To Live, Love, Fight on No Day but Today.

Xinyi Wang

The light is shining, and the music is on. A group of youths, in different skin colors and fashion styles, are jumping on and off the bar table, hitting the table with beats, singing “La vie Boheme.”  They are cheering like they are not the ones who are without enough savings to pay their rent, but with AIDs, disdain from the society, and the threats of dying anytime in the future. They are Mark, Roger, Mimi, Collins, Angel, Maureen, and Joanne; they are homosexuals, transexuals, AIDs patients, paupers, nobody in the society. But they are the answers that Jonathan Larson, the playwright of musical Rent, gives to the question: if you are in desperation, or even in threats of dying, what will you do?

            Mimi’s answer is to live devotedly. With enchanting and expectant facial expressions, she dances with music, rotates into Roger’s chest, and asks him to play “out tonight.” As an exotic dancer, Mimi is confident in her body and attractiveness, so when she finds Roger charming, she starts her actions at once. But Roger rejects her, at the time when both of them disclose their HIV positive results to each other. However, Mimi doesn’t quit. Since the moment she was diagnosed with AIDS, she has decided to live her life to the fullest and to leave no regrets. By holding Roger’s hand, looking into his eyes genuinely, and singing “I live this moment as my last. There’s only us. There’s only this. Forget regret, or life is yours to miss. No other road. No other way. No day but today” over and over again, Mimi is conducting her philosophy of life to him. Roger, on the other hand, refuses to open his mind to Mimi by keeping his back to her while holding his head with his hands. Both his shouts of “Control your temper” and fretted body movements show his struggle and depression about the future. The duet is powerful, high-pitched, and verse after verse at first, illustrating the irreconcilable conflicts between the two loved ones. During the latter part of the duet, Roger’s sound gradually falls below Mimi’s, sticking out her urges of “no day but today.”

            Angel’s answer is to love earnestly. She lights up the stage not only with her shiny appearance but also her beautiful qualities. She is often disguised as a woman, wearing heavy makeup, wigs, and colorful uppers, clothes, and skirts, high heels. She is kind, unsophisticated, and warm-hearted, as shown by his first appearance, during which she helps a stranger on the street without asking for any return. It is also her kindness that pushes her to help Collins the other day and lets them get to know each other. As Collins introduces her to his friends, Angel shows up to the accompaniment of the harp, a soothing and elegant melody that is distinctive throughout music on this stage: she is indeed an angel. She spreads positivity wherever he goes. When a lady asks for her help to make her neighbor’s dog disappear, she is happy to help; when she “agreed on a fee, a thousand dollar guarantee, tax-free” with the lady, she shares this exhilarating news with her friends in huge excitement, as demonstrated by her legs kicking up and down. When Collins asks her “Are we a thing?” she answered, “Darling, we are everything.” Sadly, Angel succumbs to her disease during the second act of the show, but her love continues to shine on her friends. When Mimi is close to death, she encounters Angel in front of the white light, telling her to “Turn around, girlfriend, and listen to that boy’s song.” Angel suffers from AIDS and disdain for her abnormal dressing and sexual identity, but she uses the most optimistic and active lifestyle to cherish every emotion that everyone around her gives her, treats everyone with the purest feelings in return. Angel lives to love others and to contribute to others. 

Mark, Roger, Mimi, Collins, Angel, Maureen, Joanne, and more ambitious young people’s answer is to fight fearlessly. They fight for justice and for their dreams.

How do you start a fire

When there’s nothing to burn

And it feels like something’s stuck in your flue

How can you generate heat

When you can’t feel your feet

Drama songs use a lot of parallelisms to ask questions, creating a sense of oppression. They are expected to “start a fire” when “there is nothing to burn”; they are forced to pay the rent of the worst houses in the city when their pockets are empty. These ionic rhetoric questions in a row vividly depict to the audiences a group of people who are suffering from cold and hunger yet is asked to pay for a burden that they cannot afford.

We’re not gonna pay

We’re not gonna pay

We’re not gonna pay

Last year’s rent

This year’s rent

Next year’s rent

Rent rent rent rent rent

We’re not gonna pay rent

Cause everything is rent

This group has repeatedly emphasized that they “are not gonna pay” rent, whether it is the rent of “last year”, “this year” or “next year.” These most frequently repeated phrases can express the resolute attitude of the renters. The word “last year” represents the uptight life these people have experienced in past years. The word “next year” expresses their unwillingness to accept rent anytime in the future, because they will be oppressed more severely on more issues than today, housing, job, sexuality, health — “everything is rent”. The ending sentence of this number has deeper implications. Everything used in the world is bestowed by nature, which never belongs to anyone, as no one has the right to dominate it. A world within which everything is rent should be a fair one, but it treats this group too unfairly. Therefore, they fight. They fight to not pay the rent; they fight to continue the protest party; they fight against the ones who depreciate them. Additionally, the life of these youths can be considered as rent. They are thankful to God for every day they are alive, as Mimi confesses in her song, “I live this moment as my last.” They rent their life from God, and the life will be paid back sooner or later. Like someone suffering from AIDS rents weak life from the god of death and rents hopeless love from the god of love, the young people enjoy what they have now and cherish the current moment to achieve their dreams. One year has passed, Roger successfully accomplishes his much-sought-after song, “Your eyes”, confessing his love to Mimi; Mark makes great progress on his newly completed film; Collins reprograms an ATM at a grocery store to provide money to anybody with the code ‘ANGEL’.                    

