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A Broadway guide to the narrow way

by
26 August 2016

Christians could learn much from a revolutionary musical sensation, argues Rachel Mann

JOAN MARCUS/BROADWAY.COM

Old story: left to right: Okieriete Onaodowan, Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos, and Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Broadway production of Hamilton

Old story: left to right: Okieriete Onaodowan, Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos, and Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Broadway production of Hamilton

THE Church is called to proclaim the faith afresh in each generation. If it seriously wants to do this, it is time that it investigated the success of a new musical, Hamilton, based on the life of one of the United States’ Founding Fathers.

Not only does the show provide a model for some significant Chris­tian themes for these uncertain, post-Brexit times, but it also offers important clues about how the Church might rethink its missionary and theological impulses.

If, two years ago, someone had suggested that a musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, the lawyer who became the first US Secretary of the Treasury, would become a Broadway sensation, most people would have laughed. If they had said that it would reformulate the rules of musical theatre, they would have been mocked. And yet Hamilton does precisely that.

The show is a phenomenon. In 2015, it was nominated for a record-setting 16 Tony awards, and won 11. It has been praised by people as politically far apart as Barack Obama and Dick Cheney. It will come to the West End of London next year. It has already garnered a huge following and become a sensation among millennials — the group of people who have come of age since the turn of the mil­lennium.

 

IN ORDER to appreciate Hamilton’s ground-breaking nature, consider these points. While it takes a poten­tially staid figure as its protagonist (Alexander Hamilton is famous for writing extensive de­­­fences of the US constitution), the show reimagines that story.

It focuses on Hamilton as an out­sider to the US Establishment. He was an orphan who came to New York as an immigrant. Ham­ilton, then, constructs a mus­ical around one of America’s founding myths: that it was built and shaped by im­­migrant com­munities and its wel­come to them. Indeed, at one point, Hamilton sings: “Immigrants get things done.” The musical argues that these outsider revolu­tionaries lead to a “world turned upside down”.

Other elements mark out Hamil­ton as a radical piece of work. First, the music: Broadway musicals have tended to be driven by vast catchy tunes, as in The Sound of Music, or have been in­­­­fluenced by classical opera and drama, such as Sweeney Todd.

Hamilton can, however, perhaps best be described as a Rap musical. Its composer (and original lead actor) Lin-Manuel Miranda has sought to bring the beats and rhythms of Rap, Black Urban, and R’n’B into conversation with trad­itional musical theatre. A poten­tially gimmicky device is utterly con­vincing. The quality of the urban-inspired music actually cap­tures the excitement that sur­rounded the 18th-century revolu­tionary era.

Such is Miranda’s invention as a lyricist that the complex cascades of Rap poetry bring to life Hamilton’s smart-alec lawyer gifts, as well as give each character distinctive vocal and musical motifs. Musical theatre is not cool, and yet Hamilton ig­­nores this. It even manages to make Tom Paine’s “common sense” the subject of a killer tune.

 

THE truly striking aspect of Hamil­ton is, however, the way it recasts the key figures of the Amer­ican Revolution — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Hamilton himself — as African Americans and Latinos.

While this might strike some as either child­ishly ana­chronistic or as tokenism, it generates extraordin­ary theatrical and political effects.

First, it helps to earth the lyrical fireworks of Miranda’s libretto. Second, it ensures that the musical is not a backward-looking tribute to the past, but a way of interrogating the story of America’s birth in a contemporary way. Third, the cast­ing decisions enable Mir­anda to ask clever and critical ques­tions of the Founding Fathers.

For example, the Founding Fathers talk of freedom, but Hamilton pro­­vides a constant visual reminder that that freedom was denied to Americans of colour for decades. As an original cast member put it: “Hamilton is a story about America, and we have the opport­unity to reclaim a history that some of us do not necessarily think is our own.” Any of the Found­­ing Fathers’ roles are open to women, as well as to people of colour.

Hamilton speaks to Christianity. Perhaps most obviously, the figure of Miranda’s Hamilton has echoes of Christ. He is an outsider, with a gift for words and social action. His story-making inspires others to give themselves to a task of liberation.

Equally, his untimely death be­­comes a means of releasing new life into the world he inhabits. When there is considerable fear of the immigrant, Hamilton echoes Christ­ianity’s profound welcome for the stranger and the other.

That, however, is the least inter­esting thing that Christians can find in Hamilton. In an age when the Christian story can feel belea­guered and tired — I am afraid that many people simply yawn when presented with the good news of Christ — Hamilton indicates how even the most unpromising story can be electrifying and absorbing.

 

HAMILTON, then, is a reminder of the value of re-visioning and re-representing story in the lan­guage of the age. It reflects the United States now — diverse, young, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual. The C of E has rightly dec­ided that it wants to encourage younger and more diverse voca­tions. It wants to see a much higher level of black and minority-ethnic leaders, lay and ordained.

And yet, for that to happen, people will surely need to see them­selves in the greatest story ever told. That story must be told vibrantly, contextually, and, indeed, perhaps radically, in the language of the age.

Most of all, Hamilton encourages those of us who engage in creative endeavours to be bold in our reimagining of the gospel. The pro­jects that I, as a poet and dramatist, have been involved in have been at their strongest when they are not an evangelistic tool, but a work of art which helps us to participate in deep visions of human flourishing.

Priests and ministers of many varieties will be important for the Church in the years to come. The greatest hope for the Church may, however, lie in its artists. It is they whom the Church should be think­ing most deeply about nurturing.

 

The Revd Dr Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Poet-in-Residence and Minor Canon at Manchester Cathedral.

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