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On history, humor and ‘Hamilton’

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Although I’ve dabbled in musical-watching since childhood, “Hamilton” was the third professional-level musical I’ve ever seen (following “Horton Hears a Who!” and Broadway San Jose’s “Cinderella” last year with Stanford). The crazy thing is that there was thunderous applause after each musical number, although the entire show was one long musical number. Hamilton takes the style of a “sung-through” musical, with very few spoken pieces of dialogue. In other words, not a single word was spoken without some melody to it. Having never seen such a musical before, it was a very unique experience to hear the entire story be shared through song, which probably requires the actors to have staggering stamina levels in order to sing and dance for virtually the entire duration of the musical.

Our dorm had the privilege of receiving one of those elusive Experiential Learning Fund (ELF) grants. Around 40 of us from the dorm piled into a bus and embarked on the long, traffic-jammed trip into San Francisco since the musical was performed at the legendary Orpheum Theatre. Upon our fashionably late arrival to the San Francisco Public Library, our group piled out the back of the bus and scampered to the theater where we were ushered into an inner vestibule and then up a couple sets of stairs to the balcony. From the balcony, we had a good, bright view of the entire stage. However, it can be hard at times to discern the actors’ facial expressions when perched up in the nosebleeds.  

Without a doubt, the acting and singing was phenomenal. The more plaintive and slower songs were expertly contrasted with the funnier and more upbeat numbers. My favorite character was King George, who entertained the audience with three distinct and funny renditions of his theme melody. Since this musical is being performed in the 20th century, I think that the playwright — Lin-Manuel Miranda, who starred as Alexander Hamilton in the original production — succeeded in writing a script that includes educational, captivating and entertaining dialogue. Although patriarchy was overwhelmingly pervasive during colonial America, the musical doesn’t diminish the women’s roles and instead lets the women shine with their own solo songs.  

The inclusion of modern language and phrases (including swear words that we use all the time) helped the story seem more relevant to contemporary times and established the audience’s engagement. Although each scene was complex and entailed vastly different settings, the main background set stayed the same. There were rough bricks on the back wall and stairs with wooden platforms. Perhaps the most intriguing component of the set was the two concentric revolving stages, which the actors used to demonstrate their characters moving from one setting to another or in two other pivotal moments in order to facilitate the dueling scenes.  

Sometimes, it was a bit more challenging to decipher what the actors were singing and rapping, so it would thereby be advisable to read some of the musical’s background information and some song lyrics prior to going to the theater. The ushers were also super strict about seating and didn’t shy away from escorting people to the right seats (in contrast to some events at Stanford where one can usually waltz in and sit at the nearest open seat).  

Contact Sarayu Pai at smpai918 ‘at’ stanford.edu.