The structure of Hamilton

The modern world has produced two hugely popular ‘musicals’ that have a distinct operatic structure yet are referred to as musicals. Les Misearables and The Phantom of the Opera may not be treated as operas but they are essentially contemporary takes on the operatic tradition of presenting a whole narrative solely through music. American Broadway hit Hamilton is the most recent addition to this tradition, with one huge artistic difference; It has absolutely no regard for musical genre.

The musical, created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, follows the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. There are three distinct plot strands: Hamilton’s career, from penniless rebel soldier to high-ranking politician and the mistakes that led to his downfall. Hamilton’s relationship with fellow politician Aaron Burr, which goes from friendship to rivalry to enmity and culminates in a duel to the death. And in the background, America’s War of Independence and the aftermath as a new country struggles to find its feet.

The boldness of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s approach is honestly admirable; rather than focus on musical form, he simply takes people and concepts from another time and makes them as immediate as possible, grabbing indiscriminately from whatever musical genre seems appropriate. While the predominant style is Hip-Hop and R&B, the music always serves the story rather than the other way around. Hamilton’s personality is established in his number ‘My shot’:

“I am not throwing away my shot!

I am not throwing away my shot!

Hey yo, I’m just like my country

I’m young, scrappy and hungry

And I’m not throwing away my shot!”

All of the protagonist’s personality is right there for the audience: he is energetic, direct, determined, unpolished, patriotic, charismatic and ambitious. The effect of the musical approach is to translate into modern terms something that would otherwise be very much rooted in historical context. Miranda has no interest in a historically accurate recreation of the period. His interest is in translating history into terms that the audience can engage with. His portrayal of Thomas Jefferson is a perfect example of this: in the immediate aftermath of the war, Jefferson returns to America after years in France. He has picked up French attitudes and mannerisms, making him slightly unpopular. This aspect of characterisation is rather historically specific. Miranda’s solution is to give Jefferson a distinctive Southern Jazz number that is utterly divorced from everyone else’s musical style. Some of his lines also have a dated, slightly effete feel to them:

“Virginia, my home sweet home, I wanna give you a kiss. Mwah!”

Jefferson’s character seems foreign and rather bemusing compared to Hamilton.

thomas-jefferson-large_transgem9nlqjju1c6jsekw4osq_ix-w1m3hdzda1zqfyrlgDaveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson. Source: Telegraph.co.uk

The portrayal of George III is the high point of this practice of using lyrics and musical genre to tell the story. King George treats America like an estranged lover he is trying to win back…by violence if necessary.

“You’ll be back, like before

I will fight the fight and win the war

For your love, for your praise

And I’ll love you till my dying days!

When you’re gone, I’ll go mad

So don’t throw away this thing we had

Coz when push comes to shove

I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love!”

This is an extension of the technique elsewhere; sacrificing realism in favour of loose translation for immediate effect. The result is a fairly accurate (and funny) take on U.S.-British relations when America was seeking independence. The music again serves the story: King George is given a smooth, carefree tune vaguely reminiscent of 1940s Brit Pop. It is an oddly bland and safe-feeling number, utterly dissimilar to other characters music. This serves to illustrate how formal and practiced a Kings writing style would have been and the cultural divide between America and the ruling power.

Overall, the structural approach Hamilton takes to its subject matter is perfectly artificial, but translates its narrative in some ways more directly than a naturalistic approach.

Manhunter

Image from soundonsight.org

This 1986 cult classic by Michael Mann is one of the most stylish adaptations of the Thomas Harris novels. Based on his early thriller Red Dragon, the film focuses on Will Graham (William Peterson), a criminal profiler called out of early retirement to investigate a case. The subject is Francis Dollarhyde, a particularly nasty serial killer who wipes out entire families. To ‘recover the mindset’ of a killer, Graham visits Lecktor (Brian Cox), the killer whose case caused him to retire in the first place. While Lecktor is only a minor character his presence haunts the investigation, as Graham closes in on his quarry. The visuals and soundtrack are unique and stylish.

