“A rap musical about America’s first Secretary of the Treasury” sounds, at first blush, like a suggestion at a bad improv night. But in fact, as you may already know, Hamilton has swept the nation, the internet, and is sure to do the same at every available awards ceremony. It’s a brilliantly constructed, emotionally resonant show with a powerful layer of meta-narrative, and it will absolutely have its analytical spotlight at some point in the future. Today though, we’re taking a look slightly to the left of it.
See, before Hamilton was the internet’s musical darling that crown was held by Les Miserables, a show that was every teenage theater geek’s favorite at some point and which has always been running somewhere to full crowds since it opened in 1985 on London’s West End. Both feature large casts, themes of revolution, and 95% of the dialogue is written to be sung (that’s known as a “sung-through” show). But there are still differences: besides the switch from France to America, Les Mis is ultimately a story about duty, faith, and redemption that happens to have a failed revolution as a major backdrop; Hamilton, while a portrait of the titular man, is hugely interested in how the themes of that man’s life map onto a broader scope – the man as part of the revolution. And of course, there’s the fact that Les Mis’ score is a beautiful, sweeping thing straight out of the Spectacle Age’s love for big sounds and big emotions, while Hamilton’s choice of rap and hip hop is intricately tied to its exploration of that past/present dynamic.
There’s a big gap there. And there’s a third show that bridges it – an ensemble musical about a crisis in American history, musically influenced by the era where the play is set, and concerned with issues of oppression versus the American Dream – that never seems to get any sort of press. That musical is Ragtime, a 1998 show based on a 1975 book by E.L. Doctorow. In fairness it is a lot more of an uneven mess than either of the plays I’m comparing it to, but it’s the kind of admirable mess that comes mainly from a surplus of ambition. The fascinating, worthwhile kind of mess.
The show has a lot of moving parts, but the core centers around three basic units. First there is a wealthy, well to do white family so archetypical they’re literally only known by their roles: Father, who’s left to go on a voyage to Antarctica; Mother, who’s been left in charge during increasingly trying times and is forced to take a hard look at how happy her role really makes her; Mother’s Younger Brother, a rudderless young man who’s good with explosives; Grandfather, who is racist but will probably die soon; and Edgar, the mildly irritating child who has prophetic dreams. This family winds up taking in Sarah, a young African American woman who tried to bury her newborn child in a fit of grief; and Sarah is pursued by talented Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr, hoping to make amends for walking out on her. Mother and Edward also cross paths with Tateh, a Jewish man from Latvia hoping to make a better life for himself and his daughter. There are also a whole bunch of actual historical figures around all this, including Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbitt, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and Booker T. Washington.
You begin to see, perhaps, why the show winds up being a little overwhelmed with itself. The play is fascinated with creating a feel of its era: Coalhouse’s jazz piano leitmotif plays against the classic choral backing of the Family plays to the Fiddler-tinted strings of Tateh’s theme. Music is as much and sometimes more a character in the show than the people themselves. At the same time, the script wants to show off all the newsworthy items of the time: here is Harry Houdini having a vision of little Edward, here is Emma Goldman inspiring Younger Brother to the communist cause. At times these two inclinations even meet, such as a baseball game in the second act that moves the plot forward not a whit but pokes a stick at racial tensions in America’s “Great Melting Pot.”
But this impulse to create a grand portrait also means that it can be hard to pin down a central emotional strand. The closest is probably Coalhouse’s story, a tragedy of idealism being pushed over the edge by bigotry and systemic indifference. But then there’s Mother, Tateh, and all that nebulous stuff again, running riot with the pacing (you would not believe the length of the first act on this thing) and ultimately seeming like it wants to back away from following Coalhouse’s story once things really start going downhill. It’s an unwieldy script, one that likely needs a smart director and a very lively cast to keep it from seeming stilted (like Hamilton, Ragtime traditionally uses quite minimal sets to give the action onstage more room to breathe). And while the story’s themes are broadly applicable it would take some deliberate work to stage them in a way that pulls them forward from their contexts. Wholly possible, but the show isn’t quite made for it from the outset (though I suspect that Coalhouse’s story of rage against a cruel and indifferent system could be quite the powder keg of staging in the current climate).
And yet I would fully recommend this musical, if you can catch it (there’s even a 2016 tour running in America). While it tends toward melodrama it has some genuinely cutting moments of commentary, and when the lens settles long enough to give a character a soliloquy there is meat enough for a talented cast to pull out their share of tears. The soundtrack is a joy to listen to, well orchestrated and memorable. And even if it bit off more than it can chew, to have too much passion and bigger ideas than your show can hold is its own kind of compliment. If nothing else, it’s a new way to pass the time until us non-New Yorkers finally get news of that Hamilton tour.