Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Sung-Through ... Book? (in defense of Hamilton, as if Hamilton needs my defense)

I've had several friends reach out to me recently to ask me to explain why Hamilton is up for Best Book of a Musical. There's literally only one scene with dialogue - the rest is sung- (or rapped-) through. Even New York Times critic Charles Isherwood (who really should know better - this is his field) said as much on May 3rd:
I do find it slightly puzzling that it was nominated in the book of a musical category, since the show is almost sung-through, but it's the kind of juggernaut that we haven't seen in years.
Suddenly my impatience with past Tony telecasts with presenters pedantically explained what is the book of a musical seems poorly directed. It's time to check my premises - not everyone is the same level of nerd as me.

So let's look at this.

We'll start with the God of Broadway, Stephen Sondheim, who not only frequently writes letters to the editor, defending his bookwriting collaborators, whenever a show he's written is credited only to him, but highlights frequently in his companion books Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat whenever a song or number sprang forth from a full-drafted scene written by his collaborator.

So we all know the book is the dialogue. Okay. But it's not just the dialogue. And this becomes patently clear when dealing with a sung-through musical like Hamilton (or really, any of the Lloyd Webber/Rice musicals).

Walking back to February 1st, 2015, the fateful day when I got to see Hamilton for the first time because my friend Lauren is incredibly prescient: One of the (many) emotions I felt while watching the show, particularly its first fifteen minutes, was such pride in how much Lin-Manuel Miranda has grown as a writer since his In the Heights days. I said as much in my review, but to recap, ItH is a lot of fun, but it's more a collection of characters, a community, than a driving narrative. Hamilton's drive is evident from the moment the second song begins, and continues on for nearly three hours - efficient, crisp, and compelling.

Yeah, but they're still songs. He wrote a bunch of songs that tell a story. Where's the book?

The book is the structure, the shape, the spine and muscle of the show. The book is building character and arcs, even if they're illustrated in song, in music or lyric motifs. The book is the theme and the mission, and the reason the story is being told. The book is the story of tonight (I really tried not to do that).

The book is the reason Hamilton isn't a mixtape.

In Hamilton, the book is Lafayette's transformation from stumbling between two languages to the fastest raps in the show.

It's pivoting Burr as the man who waits against Hamilton, the man who can never wait.

It's having Burr narrate Hamilton's life in the first place (it's also having the ensemble double as storytellers).

It's loading Chekhov's gun by placing "Ten Duel Commandments" midway through Act One, setting up the rules and formalities of dueling, returning to them in Act Two with "Blow Us All Away," and - because the Rule of Three is important - recognizing that when that music returns for the climactic duel, everyone present knows the way the game is played.

It's having Hamilton meet Laurens, Lafayette, and Hercules Mulligan all at once in a pub, or having Madison, Jefferson, and Burr blackmail Hamilton about James Reynolds, rather than the truth as presented in Ron Chernow's biography.

It's coherent narrative built out of messy fact. It's condensation for maximum impact and emotional truth.

The book of Hamilton is a massive achievement, and - perhaps even more so than the score - the thing Lin-Manuel Miranda should be recognized for. We wouldn't care if the story weren't worth caring about.

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