Month: September 2015

Music for the Revolution

This week, Emily encourages you to take a break from your current Netflix binge so that you can share her excitement about a new Broadway musical.

Hercules Mulligan was a total badass. Angelica Schuyler was a brilliant socialite, writer, and proto-feminist. And the guy on the ten dollar bill? He was an extraordinarily ambitious, hot-headed idealist, determined to make his mark on his country.

The original cast recording of Hamilton is streaming on NPR’s First Listen, and my God it’s good.

Hamilton is, fundamentally, the story of the birth of a new nation. Beginning in 1776 with debates about the practicalities of colonial revolt and ending in 1804 not long after Thomas Jefferson is elected president, this is a musical about what it means to be an American. But this isn’t Schoolhouse Rock telling you about the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” No, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new hit musical has a fascinatingly specific perspective on Americanness, filtered through the very particular story of self-starter, political theorist, and ladies’ man, the eponymous Alexander Hamilton.

Tracing Hamilton through the Revolutionary War and the birth of federalism, up through his death in a duel in 1804, Hamilton becomes the story of one flawed, brash romantic, who’s willing to give his life for his nation — but who still manages to pick fights with just about all the other founding fathers.

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore / And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot / In the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor, / Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

With love triangles, resentments, battles, duels, powdered wigs, and some recognizable historical figures, it’s perhaps not surprising that someone decided to make the life of Alexander Hamilton into a musical. But what makes Hamilton so awesome isn’t just the facts of this one man’s wild life. It’s the energy of the show, the liveliness of the writing, and the political perspective that Miranda and his collaborators bring to this very twenty-first-century musical.

Hey yo, I’m just like my country, / I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, / And I’m not throwing away my shot.

Hamilton’s an extremely energetic and fast-paced show, drawing from contemporary hip hop, R&B, and pop music as well as Broadway and musical theater tradition. We totally still get traditional musical theater chorus numbers. (There’s a second act song that keeps reminding me of The Lion King’s “Be Prepared.”)

But we also get General Washington presenting rap as the evolution of the patter song. (He is, after all, the model of a modern major general.) And King George singing Britpop-esque break-up songs to the colonies. And congressional arguments about federalism being staged as rap battles. The music’s awesome, as is the writing. Everyone’s got fantastic lines, and while the tempo of the show does of course shift from song to song, the sense of dynamism and potential in this era of American history never really cools off. Hamilton is funny, smart, and genuinely excited about eighteenth-century America.

Ive been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine, / So men say that Im intense or Im insane. / You want a revolution, I want a revelation / So listen to my declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident / That all men are created equal, / And when I meet Thomas Jefferson / Imma compel him to include women in the sequel!

Also, this is a show that sets up a proto Mary Wollstonecraft being super awesome. Can you ask for anything more??

Hamilton is intensely aware of the political upheaval and idealism of the late eighteenth century, as America and France each tried to begin new nations, and disenfranchised peoples fought to let their voices be heard. And Miranda and his collaborators are only too aware of how the struggles of idealism versus pragmatism — of federalism versus states’ rights, of dominant voices versus the disenfranchised — are echoed by the tensions in contemporary American politics. So one of the fascinating and fantastic things that Hamilton does is cast actors of color in all the major American roles. (Jonathan Groff does play King George, but he’s over across the pond chewing scenery in a velvet and ermine cape.) Casting the founding fathers so that they match the demographic makeup of twenty-first-century America just highlights the idealism, the radicalism, and the powerful optimism of the men and women who created America in their image in the first place. As the (awesome) Marquis de Lafayette and the Caribbean-born Hamilton cheer when it looks like they’ll be able to win the Revolutionary War,

Immigrants! We get the job done.

It’s a gorgeous, catchy, energetic show about ambitious men and brilliant women and the new world that they are trying to create. It highlights the individualism, collaboration, and diversity at the heart of the American experience, even as it points out that America was practically founded on arguments about the nature of federal government and resentments within the two-party system. It resonates powerfully with modern American debates about women’s rights, immigrant rights, the representation of people of color, and the purpose of government.

But to be honest, the reason I’ve been listening to this show non-stop this week (when I probably should have been doing grad school things) is the intimate, vulnerable portrait of the two men at the center of this story: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

The opening number serves as a sort of Greek chorus, setting up the action of the play, with Burr lamenting near the end,

Me? Im the damn fool that shot him.

