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Hamilton on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York City

An LCU Professor Perspective – "Hamilton" and the Relevance of Musical Theatre

How “Hamilton” Is Revolutionizing Theatre

This year has seen the release of a number of strong new and revived musicals, but after the Tony Awards on Sunday, one show in particular is not throwing away its shot. “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit new musical about America’s founding fathers, is revolutionizing how theatre can relate to a greater audience – and not just because its first act covers the American Revolutionary War.

“Hamilton” swept the Tony Awards on Sunday, taking home such awards as Best Choreography, Best Actor in a Musical, and, of course, Best Musical. It was nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tonys and won 11, falling short of the record for the most wins by one trophy.

Since its release, “Hamilton” has turned Broadway upside down with its musical retelling of the life of U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton, featuring Congress meetings as rap battles and wartime battles as dance breaks. With a diverse cast and hip hop music style, the show tells America's history in a way that relates to an audience in America today. It’s engaging on entertaining, educational, and emotional levels. And history has its eyes on “Hamilton” as it continually draws in full house crowds nightly, selling out of tickets months in advance.

“Hamilton” has written itself in to the narrative of the evolution of musical theater – implementing a different sound, a different approach to the art form – but it isn’t the first to alter the expectations of the musical.

Cast of The Boy Friend, performed at LCU Fall 2015Cast of The Boy Friend, performed at LCU Fall 2015

The Evolution of Musical Theatre

Dr. Laurie Doyle, fine arts professor at LCU, shed some light on other notable musicals that have shifted the expectations of the art, evolving to stay relevant to the audience for which they perform.

Before Rodgers and Hammerstein began to write, musicals were primarily follies with auxiliary music that didn’t contribute to the story. In Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, the music deliberately advanced the plots. Shows like “The King and I” and “Oklahoma” needed the music to tell the story. Even the dance numbers became essential to the narrative.

And these classic musicals were naturally structured for longevity, said Doyle: “Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were written a long time ago, but the themes that they deal with are universal. And that’s why we can still do them today and still feel like they’re relevant.”

In fact, LCU is hosting a summer musical revue of music from five classic Rodgers and Hammerstein shows: “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music,” and “South Pacific.” The Classic Broadway Musical Revue will be performed August 5, 6, and 7, featuring a cast from LCU and numerous local churches.

Though Rodgers and Hammerstein changed the definition of a musical, the structure of shows continued to evolve as more and more innovative artists joined the field.

When “Les Misérables” was released, it featured very little spoken dialogue and was comprised almost entirely by narrative music. Other shows, like many Sondheim musicals, popularized storytelling through song. In theme with the evolution of the musical, LCU will also be performing one of Sondheim’s works, “Into the Woods,” in the fall.

“You see that Miranda is influenced by a narrative music storytelling style – his show is primarily sung. Or rapped, really, which makes it even more of a hybrid between the spoken word and the sung word,” Doyle explained. “And he did a good job picking a story. It has a lot of elements that will always be relevant: someone wanting power and getting killed early in their life.”

Cast of The Sound of Music, performed at LCU Fall 2014Cast of The Sound of Music, performed at LCU Fall 2014

Striving to Stay Relevant

Like the original Rodgers and Hammerstein works, “Hamilton” is comprised of basic story elements that make it relevant and relatable in any time, made evident by its historic content that appeals to a modern audience. Any piece of art faces the challenge of staying relevant across the ages and through time, but even just through its creation, that piece can help keep the entire art form relevant.

"Even if it's not their final goal, because they are doing it in their day and time, they are helping it stay relevant,” Doyle said. “If everybody just quit creating art, it would cease to be relevant, but because we keep creating it, we keep it up to date and part of our time."

Whether “Hamilton” maintains its relevancy in twenty years remains to be seen, but its great success has revitalized the art of theater in the hearts of many, and even sparked interest in those who hadn’t been drawn to theatre before. For that alone, it is a valuable addition to musical theatre, and to art itself.

Even far from Broadway in West Texas, artists at LCU recognize and celebrate the value of art: through theatrical opportunities like the upcoming summer revue and fall musical, through vocal and instrumental performances and music ministry, through art shows and featured paintings, and much more.

Like “Hamilton,” LCU won’t throw away its shot at keeping art relevant, offering degrees and programs that allow artists to participate and create. To find out more about fine arts degree programs at LCU, click here.

Cast of Cotton Patch Gospel, performed at LCU Summer 2015