Musical Theater and Transculturation

Well, I finally did it. I broke down and started listening to the Hamilton cast album. Hamilton is, for those who don’t know, the (now grammy winning) hottest thing on Broadway, a biographical musical about the founding father, duel victim and face of the ten dollar bill, which stars show creator and MacArthur Fellow Lin-Manuel Miranda.

From the very opening line, it’s clear that this is not a period piece. Hip-hop and rap influences are immediately apparent, and I found that just a bit off putting at first hearing.  Then I thought about why I found it off putting.

Douglas Hofstadter uses the word transculturation to refer to the process of replacing cultural references when translating a text to a new language.  That’s sort of what’s happening here.  I’m sure that the founding fathers didn’t rap.  If you watched the performance of the show’s opening number on the recent Grammy telecast, there was an interesting juxtaposition.  Although the musical style is contemporary, the costumes are period, so you see the eighteenth century and hear something much more modern.

Of course Hamilton is far from the first show to do such a thing.  In West Side Story, Bernstein completely transculturated Romeo and Juliet in Verona to Tony and Maria in New York City.  Shows like Candide and A Little Night Music juxtapose modern music with older settings.  There’s (so far, I’m only a few songs in) one moment in Hamilton that evokes actual 18th century musical style, Samuel Seabury’s1 half of  “Farmer Refuted”.  I wonder if Miranda is contrasting Loyalists and Patriots by having the former sing music that sounds eighteenth century and European, while the latter sound hip, modern, and American.

This sort of approach has some benefits. A noticeable spike in Google search volume for the term “Alexander Hamilton” followed the Grammy performance. On the other hand, it doesn’t exactly encourage one to consider an event in its own historical and cultural context. What do we gain and lose when we retell an historical story through a modern cultural lens?


1Students of religious history will recognize the name. Seabury was later the first Anglican bishop in the United States.

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