On the surface, Manhunter has some oddities: the malevolent Lecktor is treated as important yet does very little, the killer is suddenly given a romantic sub-plot halfway through the film and a line of communication between Lecktor and the killer is set up but results in nothing. However, I would argue that all these points tie into a deeper structure in the plot; The structure of semantics. The characters work as symbols. As symbols, the relationships between these characters form a coherent structure in the film’s argument’s about good  and evil.

The heart of the film is the relationship between the hunter and the hunted, and the blurred boundaries of that relationship. It is here that Lecktor comes into play. A slightly different version of the infamous Hannibal Lecter, Lecktor’s role is to symbolise pure evil. Graham is a symbol of humanity that is compromised by its connection with evil. The killer Dollarhyde is a symbol of crazed, confused evil mitigated by a scrap of humanity. The relationship these characters have to Lecktor is symbolic of their relationship to their own internal evil. Both try to utilise that relationship, and neither get precisely what they want out of it. Graham’s attempts to understand a killer’s mindset while staying detached do not quite work for him. The killer’s awkward attempt to bond with Lecktor through letters never truly comes to fruition. Lecktor is representative of an extreme.

As a symbol, the character of Hannibal Lecter can be used to make a statement on the nature of evil. In the Silence of the Lambs he is used to say that evil might have a superficial charm that disguises utter horror. In the NBC series Hannibal he is used to say that evil is attractive, destructive and destroys those it attracts. Manhunter’s statement on evil is that it is simply nasty. Brian Cox plays Lecktor as fast-talking, obnoxious, mean-spirited and petty. Manhunter has no interest whatsoever in the attraction of evil. It is humanity that is attractive.

A major element in the film’s exploration of its themes is the killer’s humanity. Dollarhyde, played by Tom Noonan, is a uniquely disturbing character. Everything about him is presented as ‘off’ in some way: The crabbed way he uses his hands, his confused, strained expression when he talks, even his overly loud clothing. Coupled with his terrible violence, he embodies eerie, unsettling and utterly dangerous psychosis. Unlike the novel, the film does not attempt to get at the root of his insanity. We are given hints at fantasies of power and masculinity, at some twisted idea of love, but these fantasies are not truly made clear. We are not meant to understand his insanity, but to be frightened of it. Having set up Dollarhyde in this way, the film then shows him falling in love. The romantic sub-plot, while a little rushed, serves a very deliberate purpose; It shows us a tragedy. Dollarhyde’s sudden romance with his blind girlfriend Reba (Joan Allen) provides him with love and acceptance. But he is too insane to process it. During his love scenes, the film’s striking visuals linger on Dollarhyde’s tortured face. He is emotionally overwhelmed, bewildered, powerless before the warmth and acceptance being offered him. Worse, romance is not sustainable for someone like this. At the first flash of jealously he reverts to violence. Love is not presented redemptive in this context; it is presented as part of the killers’ nature. It is an indelible, troubling and largely useless facet of his character that makes him both human and tragic.

Tom Nonnan as Dolyharde. Image from moviepilot.com

While Dollarhyde represents a monster mitigated by humanity, Graham represents the other side of the coin. He is the embodiment of humanity, but a humanity that is compromised and troubled. The film is seen primarily through his eyes, the camerawork and visuals mirroring his internal processes. Initially, Graham is surrounded with images of the quiet, humble family life he leads before being taken out of retirement. This life is gently romanticised, the most beautiful cinematography in the film being devoted to Graham’s scenes with his wife. However, this idyllic life is corrupted and disturbed by the investigation. The choice to investigate puts strain on Graham’s marriage upsets his son and eventually puts the whole family in danger. These external problems reflect the internal problems going on in Grahams’ psyche. He cannot help being affected and damaged by the work he does. A psychological relationship with evil, as symbolised by Lecktor, is necessary to the way he works. This is a corrupting relationship. Because of the semantics of the film, a confrontation with the killer is inevitable. When this confrontation happens, Graham does not escape mentally or physically unscathed, in keeping with the film’s themes.

Graham’s problems stem from a dilemma. This is the dilemma that is presented by the existence of evil: do you deal with it and take inevitable damage? Or do you retreat and try to preserve your own innocence? The answer Manhunter presents us with is: Retreat is not really an option. Graham cannot turn away from the crimes he is presented with, because his humanity will not let him. There is a price to not turning away, because in the semantics of Manhunter, contact brings corruption.

