Friday, 17 February 2017

Lin-Manuel Miranda knows his musicals

What relevance does conventional musical theatre have to Hamilton?  While he is undoubtedly steeped in rap, hip-hop and R&B music, Lin-Manuel Miranda also has a thorough foundation in musicals.  (In fact, his wedding was even set to the music of “To Life” from Fiddler on the Roof.)  Stephen Sondheim, who worked with Miranda on the 2009 revival of West Side Story says, “Lin-Manuel's use of rap is that he's got one foot in the past. He knows theatre. He respects and understands the value of good rhyming, without which the lines tend to flatten out.”  [1]

In Hamilton, Miranda actually cites the 1969 Broadway historical hit 1776, quoting its opening number “Sit Down, John!” in reference to the same character, John Adams.  He also cites Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Modern Major General” from Pirates of Penzance, and was influenced by Sondheim’s Assassins (“a master class in, Okay, how are these people similar, how are they different, what do they want, what story are we telling in this one song?”) Jason Robert Browne’s The Last Five Years (“At the end of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds; he sings, ‘Nobody needs to know,’ and Jason wrote the ultimate infidelity jam called ‘Nobody Needs to Know.’ The moment I had the idea, I called Jason and was like, ‘Ahhhhh, I need to make this reference!’”) and Les Misérables (“I learned a lot from Les Miz about compression and returning to themes.”)[2]

I am not going to try to speculate on what Hamilton’s influence will be – not since Clive Barnes infamously insisted that all post Hair musicals must be rock has anybody done something that misguided.  Besides, so much of Hamilton is so specific to its subject that it is hard to imagine how anybody else could employ the same techniques (although I know we are going to be subjected to hundreds of would-be imitators).  Sondheim says, “Hamilton is a breakthrough, but it doesn't exactly introduce a new era. Nothing introduces an era. What it does is empower people to think differently. There's always got to be an innovator, somebody who experiments first with new forms.”

However, what it most significant about Hamilton is not its music – much of which is not actually rap or hip-hop – or even its form, but its notion of inclusiveness.  Its story of American history is told by a largely non-white cast using musical and theatrical forms that they are comfortable with but that would be anachronisms if taken literally.  Many of the lyrics are narrative, making it at times more like an oratorio than a musical.  Just as Stanley Kubrick achieved his stunning effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey by, in part, choosing only to do that which he could do very well, Miranda limits his use of rap and hip-hop to appropriate situations as a narrative device, often with humorous results.  There is little in Hamilton that could be described as “naturalistic”.  By doing this, he allows the audience to accept the notion that the story is being relayed through the media of “modern” people.  Not only does it help modern audiences to accept it, but it also conveys the notion that they are, or at least can be a part of it.

He would not be able to do this had he not had a full musical and theatrical vocabulary.  No one musical form – be it rock or ragtime – has the emotional range by itself to tell a great story.  Just as Stephen Schwartz, a generation earlier combined his love of folk and Motown with his respect for the work of Leonard Bernstein and of Harnick and Bock, Miranda is a merger of two worlds.  This is, and always has been, how the musical moves forward.  Both the performers and the writers need to have a broad background.  Study everything.  Pop, classical, musical theatre – it all goes together into the great mix, but a musical, more than any other form, requires eclecticism. 

I am still available as a lecturer on musical theatre, both as a visiting/guest lecturer or as a tutor.

[1] Michael Gioia, “Stephen Sondheim says Hamilton is a breakthrough”,Playbill, 8 July 2015

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Back to School

One of the major purposes behind my decision to get my MA in Musical Theatre was the notion that I could teach musical theatre history. Well, a couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to do just that at a conservatory in West London. One thing I confirmed was that I absolutely loved doing it. I begean with Mozart’s The Magic Flute and worked my way forward with Orpheus in the Underworld, The Pirates of Penzance, Show Boat, Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma!, showing video clips to illustrate each show. They are planning to bring me back to cover post-war musicals up to the present. Best of all, the class all stayed behind to talk to me. There was one from South Africa (who, surprisingly, had never heard of Sarafina!) who was very interested to know more about A Million Miles from Broadway, my book on international musical theatre. There were also students from Australia and France. This may turn into a full teaching position if this school is able to receive accreditation for a diploma program next year.

