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.

Three colors blue

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“Three colours blue” is the first instalment of Kieslowskis’ famous trilogy exploring the French revolutionary ideals. The other two films in the trilogy, “Three colours white” and “Three colours red” explore equality and fraternity on the personal level. Like “Blue”, they show their protagonists go though a long personal struggle to achieve the films ideal, often at financial or emotional cost. “Three colours blue”, being a story of personal grief, charts a woman’s struggle for emotional liberation, and sees her suffering horrors in the process. These three ideals-liberty, equality and fraternity-are portrayed by Kieslowski as pure, almost sublimated targets, which can be reached only through hard work. His choice to use these themes-themes an entire country fought over in a bloody revolution-can only make the trilogy public art, art intended to speak to and for France, and the rest of humanity.

The plot is reasonably simple; Julie, (Juliette Binoche), loses her composer husband and child in an accident. Traumatised, she leaves her home and tries to discard her past, rejecting all love and friendship, which she now views as “traps”. Gradually though, she re-learns how to live, and finishes her husbands final work, the “Symphony for the unification of Europe”. The work proves to be a healing force, and she can finally rebuild her life. Binoche is wonderful in the part, delivering one of her career-making performances, which won the “best actress” at the 1993 Venice film festival.

As with all Kieslowski films, the cinematography is beautiful, but in this case shows reality from the protagonists point of view; the repeated use of close-ups expresses Julies wish to limit the world to her immediate environment. The repeated motifs Kieslowski uses, of glass, water and reflections, are relevant; they reflect Julies’ mindset, namely her desire to keep the world at a distance; Glass allows observation without contact: Julie observes the world, and allows it to observe her, but she does not allow anyone emotional contact. Water is used in a similar way in this film, but also reflect her wish to drown her emotions; Julie repeatedly visit’s a swimming pool, where she often stays submerged for a long time.

The journey from isolation to social integration is ferociously difficult for Julie, and mirrors the idea of an eternal struggle for freedom; Julie fights hard against an oppressive emotion, finding recourse in creative work, which is eventually a healing force; the plot is the story of a fierce human struggle to throw off the past, and by hard work, create a future. However detached the story seems on the surface, these peculiarly French ideals run through the very heart of it.

One of Kieslowskis’ abiding interests is in human connections, which he identifies with the three ideals throughout the trilogy; Julie’s initial rejection of society is repeatedly challenged by the director; He uses various tricks and motifs to remind us of the interconnectedness of everyone in society; For example, in one scene a busker plays the very music Julies husband was composing; He later reveals that he made up the tune himself. This scene serves to remind us that different people from different backgrounds, for different reasons might have identical thoughts. Julies’ journey away from voluntary isolation, and return to love, reflects the directors beliefs: The individual must always return to society, because life outside society is worthless.

“Three colours blue” is certainly a masterpiece, and won unanimous praise from critics when it was first released. Quite apart from Binoche’s perfect performance, it interprets emotional freedom as a high ideal. Woven in with this ideal is Kieslowskis’ vision of society as a unified whole, which offers love in its various forms, provided you accept it. Kieslowskis’ film is certainly public art, speaking on the most personal level. It speaks very well.