Hip-hop musical Hamilton is all about politics, you betcha.
This evening I’ll visit the award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre on London’s West End. The genre of musical theatre still carries the stigma of being pure entertainment for the masses. Just like it’s older cousin, the opera, is considered by many to be sheer escapism for the elite, at most of societal relevance ‘to see and to be seen’, and to reproduce your ‘status’ within the cultural field. Who attends the opera, must be a person of class!
Yesterday I visited the beautiful exhibition ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ in the Victoria and Albert Museum, near Hyde Park. The exhibition truly takes you on an audio visual journey through four hundred years of opera history. Magically, the visitor is brought back to the cultural capitals of Venice, London and Vienna during the years of Renaissance, Baroque and Enlightenment, Milan during its fight for independence, Paris in modern times of Baudelaire, and Dresden and Leningrad in the decades before the rise of Hitler and Stalin. The exhibition shows that opera never was an elitist affair, but in constant dialogue with politics and the powers affecting the people.
Claudio Monteverdi’s classical L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) cannot be set apart from Venetian cosmopolitanism and carnivalesque libertarianism within boundaries of the Laguna-city back then. In early eighteenth century London, the opera Rinaldo (1711) by German composer George Frideric Handel was part of a true ‘culture war’ fought by nationalists and populists mocking the ‘bad taste’ that flew over from Venice to replace proper English heroes such as Shakespeare.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1786), based on the comedy of Pierre Beaumarchais and staged in Vienna, can be seen as part of a democratic revolution made possible by the relative openness of Viennese society: suddenly, the servants are given a voice, and an active role in the course of a (murderous) history. The liberation of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco (1841) caught the collective imagination of the Milanese when Lombardy was set under foreign rule after the defeat of Napoleon.
And, finally, Richard Strauss’ Salome (1905) in Dresden was besides a story of ghastly wrath very much emblematic for the ‘discovery’ of feminine desires, expressivity and subjectivity around the Fin de Siècle, and resulted in nothing less than a surge of ‘Salomania’ through Western Europe.
Maybe it is time to take a different look at the genre of musical theatre as well. In the Netherlands, entertaining Disney-like (re)productions initiated by producer Joop van de Ende (Lion King) still rule the market, but in the United States and Great Britain musicals are being made with great quality and socio-political relevance. According to the reviews, the hip-hop musical Hamilton can be seen as an example of this development. The musical tells (and, of course, sings) the story of Alexander Hamilton, who not only lived a quite spectacular life (he grew up rather humble in the Caribbean to became an important politician and central banker avant la lettre for the U.S., to be killed in a duel), but also is a symbol for unity and humanity in times of slavery, divide and American revolution. I think it is not a coincidence that the American cast of Hamilton openly rejected the policies of president Donald Trump.
The day when I was at the museum, prince Harry of Wales and his fiancée Meghan Markle attended Hamilton, although the British king George III is ‘mocked mercilessly’ according to Daily Mail. I think the couple is bothered more by papers who think that ‘mixed race’ is news, or even a subject at all.
And now it’s my turn to visit Hamilton.