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Hamilton and the theatrical legacy of Leonard Bernstein

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical is a runaway success on Broadway—enough so that just about everyone reading this post, regardless of personal demographics or geographic location, will likely have heard about it. They might also be listening obsessively to the original-cast CD. Perhaps they’ve even memorized it. Hamilton has already won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it earned a record 16 Tony Award nominations, with high expectations for a sweep at the awards ceremony on Sunday, 12 June 2016. The show explores the legacy of Alexander Hamilton, a Revolutionary War hero and first Secretary of the Treasury, through the language of hip hop, highlighting Hamilton’s roots in the West Indies and hailing him as an immigrant who made good. Brilliantly conceived, with exceptional virtuosity in singing, rapping, and dancing, the show also makes a political statement by casting actors of color. Doing so challenges traditional all-white narratives about the founding of the United States.

As a music scholar who writes about Leonard Bernstein, I found myself musing about historical connections between his work and that of Miranda. Bernstein died in 1990, as hip hop was gaining mainstream force and Miranda was a ten-year-old, so he lived in a different musical orbit. Yet Bernstein dedicated himself to articulating issues of social justice through his Broadway shows; he established a life-long focus on hiring performers of color; and he thrived on a powerful intermingling of dance, words, and music. Bernstein also loved to deliver high-intensity conversations through intricately crafted ensemble numbers.

Let’s explore links between these two theatrical talents, doing so through the lens of shows written by—or important to—Bernstein.

  • The Cradle Will Rock, with words and music by Marc Blitzstein. Bernstein first music-directed Blitzstein’s blistering agit-prop show about the plight of unionized workers in 1939, when Bernstein was a senior at Harvard and the show was brand new. As time passed, he returned to the work repeatedly, becoming one of its staunchest advocates. With an edgy blend of social commentary and wry twists on popular culture, The Cradle Will Rock was a crucial model for Bernstein’s own theatrical vision. Bernstein also aspired to Blitzstein’s dual role as lyricist and composer, a slot that Stephen Sondheim has occupied quite comfortably. Bernstein achieved that goal in a number of theater works, notably in his one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti. Miranda shares this lineage, writing activist theater and having a gift for both words and music.
  • On the Town, with a score by Bernstein, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and choreography by Jerome Robbins. This World War II musical marked the Broadway debut of its creative team—all twenty-somethings at the time. As a groundbreaker in mixed-race casting, On the Town’s initial production was mildly yet flagrantly multi-racial.  The show included 6 African Americans out of a cast of 54, which appears as tokenism today. Within the politics of the 1940s, however, it was a significant step, disrupting the strictures of racial segregation. In the dance chorus, black male dancers held hands with white females, violating a taboo of the time, and black and white soldiers mingled on stage, offering an alternate vision to the racially segregated military of the day. Just as racially audacious, the show’s star was Sono Osato, a Japanese-American dancer whose father was interned during the war, like so many other Japanese nationals living in the U.S. On the Town was also dance-driven, and it yielded the kind of holistic vision of words, music, and movement that makes Hamilton soar.
  • West Side Story, with a score by Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Jerome Robbins. One of the most respected and beloved musicals of all time, West Side Story had a formative impact on Miranda. “I don’t know if there is a score that I know as well as I do that score,” Miranda declared in an interview with the actress Rita Moreno. Perhaps most striking was the show’s focus on Puerto Rican immigrants. Set on the streets of New York City in the contemporary world (1957), West Side Story dramatized urban teen violence bred of ethnic conflict; at the same time, it aimed to humanize immigrants. Another link with Hamilton appears in West Side Story’s glorious ensemble numbers, especially the famous “Tonight Quintet.” Hamilton, too, thrives on complex ensemble writing.
  • MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers, with a score and text by Bernstein, additional text and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, choreography by Alvin Ailey. Debuted at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. in 1971, Bernstein’s Mass grappled with a crisis of faith, and it did so in part by brashly reveling in the sounds of contemporary popular music, including a rock band among its multiple instrumental ensembles.  In other words, Mass embraced the soundscape of its day. For Hamilton, that realm is hip hop.
  • 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with a score by Bernstein, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. A notorious flop that debuted during the U.S. Bicentennial, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue only lasted for 7 performances—a sadly different fate from Hamilton. Yet both shows have race and a re-examination of American history at their core. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue explored race relations in the White House during the nineteenth century, viewing the imbalance of power within the “people’s” mansion and highlighting the crucial role played by African Americans in the building’s social and cultural history. In Hamilton, the Founding Fathers are raced as black and Latino – yet another means of upending historical narratives that privilege white protagonists.
“Times Square Ballet,” photograph from the original production of On the Town in 1944. Peggy Clark Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.
“Times Square Ballet,” photograph from the original production of On the Town in 1944. Peggy Clark Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Within Bernstein’s legacy, West Side Story looms. Two years ago, when Miranda interviewed Rita Moreno about her role as Anita in the 1961 film of West Side Story, he articulated his deep relationship with Bernstein’s show:

The first time I saw West Side Story, I was in sixth grade. I will never forget it because I remember that I was cast as Bernardo in our sixth grade play and so my mother rented the movie so we could watch it together. . . . When “America” started and it was about whether to live in Puerto Rico, or live in the U.S. – as a kid who grew up here and was sent there every summer – I was like, “Holy sh*t! ‘West Side Story’ is about Puerto Ricans?!” It really blew my mind. . . .

I ended up directing West Side Story my senior year of high school, [and] I ended up working on the 2009 revival with Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim and doing the Spanish translations for Arthur’s take on the revival. It’s been very instrumental to my life. . . . And Leonard Bernstein’s music is immortal. It still sounds different from every other Broadway score you’ll hear. The scope and the size of it really is incredible.  It’s incredibly ambitious writing.

“Incredibly ambitious writing”: of the many affinities linking Miranda to Bernstein, perhaps the most fundamental is a capacity to think big – to devise major creative visions that tackle conundrums in the American experience and to persuade prodigiously talented collaborators to help put those ideas on stage.

Featured image: Leonard Bernstein by Al Ravenna, World Telegram staff photographer, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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