If you know anything about early American politics, chances are you know that Burr killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804. And Hamilton doesn’t remotely try to pretend that the death of Alexander Hamilton is going to be a surprise to its audience. Instead, it exploits the tragic potential of these two powerful, intelligent men who couldn’t get over their pride and resentment enough to work and live side by side. Throughout the musical, we trace the parallel — or perhaps intersecting — histories of Burr and Hamilton.

Neither man is perfect, but both men are good. And as they find themselves unable to reconcile their differences time and time again — as they find themselves drawn towards conflict and cynicism and disenchantment — Hamilton takes on a valence of tragedy. Early in Act Two, Hamilton imagines himself as Macbeth.

‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.’

I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy / Without my having to name the play. / They think me Macbeth, ambition is my folly. / I’m a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive pain. / Madison is Banquo, / Jefferson’s Macduff, / And Birnam Wood is Congress on its way to Dunsinane.

But this isn’t a play about the evil of ambition. It’s a play about the difficulty of governing and the clashes between cynicism and hope that define the experience of being in power. It’s a play about idealism and regret and what it means to become a nation. Hamilton’s not in Macbeth — if anything, he’s in Julius Caesar.

We have two tragic heroes in Hamilton and Burr. While Burr doesn’t die on stage, he hits the same beats of hamartia and anagnorisis as Hamilton does (if I can get all grad-school on you for a second). Burr and Hamilton both make tragic mistakes and come to recognize what they did wrong. This is what makes Hamilton so powerful: it humanizes both Hamilton himself and Aaron Burr. We get a story about men trying their hardest but still sometimes making bad decisions.

Hamilton isn’t a story about the awesomeness of federalism. (Although seriously. You’ll never have so many feelings about the Federalist Papers.) Nor is it a story about the charisma of Thomas Jefferson and the aforementioned badassery of Hercules Mulligan. (Despite the fact that I’ve totally been daydreaming about the hardcore awesomeness, sexiness, and radicalism of the founding fathers.) It’s a story about the importance and difficulty of forming a new nation. It’s about diversity and collaboration, and about individualism and ambition. It’s about why we write in the first place, and why we valorize certain historical moments. Hamilton is fundamentally a story about what it means to be American. And it’s completely amazing.

From my current home in the Midwest, I haven’t been able to see the show live, but I highly encourage any and all of you near New York to go see it immediately. For the rest of us, the cast recording is currently available as an NPR First Listen as well as being available for preorder wherever fabulous Broadway albums are sold. Please do listen!!

In the meantime, if you want to get a taste for the show, here’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton’s creator and star, performing an early version of the first number at a White House event back in 2009:

Happy listening!


Ten Reasons to Watch The Lizzie Bennet Diaries Right Now

This week, Emily realizes that its a bit silly that we havent already talked about the awesomeness that is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and she works to rectify that oversight.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a grad student in possession of a busy schedule must be in want of procrastination fodder. However much motivated the feelings or agenda-writing of such a student may be on her first starting off a Monday morning, sometimes you’ve just gotta take a break and go watch silly things on the internet.

…Well anyway, you get the idea. Everyone needs a break from being productive all the time. But you can only watch 30 Rock for so long before you start expecting all of your co-workers to become absurdist caricatures of themselves. So this week — in honor of the start of the school semester and the many many syllabi that will ask students to wrap their heads around the witty gloriousness of Elizabeth Bennet, the perfidious dastardliness of Mr. Wickham, and the complexities of property inheritance among the gentry and nouveau-riche in the English entail system — I’m going to recommend that you enjoy some of your upcoming hard-won free time by watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

Of course, that’s not to say that you should abandon your delightful autumnal afternoon plans of caramelizing apples and mulling cider and making your apartment smell gorgeous. But let’s take for granted that you’re going to take the time to get settled with your snack on a cozy fall day. What I’m suggesting is that, after you make said wonderful snack, you click over to Youtube and start watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

So why should you watch The Lizzie Bennet Diaries instead of re-watching Miss Fishers Murder Mysteries or North and South or any of the other wonderful things that we’ve recommended to you in the last year or so?