In the end, Manhunter is about the spectrum of good and evil, and the tragedies inherent in that spectrum. Graham’s tragedy is the tragedy of compromised integrity. Dollarhyde’s tragedy is the tragedy of largely corrupted humanity, craving love but unable to sustain it. We are asked to consider both of these tragedies, and the way they relate to true evil. The conclusion of Manhunter’s exploration of its themes is: contact with evil is inevitable, damage is inevitable, but integrity can still be preserved. Graham emerges triumphant in the end, scarred but whole. The price of contact is not too high.

The Phantom in time

A masked Claude Rains; Lavishly staged opera scenes; Two Oscar wins. The 1943 version of “Phantom of the Opera” certainly has a lot to recommend it. Despite veering wildly from the plot of Gaston Leroux’s novel, this film is a brilliant reworking of the story. So lavish that one of the opera scenes featured a horse, yes, an actual horse on the stage, this version made the most of then-new Technicolor filming. But more eye-catching to those who know the various versions is the altering of the roles. Now, it is a mistake to object to reworking of a story per se. “Blade runner” would be a very different film had Ridley Scott stuck closely to the source material. But it is fascinating to see how reinterpretation of the characters has altered the films meaning.

At its heart “Phantom of the Opera” is a fairytale. Specifically it is a variation on “Beauty and the Beast”. A man falls into trouble, is cursed with physical ugliness and becomes bestial as a result. His only hope is redemption in the shape of a woman’s love. But in the Phantom’s case, there is no hope of a transformation. Beauty rejects the Beast, and is rescued by the handsome prince, Raoul. The Phantom may be redeemed by his love of Christine, but is denied a happily ever after.

http://uckstudents.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/organ3.jpg?w=500&h=342

Gerard Butler as the Phantom

https://profiles.google.com

In the 1940s version Claude Rains portrays a different Phantom to Leroux’s original. Rains’s Phantom is a gentle, humane musician, pining for Susanna Foster’s coquettish Christine. He is treated unfairly by everyone, sacked, berated, insulted and finally driven to murder before having acid thrown in his face. Because of his ordeal he becomes the Phantom, and undergoes a complete character change. From passive, gentle and benevolent he becomes menacing, murderous and crazed. His only link to his former life is his love for Christine. It is fairytale imagery, again, wrapped in the conventions of gothic drama. It is the transformation from prince to beast, with only the hope of having the curse lifted. Christine now takes the part of a would-be rescuing princess.

http://uckstudents.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/lon_phantom.jpg?w=465&h=584

Lon Chaney as the Phantom

www.http://saltburn-by-the-sea.blogspot.com

The film of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has a different take on the transformation. Gerard Butler’s Phantom was abused as a child, and kept as an exhibit in a freak show. Like Raine’s Phantom, he is turned into a killer by trauma. Emmy Rossum’s Christine hits the nail on the head with her diagnoses:

Christine: This haunted face/Holds no horror for me now. It’s in your soul/That the true distortion lies.

But while the 1940s film focuses on the contrast between prince and beast, Lloyd Webber’s version is concerned only with the Phantom’s predicament. There is no lingering over the protagonists’ former innocence. As for the 1920s film, there is barely any mention of the Phantom’s past, except to link him to crime and black magic. But what all of the films do is emphasise the redemptive quality of the Phantom’s love.

The 1920s version starring Lon Chaney revolves very tightly around the central relationship. The Phantom and Christine are permanently locked in a power struggle. Christine has to throw off her early illusions, and her quite real love. She makes the decisions which drive the plot, choosing handsome, respectable Raoul over the tortured, murderous Phantom. She later plays the role of damsel in distress, but is still active and central to the plot. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version is similar. In the film of the musical, Christine (Emmy Rossum) even saves the Phantom’s life at one point. Both of these versions stick quite closely to the novel. Here is the deviation of 1940s version: Susanna Foster’s Christine is not in love with the Phantom, nor anyone else. Raoul is replaced by two young men, who she alternately flirts with, and discards at the end (the comic rivalry of her beaux is one of the films highlights). In a way Foster’s Christine is a more feminist portrayal, since she clearly needs none of these men (Christine’s real relationship in this film is with her career). But it does reduce her role in the plot hugely. It also weakens the power of the plot. The gesture of compassion crucial to the Phantom’s redemption comes only after his death-and in a very watered down form:

