiance are consistently upbeat, and seem (both to this listener and to many reviewers) jarring alongside the much darker moments and settings through which the musical moves its characters. The rap and hip hop songs and numbers in Hamilton, on the other hand, align (counter-intuitively yet pitch-perfectly) with both the musical’s innovative casting and its portrayals of the Revolutionary and Founding figures and histories. That is, the music in Allegiance feels tied more to the musical genre’s conservative conventions, and thus at odds with the play’s progressive goals in ways that create a sense of dissonance; while Hamilton’s more radical musical choices parallel its progressiveness and create a sense of artistic as well as political coherence. I’m thankful that both these musicals are on the stage in 2015, but am especially thankful for the thoroughly innovative brilliance that is Hamilton.
November Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Cultural thanks-givings you’d share?

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