[September 12th marked the 150th anniversary of the first performance of The Black Crook, generally considered the first stage musical (although opinions vary). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy both Crook and other exemplary stage musicals—and will ask you to share your solos and choruses for a crowd-pleasing weekend post that’s sure to garner a standing O!]
On what links and what differentiates two important recent musicals.
Before this week’s series, I hadn’t written a lot about American musicals and musical theater in this space, but when I did I tended to focus on socially progressive and culturally significant texts: Zitkala-Sa and William Hanson’s Sun Dance Opera (1913), for one example; DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), for another. Each of those works is complex and in need of more extended analysis, but both, 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 year has 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 2015, featuring George Takei (on whose experiences in an internment camp the musical is partly based) among its acclaimed cast. And in August 2015, 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 initial run of 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 challenging and 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 2016, but am especially thankful for the thoroughly innovative brilliance that is Hamilton.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one last time: what do you think? Other musicals you’d highlight and analyze?
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