Christine: He was almost a stranger to me, and yet somehow I always felt drawn to him with…with a kind of pity…understanding…

Very mild indeed compared with this scene from the Lloyd Webber film:

Christine:  Pitiful creature of darkness/What kind of life have you known?/God give me courage to show you/You are not alone…(kisses the Phantom passionately).

In Webber’s version, Christine’s act of kindness comes as close to transforming the Phantom as the plot can allow. He lets her go and escapes, his good side having triumphed. The film even allows him a kind of marriage with Christine, when she gives him her engagement ring. Webber’s version comes closest to the formula of Beauty and the Beast; The lifting of the curse and the union of the characters both have a sort of parallel. There is no scene of retribution for the Phantom’s crimes because redeemed, he can be allowed to escape the mob.

https://i0.wp.com/26.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_llq37irQar1qaun7do1_500.jpg

Claude Rains as the Phantom, with Christine

http://beautyandterrordance.tumblr.com

The 1940s script gives just enough of a concession to Christine’s role as a rescuer to redeem the Phantom. Otherwise her active role is almost completely cut out. She is the only the object of an obsession. Having changed Christine into a passive figure, the film focuses on Raines’s version of the Phantom. This completely alters the story’s dynamics.  Rather than a passionate power struggle between characters, this is a character study. As the successor to Chaney, Raines is tasked with giving an equal performance in a totally different style. It is fair to say he succeeds. In contrast to Chaney’s grand acting, Rains is all nuance and convincing psychology. His version is a sympathetic anti-hero, who is trying to save himself. He pursues Christine, the passive object, a symbol of redemption. Part of this Phantom’s tragedy is his doomed attempt at self-rescue. This partly expresses itself in his crazed speech to Christine where he sublimates his life in the cellars:

“You’ll love it here, when you get used to the dark, and you’ll love the dark too. It’s friendly, and peaceful. It brings rest, and relief from pain. It’s right under the opera. The music comes down and the darkness distils it-cleanses it of the suffering that made it-then it’s all beauty. And life here is like a resurrection.”

Throughout his madness, Rains’s Phantom is always trying to recover something. Christine is clearly essential to his story, but only as a component. Apart from speaking the lines that grant the Phantom redemption, her only really active role is the unmasking. In the 1920 and Lloyd Webber films, the revelation of the Phantom’s hideousness is the catalyst. It causes the previously submissive Christine to disobey her “master” and choose Raoul over the Phantom. But this version serves a different purpose. In her new role as object and agent in the Phantoms story, she reveals to the audience the Phantoms real condition. The sight frightens her, but is not really a catalyst for anything. It is a revelation, and comes just before the Phantom’s tragic end.

Overall, I would say the Lloyd Webber version is the best, though all three films have their merits. The Webber version, somehow, it’s the only film which has properly looked at all of the issues; The fairytale plot of Leroux’s original. The suffering and transformation of the Phantom. The role of a female rescuer. The 1920s version is slightly truncated, in that it ignores or at least does not linger on the transformation. As for the 1940s version, it seems that female power just could not be acknowledged, even in a film. Why is open to speculation. Instead the film focuses on the male story, almost excessively so, in a depth the other two do not go into. Perhaps now, in a more equal society, all of the issues can be addressed. Lloyd Webber can and does address the story properly, with no need to alter the plot.

Unless you are in love with the original novel, it is possible to enjoy all of these versions for their own merits. And all of them are worth seeking out. Lloyd Webber may have conquered the west end with the musical, but as takes on a gothic fairytale none of these are to be missed. The 1940s take is a character study, not a love triangle, but there is nothing wrong with that. A fine story bears more than one interpretation. And it is nice to see a fairytale in which a woman rescues a man for a change. Just saying.