1. It’s a really long adaptation that takes advantage of its serialization to really get deep into the story. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is, as you probably guessed, an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. But this is a modern-day adaptation in which Lizzie Bennet, a 24-year-old grad student, vlogs about her life twice a week and posts her videos on the internet. (The in-story justification is that she’s doing some sort of project about web-based communication for a grad class.) In 100 two- to ten-minute episodes, Lizzie updates us about her life — as the events of Pride and Prejudice just happen to weave themselves around her. Because the story unfolds in approximately real time, we get to spend time with these characters, and we have time to explore their personalities, motivations, and flaws. (And, you know, their weird penchants for silly hats.)

2. The relationships between the Bennet sisters take center stage. When Lizzie tells the internet about her life week after week, we get to spend a lot of time with her and her sisters. The relationships between these women are absolutely the center of the show, and I’ve got to say that I love a story that recognizes that romance is awesome but that sister relationships are also fantastic, and interesting, and complex.

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3. Really, the series becomes a show about relationships between women. Austen’s novel is certainly preoccupied by the networks of female friendships in nineteenth-century England, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has a ball placing its female leads front and center. Honestly, it takes 25 episodes for a male actor to show up on screen: this is very much a story about young women growing up, figuring out their friendships, and (eventually maybe) falling in love.

4. There’s Costume Theater! So, the premise of the show is that Lizzie’s making web video blogs in her bedroom that loosely chronicle her life. Her best friend and sisters show up, because they’d be hanging out with her — or barging in on her — anyway. But the creators of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries had to figure out how to actually tell an interesting story while preserving the premise of the series. And this is where Costume Theater comes in: Lizzie co-opts Charlotte and her sisters to reenact events that she wants to complain, giggle, or otherwise inform the internet about. So we see her reenactments of the infamously awkward first encounter between Darcy and Lizzie and of her also infamously awkward run-ins with Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

5. Costume Theater is hysterical. Because is there anything better than watching Charlotte and Jane playing exaggerated versions of Caroline Bingley and Mr. Darcy?

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6. But it also ties in gorgeously with the themes of both Pride and Prejudice and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. As Lizzie reenacts scenes — and dresses herself and her “costars” up in stereotypical “costumes” to code who they’re playing — we become very aware of just how much we’re seeing events through Lizzie’s point of view. The conceit of the entire plot revolves around first impressions and prejudices and the way that mistaken judgements can cloud your attitude towards others. And in Costume Theater, we get to see Lizzie’s attitudes about people dramatized. It highlights Austen’s fascination with how easy it is to narrativize other people into easy roles in your story instead of recognizing their complexities.

7. Characters get space to be more complex — even more so than in the source material. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries does FANTASTIC things with the character of Lydia. In the book, Lydia is a silly, boy-crazy, 16-year-old who runs off with a guy and never seems to gain any awareness of consequences for herself or others. That’s not exactly the Lydia of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. And to that extent, this marks one of the series’s most notable departures from the source material. It’s a gorgeously well-considered departure, and I think that it’s an absolutely fascinating read on Lydia in a modern context. I don’t want to spoil exactly how her arc falls out but, suffice to say, it awesomely parallels Lizzie’s own developing maturation. And it’s a beautifully sad and wonderful story.


8. On that note, Mary Kate Wiles is stunningly good as Lydia.

9. Actually, for that matter, I adore a great number of the core cast. Ashley Clements as Lizzie definitely has the most to do, and she carries it off fabulously with just the right amount of silliness.

10. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a really smart update of Pride and Prejudice. It works through the power dynamics and relationships at the heart of Austen’s novel and thinks through updating them. But it’s also silly and funny and enjoyable.

This has got to be one of the smartest adaptations of a classic novel that I’ve seen in a long time. Also, it’s super long and binge-able, thus making it perfect procrastination fodder.

So please — give yourself a well-earned break and start watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. The bite-sized episode lengths make it a perfect way to reward yourself for checking things off your to-do list. (Or justifying binge-ing lots at once.)

Or, if you’ve already watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries more times than you can count, please enjoy the fabulousness that is honorary-patron-saint-of-TTLP Mallory Ortberg helping you figure out whether or not you are in a Jane Austen novel:

“A woman you hate is playing the pianoforte”

Happy Watching!