Hamilton, and Thoughts on the Uncanny Valley of Musicals
On Saturday night Krissy and I went and saw Hamilton in New York. This was a moment greatly anticipated by a large number of my friends who had seen the show (or at least listened to the soundtrack) had fallen head over heels in love with it, and who wanted to induct me into their Hamiltonian cult. I had previously refused to listen to the cast album of the show, choosing to go into it fresh (although only to a point — I obviously knew who Alexander Hamilton was, and I had read the Ron Chernow book that Lin-Manuel Miranda used as a basis for his play), so Saturday was my entrance into the congregation. Having been thus baptized, I would now be available for Hamilton sing-alongs and arguments as to which Schuyler sister was the best and so on.
Having now seen Hamilton, here’s what I have to say about it:
One, it is in fact really good. I see why all my friends went nuts for it, and also why it won all the awards it did and propelled Lin-Manuel Miranda into the stratosphere of celebrity. It’s all entirely deserved. I suppose I could quibble here and there if I was feeling contrary — the play is notably episodic, particularly in the second act, and some characters and plot points are jammed in and then dropped out, which suggests the play could have been more tightly edited — but one can always quibble on details and miss out on the overall effect of a work, which in this case is significant. I hugely enjoyed myself, and was thrilled in particular with the second half of the first act. I’d see it again, surely.
Two, I don’t love Hamilton like my friends love Hamilton. This is not the fault of the play, nor a matter of me being contrarian to be contrary, and choosing not to love that which my friends love, simply because it’s already gotten all their love. It’s because of something that I already knew about myself, which is that generally speaking I have a level of emotional remove from a lot of live action musicals, both in theater and in film. I can like them and enjoy them, and certainly admire the craft and skill that goes into making them, but I don’t always engage with them emotionally. A really good live action musical can easily capture my brain, but in my experience they rarely capture my heart.
Why? The short answer is a lot of live action musicals exist in the emotional equivalent of the Uncanny Valley for me — an unsweet spot where the particular artifices of musicals make me aware of their artificiality. The longer answer is I’m perfectly willing to engage in live musicals intellectually — and why wouldn’t I, says the writer of science fiction, a genre with its own slate of artifices — but seem to have trouble with them emotionally. Live humans stepping outside of their lived experience to burst into a song directed to an audience pretty much always makes my suspension of disbelief go “bwuh?”, and then I’m not lost in the story, I’m aware I’m a member of an audience. That sets me at a remove.
Which is, to be clear, entirely on me. This is my quirk, and not an indictment of live action musicals. They clearly work perfectly well for large numbers of people, who do not suffer from my own issues regarding emotional engagement with the form. Nor does it mean I don’t enjoy musicals in general. I do. Not being at 100% with musicals doesn’t mean that the experience is like ashes in my mouth. Getting 90% of the effect of a musical can still be pretty great, and was, in the case of Hamilton. It does mean, however, that the fervor so many of my friends feel about a really great musical is usually not something I feel.
Interestingly, in my experience the way for me to engage emotionally in a musical is to add more artifice to it. For example, I’m a sucker for animated musicals — I think Beauty and the Beast is one of the best musical films of all time, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a brilliant operetta, and Moana, whose songs were written or co-written by Miranda, made me cry where Hamilton didn’t — precisely because the animated format adds another layer of willing suspension of disbelief. I mean, if you’re willing to accept talking candelabras, or skeleton kings or the ocean as a comic foil, it’s not that hard to accept characters breaking out into song, either.
Likewise, I have an easier time with funny musicals — or more accurately, musicals intended to be comedies as well (Hamilton has several funny moments, including the bits with King George, but is not meant to be a comedy). I enjoyed the hell out of The Producers and The Book of Mormon and Spamalot because they were fundamentally ridiculous anyway, so the breaking out into song doesn’t pull me out the way it does with more serious musical work.
Going the other direction — movies with songs in them which yet are not musicals — also works for me too. Strictly Ballroom (the film) feels like a musical and yet isn’t, and I love it insensibly. The concert film Stop Making Sense is a perfect film, from my point of view; watching it is like going to church. And I’m looking forward to Sing Street because everything about it suggests I’ll get the thrill watching it like I got watching The Commitments back in the 90s.
Again, this is about my quirks, not an argument that, say, Hamilton would have been better as Hamilton!, a funny farce where a zany founding father gets into all sorts of hilarious hijinx with his best ol’ frenemy Aaron Burr. It wouldn’t have (although I have no doubt now that someone will try it). It’s merely to the point that for whatever reason, a lot of live action musicals exist in a place I can’t get fully emotionally engaged with it. I find that interesting, and wonder if I’m alone in this.
The real irony? Not only did I perform in musical theater as a kid (and enjoyed it! And would do it again!) I’d kind of like to write a musical one day. Not to say “you people have been doing musicals all wrong, this is how you do it” because, yeah, no, I’m not that asshole. But because I think Redshirts in particular would make a damn fine musical, of the funny sort, and because I know I appreciate and engage with science fiction better, having written science fiction, so who knows? Maybe that trick will work again in another genre and medium. Or (actually “and”), maybe I should just go and see more musicals. That would probably help too.
In the meantime: Hamilton is excellent, as advertised. Go see it when you can. I’m not likely to join the HamilCult, but that shouldn’t dissuade you, should you be of a mind to.
(Also: Angelica Schuyler was the best Schuyler sister. I mean, come on.)