The other part of my MA that I am hard at work on is The Last Queen of Paradise, a musical about the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. It will be showcased at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London in September of next year.

My new book Breaking Into Song is also available from Lulu as well as Amazon Kindle. I look forward to letting you know of future developments.

Mel Atkey
To purchase A Million Miles from Broadway:
A Million Miles from Broadway
To purchase Breaking into Song:
Breaking into Song

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Breaking into Song -- new book by Mel Atkey now available


As you may know, for the past year I have been working on my MA in Musical Theatre at Goldsmiths in London.  This is partly so that I can put the work I did on writing Broadway North and  A Million Miles from Broadway to more effective use as a teacher and lecturer, although my main project will be The Last Queen of Paradise, a musical about the American takeover of Hawaii.

In the meantime, I have just published a small volume of my articles, essays and interviews from the past 35 years.  Breaking Into Song begins with my first ever interview for what was then a syndicated radio series called Broadway Melodies back in 1980.  Stephen Schwartz was then working on turning The Magic Show into a movie.  This was to be the beginning of a correspondence that lasted a couple of decades in which he offered me encouragement as a writer of musicals, long before he began doing it on a grander scale through ASCAP.

It also features a fascinating interview with Reid Shelton, Annie’s original Daddy Warbucks recalling the development process that show went through, and the lengths to which the Kennedy Centre’s Roger Stevens went to keep the costs (and the ticket prices) down (eg. Opening night in Washington DC, the scenery was not painted, as he didn’t want to spend the money until he knew the show was a hit.).  Those are just two of the seven essays collected in this book, which can be ordered by clicking here.  (There is a 20% discount if you order before it goes on wider sale, which will be in 4-6 weeks.)

A Million Miles from Broadway – Musical Theatre Beyond New York and London can also be ordered here.


I hope you enjoy them!


Mel Atkey

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

New review in Studies in Musical Theatre

At long last, my book A Million Miles from Broadway has been reviewed in the current issue of Studies in Musical Theatre. The reviewer is Ji Hong Yu of  City University of New York Graduate Centre.  I should begin by saying that she takes some issue with the fact that it was not written in a scholarly style, a criticism that I must say I wear as a badge of honour.  However, the overall tone is positive: As the first of its kind to compile the accounts of the recent developments in musical theatre across time and place, his book is particularly timely as there is a growing interest by scholars, producers and journalists in the transnational circulation, production and popularity of musical theatre, both of  English-speaking musicals and non-English-speaking musicals... He writes in the first-person, and uses a number of his personal experiences and interviews as examples, which makes the chapters seem less scholarly, and more like a series of on-line blog postings written by well-informed industry personnel... His book can still serve as a valuable resource for those who are entering the field of international musical theatre, given the scarcity of resources on musical theatre outside New York and London that are accessible to an English-speaking readership.  Perhaps the greatest value that I find in Atkeys book is that it... questions the widely accepted western-centric definition of musical theatre, and challenges scholars to find a way to discuss musicals that are more layered in their origins and influences... Atkeys book can definitely be a springboard for further research in this area.


Mel Atkey

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Three songs from foreign musicals you didn't know you knew

I recently listened to a concert on the radio of songs from the Great American Songbook, virtually all of which were show-tunes.  I thought I would share with you three songs from foreign musicals all of which have become popular standards.  Unlike the American songs, none of these would be generally recognised today as show-tunes.  (Click on the song titles to go to a YouTube link.)

Although made famous in 1970 by Simon & Garfunkel and misidentified as an Andean folksong, El Condor Pasa is in fact the title song from a 1913 Peruvian Zarzuela by Daniel Alomia Robles.

Aquarela do Brasil (Watercolour of Brazil, from Entra na Faixa) by Brazilian composer Ary Barosso might have vanished into obscurity had it not been featured in a 1942 Disney animated feature called Saludos Amigos.  It was later popularised by bandleader Xaviar Cugat, and was the inspiration for Terry Gilliams 1985 film Brazil.

Glow-worm was originally written in 1902 by German composer Paul Lincke, a protégé of Richard Strauss for his operetta Lysistrata.  Linckes work was eclipsed by the modern jazz style ironically his own song became best known after being adapted into that style as a hit for the Ink Spots.

I hope you enjoyed this bit of musical theatre trivia.