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Painstakingly, putting it together, bit by remarkable bit
"BIT by bit, putting it together," goes the song about the act of creation by Lin-Manuel Miranda's idol, Stephen Sondheim. It wasn't until Miranda was a spectator at his own show, and no longer a performer in it, that he grasped the real power of one of the most extraordinary numbers in the musical that he and the three other original members of the Hamilton brain trust painstakingly assembled, bit by remarkable bit.
"The first time I saw it, I was so overwhelmed," Miranda says of Satisfied, the song Angelica Schuyler, who loves Alexander Hamilton from afar, sings at a powerful moment in Hamilton.
"I mean, it's still the number that every time I see it, regardless of where I am in my life or which company I'm seeing in the world, I am completely overwhelmed. It is so much bigger than all of us."
The observation is an especially moving one, coming from the man at the vortex of a team of cyclonic talents that has reminded the world that musical theatre is unarguably a great American art form. On a grey day in October, his thoughts on Satisfied are being recorded as he sits in a conference room of a Bronx movie studio with those three other artists: Thomas Kail, Alex Lacamoire and Andy Blankenbuehler. Together, they are being recognised by the Kennedy Center as the creators of Hamilton, the first work in any performing arts discipline to be singled out as an honoree in the awards' 40-year history.
The four men, ranging in age from 38 (Miranda) to 48 (Blankenbuehler), have forged one of the most significant creative alliances in the contemporary world of the stage. With Miranda as composer and star, Kail as director, Blankenbuehler as choreographer and Lacamoire as music director, they're collectively two-for-two in building Tony Award-winning musicals for Broadway, the first being 2008's In the Heights. And the second: a musical of such international influence that it's playing simultaneously in New York, London and through three American touring companies; has been showered with awards; and reached so deeply into global culture that it's sung everywhere from block parties in Brooklyn to dance academies in Beijing.
On this afternoon, an effort to gather the men in one place for a conversation about what this award memorialises - the art of collaboration - has resulted in a sit-down at Silvercup Studios North, where they are participating in another project they all have a hand in: a limited series for FX about director-choreographer Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon. When it was suggested that the interview focus on one galvanising interlude of Hamilton, and how each played their part in making it happen, the reaction was immediate and electric. It was an opportunity for them to reflect on the profound psychic-income aspect of their group achievement and the ineffable bond that feeds artistic success.
"This speaks to a sense of trust that I think is evident, as you watch all of us kind of lean forward in our seats, getting a chance to talk about this one particular thing," Kail, 40, says. "The difference between a show that might have an opportunity to be its full expression - when ideas are allowed to flow and be identified - and when they're squelched, because it's not your job or you shouldn't be saying this or you don't feel the comfort of being able to say it. "
With this group, that has never happened," adds Lacamoire, 43. "There's always been a thing about, 'You know, this isn't quite landing,' and then we all think about, how can we make it better?" "Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art," say the lyrics of that Sondheim song, Putting it Together, from Sunday in the Park With George, that seem so appropriate for the process by which this quartet of creators merged skills and sensibilities to make Hamilton. And to achieve the complex assemblage of rhyme, musical style, narrative playfulness, dance and emotional effect that conjoin in a number like Satisfied.
The vignette-filled Satisfied, which comes smack-dab in the middle of Act 1, proves to be a wonderful springboard for discussion, because it embodies so many of the musical's irresistible attributes: its restless, energetic resourcefulness; its ability to paint a historical mural and apply a modern varnish of commentary at the same time; its perspective shifts, its wit, its rigour. It's no wonder the song drew on and conjured for Miranda and company all manner of cultural references, including West Side Story, A Chorus Line, The Matrix and Ratatouille.
Emotional core of Hamilton
It's a song that was the breakthrough indicator of how much story their deeply researched musical, based largely on Ron Chernow's best-selling biography, could pack into a conventional two-act structure. Because before Satisfied, Angelica Schuyler did not exist in the show.
"The question of whether Eliza's sister would be a character was up for debate," Miranda recalls. "I mean, she is a confidante of her sister, she had these letters with Hamilton, and it's, 'Do I have time to get into that?' " Devising Satisfied for Angelica, a role originated in 2015 at off-Broadway's Public Theater and on Broadway by Renee Elise Goldsberry, who would win a Tony for it, proved crucial to developing the emotional core of Hamilton. It took Miranda about a month to write it, and it sets in motion the show's tragic element, how passion unfulfilled - in this case, Angelica's for Alexander - eventually tears apart Hamilton and those around him.
The song, which includes ingeniously rhymed rap to dramatise the dizzying sophistication of Angelica's own intellect, begins as Angelica's toast to the marriage of Hamilton to her sister, Eliza; Angelica has introduced her to Hamilton during the previous song, Eliza's Helpless.
"I liked the idea of a wedding toast," Miranda says. "I've been to enough wedding toasts where the wrong things tumble out." To your union, Angelica sings in the five-minute-plus number's opening segment, "And the hope that you provide/May you always/Be satisfied." What then follows is what the song identifies as a "rewind": going back to the events of Helpless, but told now from Angelica's anguished perspective, in a way that crystallises a pivotal facet of her character. "I remember that night, I might regret that night for the rest of my days," she sings, in the song's defining line.
In returning to that moment, Kail says, "we realised that there was an opportunity for Lin to play with the timeline, and the way that we moved through time." That concept would repeat itself at another climactic moment of Hamilton, in the freeze-frame rendering of the bullet that fatally strikes Hamilton in his duel with Aaron Burr. It was not an original idea, actually: The creative team was borrowing a cinematic technique, one of many they use in the show.
Kail says: "This is something I talk to the actors playing Angelica a lot - about Ratatouille - the 2007 animated movie about the rat that becomes a Parisian chef.
For Blankenbuehler, the choreographer, Satisfied was a feast of new possibility, too: "I think the first time I heard the song was at a reading," he says. "And I just remember the right hand on the piano, and the tinkles, and I instantly saw women suspended, like on top of a cake, like on pointe, like how things rotate on a wedding cake."
Asked how they could yield to one another in developing a song with so many working parts, Kail replies: "A tremendous amount of trust. The other research and development that happens over 10 or 12 or 15 years of working with someone, is faith. One of the real benefits of talking to anybody in this group is we can talk about emotion, and it can be translated and distilled into action." WP