These seven youths’ lives perfectly answer the question at the beginning: to live devotedly, to love earnestly, and to fight fearlessly when in a desperate fate. It is no doubt that they will continue to glow in their fictional Alphabet City. 

            In reality, Jonathan Larson creates these characters based on his own experience and his friends around him. He focuses on the exotic dancer, homosexuals, bisexuals, drag queens, drug abusers, AIDS carries — a population whose careers and sexualities are not accepted by the mainstream society. During his seven-year-production, he gradually fulfills every character’s personality and traits with patient and love.

            In addition to the variety of characters, the diversity of music in Rent is also noticeable. Most of the songs in the play area in the style of rock. It is because of rock’s specialty that allows the audiences to truly experience the cries of discriminated groups. For example, the opening song “Rent” not only explains the background of the drama but also establishes the tone of the whole musical. This song depicts a group of disadvantaged groups who have been treated unfairly by society to complain about their experience — most of them are on the verge of death but are forced to pay rent or be swept out. This kind of strong dissatisfaction requires a rough and surging way to vent, so the rock is the most suitable. This is also in line with the original intention of the whole musical: to reflect the lives of disadvantaged groups the most truthfully and to awaken people’s inner care. Jazz is another most used music style in Rent, and it is adopted in many songs, such as “Accept Me or Leave Me”. The song is presented as a duet and is a quarrel between a newly married lesbian, who have conflicts about whether or not they can flirt with others at will after marriage. The inconsistency and the eclectic melodies of Jazz portraits the couple with different ways of doing things and personalities. 

            Larson presented such a rich variety of musical styles for the musical, accomplishing over 100 songs. Unfortunately, he didn’t see his works translated into 16 languages, performed in over 150 cities in 21 countries, and winning dozens of praises like the Tony Award. But what he did will be remembered forever: a legendary musical, a group of ambitious, lovely, kind characters, and the idea of life: to live, love, fight, on no day but today.

Takeaways from : Appreciation, Respect, and Ambition

Xinyi Wang

Hamilton has lightened up Broadway since 2015 with its wonderful mixing of serious history and creative artistic elements. It reflects on the legendary life of Alexander Hamilton — the thriving and devastating story of this tragic giant — yet dissects and then reconstructs it into a story of an immigrant starting from the bottom to fight for the American dream. This is the portrait of America, a country of immigrants. On the stage of Hamilton, this portrait is elaborately adorned with many designs, including elements of repeating lyrics, substantive hip-hop performances, and performers with a diverse background. These designs made Hamilton a great musical, and more importantly, they emphasize the contributions made by immigrants, imprint the growingly diverse society senses of pride and belongingness, as well as awaken everyone’s ambition to build this nation a better one.

            That one sentence deeply rooted in every audience’s mind shapes who Alexander Hamilton is. Compared to other founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton is always the more controversial one: he is the youngest, yet he is the poorest; his contributions to the Revolution War and the establishment of the financial system are undeniable, yet his conceit and aggressiveness in politics are widely criticized. However, despite his widely known identity as a representative politician or simply a historic figure, Hamilton focuses on the hindered identity: an immigrant from Charlestown Nevis who realized his value in the land of America. The very first lyrics “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” well emphasized the immigrant identity of Hamilton. Throughout his lifetime, his opponent Burr would repeat his lyrics whenever Hamilton made any achievements, reminding others of his inferior identity. Burr is not the only one who kept repeating information about immigrants; Hamilton would repeat for himself as well. At every significant moment in his life — getting married, scandals being exposed, until dying from the battle — Hamilton reflected on his experience immigrating from Nevis to New York and achieving his career. Another character as an immigrant affiliate to illustrate contributions made by immigrants from all over the places: the one “who’s unafraid to step in”, who is “constantly confusing, confounding the British henchman”, Marquis de Lafayette! Lafayette worked closely with Hamilton in the Revolution War, fighting for the independence of the nation without any fear or hesitation. They were proud to show everyone once and once more: “Immigrants, we get the work done!” 

