Work, Work: Repetition and Circular Songwriting in “Hamilton”

Look at where you are. Look at where you started.

Most songs, whether on the radio, on stage, on film, follow the basic “Verse-Chorus” structure. If the Chorus is the “thesis,” or point of the piece, the Verse is the “body paragraph,” providing specifics, examples, additional color to flesh out the key message of the Chorus.

The music of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton shatters this convention. Its score can be described as less like a traditional book musical, and more like an opera, set to a hip-hop, R&B, and pop score. A few numbers fit within traditional song templates (there are nearly 50 songs), while the bulk of it is more on the operatic side, with musical moments and ideas presented, then swirling to another phrase, then back again.

Hamilton is almost the anti-musical, presenting what I consider “circular” songs: presenting one single instance, frozen in time and/or inviting us in media res, flooding us with context, then snapping back to the present. They have elements of the traditional “Verse-Chorus” template, but have a unique structure all to their own.

One example of this is the terrific introduction to The Schuyler Sisters. Three high-class ladies hit the New York scene, introducing themselves by name: “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy: the Schuyler Sisters.” Led by Angelica, the trio rebuffs men’s romantic advances for more intellectual pursuits: discussing Thomas Payne’s Common Sense, politics, and gender equality. They all agree that “History is happening in Manhattan, and [they] just happen to be in the greatest city in the world.” The song expands, as a hearty ensemble joins them for another chorus before we lock back into the opening refrain: “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy: the Schuyler Sisters!”

Not only is this song immensely entertaining, but it leaves a considerable impression for essentially starting and ending at the same place – the opening “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy” introduction, rather than the song’s chorus. In the narrative proper for this show (excluding the opening number), literally the first words out of each sister’s mouth is her name – seemingly the basest level of introduction. The song turns out to be anything but, as we learn more about the different personalities, attitudes, and minds of these modern, well-rounded women. The reaffirmation at the song’s conclusion, their re-introduction, nails this home. They’re at the same place they were when the song started, but we’re not – three minutes later, we’ve been remarkably introduced to the Schuyler Sisters.

This songwriting in media res is even more profound for Angelica’s lead song Satisfied. She toasts the marriage of Eliza to Alexander Hamilton: “A toast to the groom, to the bride, from your sister who is always by your side. To your union and the hope that you provide, may you always be satisfied.” The number then literally “rewinds,” back to when Angelica first met Hamilton. She reflects (via rap) how quickly she judged him before passing him off to the instantly-smitten Eliza, regretting her choice now that the former has fallen for him herself. At the same time, however, she reminds herself that as the oldest sister, she has a responsibility to marry rich and look out for her sisters’ happiness. To have taken Hamilton for herself would have broken both 18th century codes.

The liquid piano line glides us back into the present, as she repeats her toast from the beginning – but now weighed down by the understanding and acceptance of her choice. Her tongue-twisting rap and rapid turn of phrase illustrates how quickly her mind works and all the thoughts and fears running through as she realizes, all in one instant, she will never be satisfied.

The traditional approach would have been each song concluding with the main Chorus, but instead, the songs wrap around back to their introductory phrases. The Schuyler Sisters and Satisfied are just two examples of how Hamilton turns the musical on its head, from classical “move-the-story-along” songs, to literally stopping the narrative action, working backwards to contextualize a key moment, then moving forward.

The effect of each song is less from a “message” driven home through a Chorus, and more in the reaffirmation of the opening phrase. To hinge a song on the repeating of a single phrase once, rather than multiple times (as a Chorus would have been), is an admirable exercise in restraint and creates an even greater musical impact. Hamilton is a remarkably rich score with terrific numbers, but these “circular” songs stand out among the best for their uniqueness and memorable power.

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Weekly Round-Up: June 19-25, 2016

Last week I only saw three movies, as much more time was spent with family and friends (not a bad thing!) —

