This lucky writer of plays, poems, and novels got to see the spectacularly innovative musical theater that is Hamilton. Having listened to the recording at least ten times, watched every Youtube clip of the musical numbers at least five times each, I could have rapped or sung along with many of the numbers. Yet in many ways, I was unprepared for the play itself, its drama and intensity, its organization of themes and events.
So in one performance — probably the only one I’ll get to see for a long time — I had a lot to learn, and I had to learn it on the fly.
The biggest surprise — immediately — was the near absence of non-rap dialogue. The story proceeded by one after another spectacular number — the kind that usually begins and ends a show. And each number, or many, were highly narrative. There was in-the-moment action, of course, but a lot of character-as-his-own-narrator speeches, delivered in rap, fast or slow, but almost always rhythmic. So there was a stylization in every scene, every song, that reminded me of Shakespearean speeches, with a kind of formal structure you don’t see in musical plays, unless it’s Shakespeare or opera. Rap, after all, is a form of poetry, and so the comparison to Shakespeare’s rhythmic and often rhymed lines isn’t surprising, after all.
My second surprise was the pacing. The whole show was thrillingly beyond fast. At a certain point, you just settle into being bombarded with content and you absorb as fast as you can. Regular musicals let you absorb plot in normally paced dialogue before the next huge production number hits, tying it together. This show makes you learn the story through extravaganza. You scarcely catch your breath before plunging off on another wild ride again. It’s like surfing monster waves.
I guess the most surprising thing to me was how much narrative was embedded in this history musical, often by the character about himself or herself. That’s really a unique way to put a story together. I’ll be thinking about that for a long, long time. And when I got back to bingeing on Hamilton songs and raps, it will be with an analytical writer’s eye. What can I replicate here, how can I use the formality of rhythm or some other device to create structure? And where can you rent those stage turntables?