Could Musical Theatre Help Fix the World?

With the cultural phenomenon that is Hamilton opening in London this December to sold-out audiences, Intersections asks why musical theatre remains overlooked as an art form and catalyst for social change

Feature by Rae Glasman | 15 Nov 2017
  • Hamilton

I love musical theatre. I’m one of those people. I could sing you the entire West Side Story score solo, including the duets. I harass my boyfriend into watching the old classics with me and then feel smug for the rest of the year when he even marginally enjoys himself. I triumphantly lift my cat in the air to Circle of Life at least bi-quarterly. I wrote my dissertation on Fiddler on the Roof.

So the minute I caught a whiff of Hamilton – a hip-hop musical set during America’s revolutionary years –  blowing across the Atlantic, I was all over it. A few days in and I’d already listened to the whole soundtrack too many times to admit. I became one of a tidal wave of fans pushing the show to ridiculous levels of success, watching it hoover up 11 Tony awards and making the creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a very rich man indeed.

It’s a little over two years since it was first performed, and the show has already spread from its sold-out Broadway home, onto Chicago, then on a US tour, and finally to London. The curtain goes up on the West End debut in December, and tickets are almost impossible to obtain. That is, unless you, like me, spent an hour hunched over the refresh key praying to catch a couple of seats for a matinee performance in 2018.

And that’s all the more remarkable for the fact that Hamilton is literally a play about dead guys arguing about constitutions and financial policy. Okay, fine, there is a revolutionary war, a couple of tense gun duels and a pretty seductive love triangle, but ultimately the subject matter wouldn’t be out of place on an A Level History paper. It’s the last story you’d expect to find set to a hip-hop and R’n’B soundtrack. But somehow, it works. It’s witty, catchy, and by Act II it feels totally natural that the founding fathers of the USA would conduct their congressional debates in the form of a rap battle.

But Hamilton isn’t a sensation just because it’s a damn good musical – there’s way more to it than that. It’s an example of how powerful the popular musical can be when it comes to reflecting and commenting on real social issues.

The Musical Theatre Myth

Musical theatre isn’t just frivolity and glitter. Rent tackled the AIDS crisis. Anti-Vietnam War protesters adopted many of the tunes from Hair as their anthems. Chicago explored what happens when the media interferes with the course of justice (relevant enough today). Cabaret is about the rise of Nazism. These are not light-hearted topics. And in these musicals – and so many others like them – those topics are discussed in a way that, unlike a lot of straight theatre, the audience doesn’t need a tertiary education to understand. So why do we continue to regard musical theatre as tacky – fun for an evening, but not worth mulling over for longer?

That myth trickles into academia, too. Though those responsible for my English Literature undergrad syllabus couldn’t get enough of medieval hymns and Reformation operas, any musical written in the last century was apparently unworthy of mention. When I proposed that Fiddler on the Roof essay, my supervisor reacted with nothing but a blank stare and a dubious: ‘…OK.’ Musical theatre may be one of the most well-loved genres in the world, but the academic canon clearly isn’t up to speed.

I’ve got a couple of theories about why this is. First of all, musical theatre is mostly enjoyed by women and gay men. You wouldn’t describe it as the realm of the straight male. I can’t help but think, if it was, it might be taken a bit more seriously. The kind of stuff that is predominantly written for female audiences – chick flicks,  romance novels and the like – are often considered lesser forms of art. That attitude goes all the way back to the days when Jane Austen, the Bank of England's new £10 gal, was encouraged to write novels as opposed to poetry or plays, because novels were full of airy-fairy girly stuff and easy in comparison. On the other side of this equation, rampant homophobia and the marginalising of anything enjoyed or created by minority groups plays its insidious part in diminishing musical theatre’s respectability rating.

The second reason: musical theatre is accessible. Loved by the hoi polloi. The lowest common denominator. And, according to old men in tweed jackets, the bigger the crowd of fans, the more vapid the content. It’s why you still get people finding excuses to shit on Harry Potter despite it being one of the most widely read series of books since the Bible, and countless examples of revolutionary modern musicians being dismissed simply as ‘pop stars’. But how exactly do the gigantic audiences of Hamilton and Harry Potter differ from those of Dickens and Shakespeare? That’s the mystery.

A beacon in a troubled world

Hamilton came along at the end of the Obama age, when things seemed to be going swimmingly in the Free World. Now that everything’s gone to absolute shit, the show and its creator have become major players in the anti-Trump resistance. Protesters at the women’s marches back in January held golden signs emblazoned with the Hamilton quote: ‘History has its eyes on you!’ Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tweet telling the commander-in-chief to go to hell on the ‘fastest golf cart you ever took’ got more than 300,000 likes. All over the internet, it’s inspired memes and fan-art and inspirational posts that cheer for diversity, representation, and tolerance. The show even got an ‘overrated’ stamp from Trump himself, which is really the highest accolade it could have achieved.

And why has Hamilton gained this status as a liberal beacon in dark times? It’s done one simple thing: acknowledged that history isn’t all about white dudes. In a country that’s so obsessed with its origins that it carved its founders’ faces into the side of a mountain, the story of Hamilton carries a lot of cultural weight. Taking almost biblical-status figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, giving them an R’n’B libretto and casting black actors in their roles is a powerful statement to make. Sure, Alexander Hamilton was white, and so were most of the other people the show’s characters are based on, but this story isn’t really about them. It’s about who gets to talk through and for them, about who gets to pick and choose which version of history is the right version. Hamilton takes back control over the past, and gives the reins to Americans who’ve always been overlooked and ignored.

With that in mind, I implore you to whip open Spotify and stick on the soundtrack.  It’s free to listen to. You’re losing nothing. Listen to it from the very beginning, in its intended order. Listen to Lin-Manuel’s genius lyricism and masterful internal rhymes. Notice the beautifully crafted characters brought back to full-bodied life after 300 years of lying dead in textbooks. Learn something about American history. Don’t immediately disregard it because the poetry is set to a rap or a tune, or because the musical style is unfamiliar to you. Give it the same attention you’d hope a novice might devote to getting into Mozart or Chekhov. You just might hook into the zeitgeist and discover a piece of art that’s relevant to the here and now.