My feelings on musical theater are more complicated than they should be
I haven’t ranted in a while, so I’m going to be topical! Like, “Hamilton” topical!
Okay, here’s my musical theater rant. It bothers me to an absurd degree (which, in this case, is “at all”) that Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is a bestseller, thanks in large part to the musical.
I hasten to clarify: I am not bothered by Ron Chernow. I haven’t read his book, so I can’t make any judgment calls about it, good or bad. If you want an opinion of it, go buy a copy, read it, and form one.
My problem is that so many people think the book must be good, because it inspired the musical. (I should also clarify here: I love the soundtrack, and would be over the moon to see a performance of it someday.) You can already read the minds of all the people who bought the book because of the musical- “If this inspired that, it must be fantastic!”
But that just doesn’t track. It might be a fantastic biography, but if biographies aren’t your thing, you’re just not going to get a fantastic experience. Biographies aren’t my thing, so I’m leaving this one for now. Tastes change, people change, oceans rise, empires fall- maybe at some point in the future, I’ll be a historical bio-maniac. Until then, I’m spending my book budget on graphic novels. And that’s just where I am right now; I’m certainly not going to judge anyone else for liking different kinds of books, or reading whatever the hell they want.
Where I get all judgey is when people buy the book on the assumption that it must be great, but completely mentally steamroller Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hard work and long-honed talent in adapting the book to a musical! Writing musicals? That’s what he does! This is the man’s job. If you think you, too, will be inspired to great things by reading this book- or even if you just want the experience of reading something so inspirational- you’re going to be disappointed, and come away with a worse opinion of the biography than it deserves.
You ever see “Les Mis”? If so, have you ever actually sat down and read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables? There are 300 pages in the middle of that book that can be completely skipped, because they’re about the minutiae of Napoleonic battle strategy. You know what doesn’t appear in the middle of the musical? A second, longer musical, that is interesting only to the wonkiest of history wonks, and a complete drag for those of us who’re there for the smaller-scale human stories.
Because, again, finding inspiration and then working it and growing it and shaping it into a complete piece of art is Miranda’s job. Some sources of inspiration are going to be more conducive to creating new art than others, to be sure, but the inspiration itself isn’t going to hit you the same way it hit him. You aren’t going to see a hay field the way Van Gogh did, but you can still appreciate his paintings of them. A professional baker is going to start with flour that you just do not need for your own cooking. And unless you are in the business of interpreting biographies for the stage- and are pretty darn good at it, to boot- you’re not going to see this book in the same light Miranda did.
So, please- if you are big into biographies, I’m sure Chernow’s is a great one, and you should absolutely pick up a copy. But just understand that the whole concept of reading the book and watching the musical are so fundamentally different that you are actually stacking the odds against your enjoyment of either when you expect similar results.
Your obedient servant,