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:

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.


The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse

Staged, January 2014
Broadcast on BBC 4, 25/05/14
The recording of the Jacobean drama, staged earlier this year at the Globe theatres new Jacobean playhouse, is a bewitching production. Lit entirely by candlelight, it makes excellent and dramatically effective use of light and shadow, creating a dreamlike and violent world within the confines of the stage.
The story, simply put, is that of the Duchess, who remarries in defiance of her brothers. This simple act unleashes the rage of her incestuous twin Ferdinand (David Dawson). Along with Tis pity she’s a whore, Malfi is one of two Jacobean dramas that seem to resonate strongly for our own time. The treatment of corruption, power, romance, gothic horror and a central powerful heroine speaks to a modern audience as strongly as it ever has.
Gemma Arterton is mesmerising in the main role, depicting the Duchess as a flighty young girl forced to mature by the ensuing tragedy. Dawson gives an unusually pliant and fragile depiction as Ferdinand, portraying him as a psychotic man-child, vulnerable, petulant and dangerous. Sean Gilders Bosola plays off well against him as a gruff, introspective killer in the pay of a moneyed epicurean. James Garnon plays the Cardinal with a sort of nonchalant malevolence.
The production is complemented by excellent and well-researched music, courtesy of Claire Van Kampen, and some well-choreographed dance scenes. The essential ingredient of the play- the sense of tragedy – is properly conveyed through the atmosphere. During the Duchesses imprisonment, the direction gave the sense of having stepped into someone else’s nightmare; the dance of madmen, the ‘votive’ posing of her families corpses, the executioners who bear such a strong resemblance to Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. In surroundings like this, you can properly appreciate the Duchess’s inner strength in the face of her persecutors.
The action falters a little in the final scenes, which deal with the fallout of her murder, but there is a feeling of unrolling inevitability about the final coup-de-grace. Bosolas revenge on the brothers is set within a tragicomic world as opposed to the Duchess’s wholly tragic one. Ferdinand rushes shrieking and growling about the stage; the madness we have sensed beneath the surface has now utterly consumed him. James Garnons’ Cardinal has a particular kind of malevolence. Shifted to the foreground in the last quarter of the play, Garnon plays the Cardinal with a lightness and humour that is ultimately very effective; This is a man, you feel, who does not even have the decency to take his own evil seriously. Nonchalantly plotting and killing his way through the last act, Garnon goes out on a joke among the corpses of those who have fallen victim, ultimately, to his actions. An irony that encapsulates the brilliance of this excellent production.

David Dawson and Gemma Arterton as the twins, with James Garnon in the background. No copyright infringement intended. Original source