  • The Last Days of Disco (1998) – Whit Stillman is back with his fast-talking young urban professionals, who dress and look like the 90s but apparently are in the late 70s / early 80s. I had a hard time keeping all the names and characters straight, which might not have been of high import as the dialogue could have come from any of their mouths – each character was interchangeable. High marks for Kate Beckinsale playing a cold, oblivious roommate to Chloe Sevigny. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Hail, Caesar! (2016) – This didn’t hit as well as it did when I saw this in theaters a few months ago, but this Old Hollywood comedy is still charming and inspired. The whole (a kidnapping plot by Communists) is eh, while the sum of its parts (Channing Tatum tap-dancing, and anything with Alden Ehrenreich) is pretty great. RECOMMENDED.
  • The In-Laws (1979) – Insufferable action-comedy about a mild-mannered dentist whose daughter’s future father-in-law is a CIA agent who gets them caught up in wacky adventures! The acting was fine, but nothing about this was funny or entertaining. Wish I had my two hours back! NOT RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: June 12-18, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Finding Nemo (2003) – First time watching with Cine-Explore, a terrific commentary-esque feature with visual pop-ups including concept art and storyboards. The filmmaker’s insights on the parallels between father Marlin and son Nemo’s journeys were particularly compelling. REQUIRED.
  • Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) – This story of an aging actress and her dedicated assistant started off an an engaging foot, but I grew tired of these unlikable characters and scenes of wraparound dialogue that didn’t progress the story in a meaningful way. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Damned Don’t Cry! (1950) – I love a good Joan Crawford vs. the world flick as much as the next guy, but this quasi-noir was a tough Doll to swallow. Joan Crawford goes from complacent, impoverished housewife to confident, sizzling seductress seemingly overnight… really? NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Female Trouble (1974) – Wacky John Waters tale of a disturbed young lady who balances being a mother with a rise to stardom as a violent supermodel. Not sure if I like this as much as Pink Flamingos, but still an outrageously fun time. Special shout-out to the theme song, sung by Divine herself! RECOMMENDED.
  • Mommie Dearest (1981) – One of my absolute favorite, could-watch-this-everyday kind of movies, and finally got to see it on the big screen. Terrific audience, shrieking with laughter at all the right times and even reciting entire scenes of poetic dialogue back at the screen. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Finding Dory (2016) – This immensely worthy sequel is more painful, devastating, and emotionally satisfying than its predecessor. An absolute knockout. REQUIRED.

What did you see last week?

 

Finding Dory (2016)

I suffer from short-term memory loss. It runs in my family. At least, I think it does….where are they?…

Dory’s introduction in the 2003 classic Finding Nemo can be taken, at first, as a purely comic device. Dory, the bubbly and determined Regal Blue Tang, is a fish without a past who knocks into Marlin the clownfish, and helps find his missing son Nemo. She enters the picture solo, and at its conclusion, has become a member of the family, living alongside them in an idyllic reef.

The highly-anticipated sequel Finding Dory pivots the tone and story into a wildly, and admirably, different direction. The beauty and wonder of the ocean is diminished, replacing vivid colors with duller, paler greens and blues. The loving piano theme of the original is foiled by a pained, longing solo violin cue. Finding Dory takes us on a much darker journey, into more devastating emotional pitfalls, for all the more satisfying a climax.

We flash back to Dory’s childhood, and are introduced to her kind parents Charlie and Jenny. She finds herself separated from her family, and pleads for help from passerby fish. Some try to help, but none really follow through. A montage of this pattern through the years transpires, as Dory grows from child to adolescent to the adult version we know. This brief scene is a powerful and horrible reminder of how we often treat those less fortunate.

She’s still trying to find her parents when she crashes into Marlin – coming full circle to the events of Finding Nemo. Flash forward a year later, she’s a well-known member of the reef community – even “helping” Mr. Ray as an assistant teacher. During a lesson on migration and instinct, she has a flashback to her parents, and feels an urgent calling; Dory insists that Marlin and Nemo help her, and so the trio journeys out to find them.

Dory finds herself in quarantine, and meets the septopus (octopus missing a leg) Hank – arguably the breakout star of the film. Hank is grumpy, slinky, and isolationist – like any good octopus should be. He agrees to help Dory find her parents, if she gives him her quarantine tag, his “ticket” to a life in a glass tank away from the real ocean. It’s a visual treat to see him transport Dory in various modes (a coffee pot, sippee cup, among others), all while camouflaging himself to his surroundings, constricting himself into a ball, and even wheeling around a stroller.

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Of course mayhem ensues, including: Dory and Hank ending up in a toddler-friendly “touch” pool (recalling the daycare scenes of Toy Story 3), Marlin and Nemo befriending occasionally aggressive sea lions, and whale shark Destiny and beluga whale Bailey assist Dory’s search via echolocation. The zany cast of characters and outrageous situations make Dory an occasionally non-stop laugh-out-loud delight.

When it’s not, though, Finding Dory is a trying emotional journey on the level of BraveThe Good Dinosaur, and maybe even Inside Out. (For the record, it took less than five minutes for me to tear up in this one…) Its more muted, darker tone is an immediate cue that this journey is a heavier one than in Nemo. But going to those darker places and putting the characters in such dire situations, only make the happy endings that much sweeter. Finding Dory is a rich, complex story of the fish without a past carving out her own future.

 

Life is the Bubbles

Nobody loved The Little Mermaid as much as I did. The music, the adventure, the characters, and the high-stakes drama – it was all two-year-old me could ask for in a movie. He could watch it every day, so he did. As soon as his big sisters were off to school, the daily Little Mermaid ritual began: climbing into his VHS cabinet, shimmying out the bulky white plastic case between Lady and the Tramp and Mary Poppins, jamming the tape into the VCR, and immersing himself into the story of Ariel.

The Little Mermaid was such an important part of his everyday routine. Nobody could love it as much as he did.

Except the thousands of fans who also attended a screening of the film at the Hollywood Bowl. Followers of Ariel of all shapes and sizes, from little princesses to full-grown adults cosplaying as Scuttle, the real show on display was the breadth and diversity of all the people this movie touched.

