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The Rhythm of a Nation

A show about young rebels grabbing and shaping the future of an unformed country, "Hamilton" makes its resonant history by changing the language of musicals.

Article
Gina Conroy
Photos
Courtesy
Posted
July 28, 2019

You’ve seen his face countless times on a $10 bill, but you probably never knew his name. Few founding fathers had a more significant influence on the political system than George Washington’s Revolutionary War right-hand man — Alexander Hamilton.

Though Hamilton never became president, his political and personal life left a mixed legacy that would rival recent tabloid headlines.

Hamilton was popular and controversial, feared and admired, and loved and hated. Once described by John Adams as “the bastard brat of a Scottish peddler,” Hamilton had the odds stacked against him from birth. So how does an illegitimate immigrant from the Caribbean — orphaned and forced to work at a young age — rise to political power, achieve the ultimate American dream, and inspire a hit musical on Broadway?

Hamilton is a story about a young orphan in search of a better life for himself who achieves this beyond what anyone could imagine,” says Oklahoma native Erin Clemons, who plays Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. “Anytime people see someone succeeding against all the odds, it’s inspiring.”

Even though the story is set in the 1700s, Hamilton has been mesmerizing modern-day audiences for the last four years since its debut, and there are no signs of slowing down.

“People back then had the same struggles as today,” says Clemons. “An immigrant coming to America trying to make it, a young girl falling in love, a man torn between his family and his career; these are all things we still deal with today.”

Inspired by historian Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton, the musical might bring flashbacks of high school history, but it won’t have you falling asleep in your chair.

“A lot of historical shows and movies don’t draw you in because you see the piece as a sort of time capsule,” says Clemons. But Hamilton is different.

The set is historical, but not literal. The costumes are a fun mix of past and contemporary. The lyrics are accurate to history, but the music is modern.

“It’s funny because even though the music, lyrics, and some movements are modern, Eliza’s carriage, the way she is in the world, is very period for me,” says Clemons, who has also played the two other Schuyler sisters, Angelica and Peggy. “I think because she has that steady nature, it serves her to be one of the more reserved characters. But it’s fun to get to sing music that feels modern and more natural for me.”

It’s no secret the music is an enormous appeal for young people. “They’re drawn to it because they can relate to rap lyrics more than most musicals,” says Clemons.

But don’t be fooled into thinking Hamilton is a rap musical. Just like the man himself, Hamilton has a sophisticated and inspirational score that blends Broadway, hip-hop, jazz, blues, R&B with rap lyrics sung by a predominantly cast of color. 

“The show is not just rap; there is something for everyone,” says Clemons, whose character, Eliza, sings through the entire show. “I never rap.” 

Clemons encourages people who might be suspicious of this style of music to open their minds to this innovative way of storytelling. “I think people have an idea of what rap is that isn’t necessarily accurate,” says Clemons.

And if you think Hamilton is just a well-known story about the American Dream set to rap lyrics, think again. It’s a story about relationships.

“Alexander Hamilton makes a great figure for drama and storytelling because his life was so bold and passionate in every way,” says Clemons. “Because of the casting and the music, Hamilton takes you out of only thinking about the period and gets you focusing on the relationships and the story.”

There was something about Alexander Hamilton that made men serve him and women love him and stand by his side, especially his wife Eliza, even after a very public betrayal.

“In our play, I think Eliza decides she needs him to lean on, despite his disloyalty, because she has lost a piece of herself already,” says Clemons. “She’s kind, steady, loyal, the most loving and forgiving woman.”

Other theories on why Eliza may have stayed with Hamilton after the Reynolds affair (not explored in the musical) is that Eliza may have been privy to Alexander’s mismanagement of money in the treasury and that his indiscretion was fabricated to save him, or that Maria Reynolds and her husband plotted to entrap Hamilton for money. Only the real Hamilton knows the truth.

But it’s the complex relationships Hamilton has with his friends, enemies, and potential lovers that add to the emotional relevance of the show.

“Eliza has the biggest journey in our show. She was left to depend on family members and friends in the 50 years after Alexander died because he left her with nothing and women of her class did not work,” says Clemons. “Women have a lot more options in 2019 than they did in Eliza’s time. She might have made a different decision if she were living now, not being at the mercy of all the male powers in her life.”

One might think Hamilton’s rise to popularity happened overnight, but translating the historical tale into rap lyrics took seven years and can be best summed up in a 2009 tweet by the playwright and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“Spent the entire day working on one couplet about George Washington,” tweeted Miranda. “Hamilton’s slow-going, my friends, but I promise you it will be worth it. It’s hard converting whole swaths of history into a hot 16 bars.”

“Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius writer, and his words are true magic,” says Clemons. “He has said in a few interviews how he slaved over every word. To quote him, ‘It wasn’t enough to rhyme at the end of the line. Every line had to have musical theater references. It had to have other hip-hop references. It had to do what my favorite rappers do, which is packing lyrics with so much density, and so much intricate double entendre, and alliteration, and onomatopoeia, and all the things that I love about language.’”

Not only did Miranda convert history into a hot 16 bars of rap lyrics, but he also created a hit musical that has started a revolution on Broadway. Because of Hamilton, people are not only learning their American history — they’re singing it.

LOCATOR
Hamilton
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
110 E. 2nd St. | Tulsa
Aug. 20-22: 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 23: 8 p.m.
Aug. 24: 2 p.m., 8 p.m.
Aug. 25: 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m.
Aug. 27-29: 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 30: 8 p.m.
Aug. 31: 2 p.m., 8 p.m.
Sept. 1: 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 3-5: 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 6: 8 p.m.
Sept. 7: 2 p.m., 8 p.m.
Sept. 8: 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m.

August 2019 Cover