In the era of Netflix, it’s so easy to enjoy entertainment wherever and whenever we please – often from the comfort of home. But it’s another experience entirely to go out, get dressed up, buy an expensive ticket for a movie you’ve already seen, and take part in a collective, collaborative entertainment event. The film screening was enhanced by the presence and enthusiasm of a motley crew, cheering as Ursula gets defeated, stifling tears as King Triton destroys Ariel’s grotto, and whistling when Eric finally “kisses the girl.”

His childhood routine, of watching and re-watching The Little Mermaid, was a mostly solitairy one – with Mom stepping in every 80 minutes or so to rewind the tape. It was something else to experience this film with a crowd of thousands, authentic kids and kids at heart, who also watched it every day growing up, now no longer alone.

Weekly Round-Up: June 05-11, 2016

This week had a few jumbled viewings, as I fell asleep and had to resume no fewer than three films. I watched:

  • Tangerine (2015) – Outrageous, hysterical, and ultimately moving story of friendship between two prostitutes in a sun-bleached vision of Hollywood. Fully fleshed out characters and strong performances anchor what would otherwise be a camp-fest, into a well-grounded window into another world. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • The Little Mermaid (1989) – Special screening at the Hollywood Bowl, with the music performed live by an orchestra with singing by Jodi Benson (the real Ariel), Rebel Wilson (as Ursula), and Darren Criss (Prince Eric), among others. Another highlight was the opening acts, of Brad Kane (the real Aladdin) and Susan Egan (the real Megara). Here’s a post reflecting on my experience. REQUIRED.
  • Zootopia (2016) – I’ve seen this four times now, and each time I uncover something new in this wonderfully rich film. It’s a heavy one thematically, touching on racism, sexism, discrimination, politics – but it balances them all beautifully in a labyrinthine mystery. REQUIRED.
  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) – Had a hard time getting through this one. A male outsider comes to a northwest mining town, followed by professional Madame, and they pair up to start a high-class whorehouse. I went into it with enthusiastically (I enjoy the other Altman films I’ve seen), but I cared little-to-nothing about these characters or their slow-moving plotlines. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Conjuring 2 (2016) – Spooky paranormal thriller combines standard “jump” moments with some creative scares, all enriched by a quality story and stylized visuals. The Warrens are back and taking ghost-hunting to an international level, traveling to London to help a desperate family rid their house of spirits. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Player (1992) – I’m still brewing about this one. I loved the first half of the film: a studio executive being pursued by a frustrated writer, all while balancing his paranoia with the chaos and cynicism of show business. I fell off during the second half, where it gets into an unnecessary love story, but it all circles around to a twisty ending I appreciated. So, opinion is still TBD…

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about McCabe & Mrs. Miller?

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

There’s a lot about The Conjuring 2, and its predecessor, that’s by-the-book. The “jump” scary moments are paced just like other modern horror films: a character enters a room, the camera loops around them and oh no! the ghost is right behind them. We get so many of these scenes you can almost time them.

In fairness, though, this is what contemporary audiences seem to be looking for when it comes to horror. A triumph like The Witch was all but booed at the screening I attended, from an audience disappointed by slow-burning terror and just wanted the adrenaline rush.

While I myself hate the “jump” moments (and so often fall victim to them), I admire The Conjuring 2 for its balance of throwaway scares (possibly to appease mainstream audiences?) with thoughtful story points and compelling themes.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are back as paranormal investigator superheroes Ed and Lorraine Warren, whose core weapon against hauntings and demons is their own faith. As in the original Conjuring, this narrative element is treated very respectfully. The couple is grounded in their convictions and is fully equipped to take on anything, from their knowledge and belief in their faith to overcome the evils of the world.

And what evils they face. In this chapter, they take things to an international level and travel to England to help with the Enfield Poltergeist case.  They’ve come to assist a family terrorized by moving objects, levitation, and even possession. The main victim of all this, 11-year-old Janet, is acted terrifically by Madison Wolfe, who convincingly embodies both a frightened, victimized young girl with a powerful, horrifying demon inside her.

In addition to “jump” scares galore, there’s some genuinely unnerving moments. Early in the film, Ed Warren paints an image he’s seen in a nightmare – the same demon that Lorraine has visions of. There’s a great scene where Lorraine enters the living room, with the lights out, and we see the face behind her – but is it the painting, or the demon, or both?

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Who wants this hanging up in their house?

 

Getting technical, but I was also really impressed by the lighting. In many scenes, both day and night, the color palette felt out of a black-and-white movie. The images soaked in darkness, with pockets of light on select objects, backgrounds, and characters. This creates an effective unsettling mood, as you’re left to wonder what’s lurking in those dark spaces.

Some of the tactics employed by The Conjuring 2 aren’t anything groundbreaking, but its quality story and characters elevate it to a higher tier of contemporary horror films.