            The repeating lyrics in the middle of fast beats emphasized the fact that Alexander Hamilton and other gentlemen like him who contributed to the country are all immigrants. They are proud of their identities, while they love their country as deeply as natives do. This elaborately designed element caught every audient’s heart well because it reflects on American society in reality. Ever since the 17th century, immigrants from all over the world migrated into America, and immigration kept changing the composition of the population until today. As immigrants with diverse cultural and religious backgrounds interacted on the same piece of land during the past years, the diversity in culture has become an impression of American society, effectively affecting the development. Though immigrants came from multiple homelands, spoke multiple languages, and believed in various religions, they held the same dream when they step on the land of America, which is to fight for a brighter future. This ambition in common is summarized by the symbol “American dream” and is again well claimed by Hamilton’s repetitive arias: “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry.” Through all of these repeating arias, <Hamilton> appreciates the significance of contributions made by all the immigrants and eulogizes the “American dream” and the striving spirit of everyone in this diverse society.

            Besides the “sung-through” with many repeating lyrics, the hip-hop performances are another revolutionary creation made by Hamilton that further reflects on the immigration cultures. Distinguished from traditional musicals, Hamilton mixed jazz, hip hop, and rock music together, and combined popular music in the 21st century and serious political history in the 18th century together, giving audiences a brand-new vision of classics. The hip-hop performances cater to the appreciation of immigration culture from three perspectives. Firstly, the upbringing of hip-hop matches the life experience of Alexander Hamilton. Born in the slum block Bronx, New York City, and thriving with the black culture, hip hop has been the representative of a popular culture rooted from the bottom of the society. Its specialty in social identity, ethnicity, and a spirit of rebellion fit Alexander Hamilton’s spirit and the revolutionary social atmosphere across the nation at that time well. Similar to the black communities who are proud of their pop culture, Hamilton takes his immigrant identity for granted as well. Secondly, the spiritual core of hip hop reflects on the spirits of minority immigrants, struggling from the bottom-most social status to realize their American dream. Hamilton’s transition from powerless immigrants to founding fathers of the United States is an illustration of his struggling as well. In addition to the spirit of working hard, hip hop’s tradition of “underground” illustrates its supporters’ pursue of freedom and independence; though developing underground against the major trend in society, hip hop lovers never cease to express their eagerness of singing freely and confidently in front of more people in their songs. It is the pursuit of freedom that enkindles the enthusiasm to overthrow the British colonialism in America in the 18th century. Finally, considering the form of expression in hip hop, the strong sense of rhythm and beats, <Hamilton> sceneries the cabinet debates among senior ministers into battles between rappers. As president Washington becomes the host of the battle, Hamilton and Jefferson express their political views regarding national debt and international relationships through hip hop. This form of music makes serious history more acceptable and more interesting for audiences today, taking a step forward to forge a sense of nationalism.

            While the repeating lyrics aim at the appreciation of the immigrant community, and the inspirational adaptation of hip hop is to respect the cultural diversity from various communities in the society, <Hamilton> is also excellent in building every character instead of depicting an ethnic group as a whole. This musical is passing on the idea of equality to audiences not only conceptually, but touchingly through every vivid and lively character on the stage. In “My Shot”, Laurens calls out “But we’ll never be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me” to defend black citizens’ equal rights. In the first cabinet debate, Hamilton suggested irrationality when Jefferson said “We plant seeds in the south. We create.” Because “We know who is doing the planting.” Hamilton and his companions criticized the exploitation of black labors in the south by white elites like Jefferson and appreciated the indispensable contributions made by the black people. Besides, there are several times that Washington faced audiences alone, introspecting his “flaws”. The president is not the only one who confesses to the audiences; in the finale, Eliza sings about how she is “still not through”— after she “raise funds in D.C. for the Washington monument”, “speak against slavery”, “established the first private orphanage in New York City” — she kept asking: “Have I done enough? Will they tell my story?” Eliza is the epitome of millions of women, who were ambitious in promoting the development of society in their ways yet being neglected in the mainstream historic narration. Just as the finale “Who lives, who dies, who tells you a story” indicates, everyone fighting for the nation should be remembered, regardless of his or her ethnicity or gender.

            In addition to shaping figures on the stage through their performances, Hamilton also support the idea of equality through its casts. As a Broadway musical based on the story of the white founding father of the United States, “Hamilton” has been subversively using a large number of minorities and female actors such as African Americans, Latinos, Latinos, etc. as leading actors and group actors since its premiere. The main character Hamilton has appeared in multiple productions on Broadway, National Tour, and West End with actors of different ethnicities; in the Broadway premiere version, President Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the Skyler sisters are all cast by actors of different skin colors. Within the increasingly diverse cultural background, <Hamilton> innovates by adopting theories like “conceptual casting”, “cross-cultural casting”, choosing the actors who best fit the artistic performance of the musical instead of who meet the requirements like skin color and such. 

            As the producer and playwright of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, once said, this is a past story told by contemporary America. Through revolutionary elements on the musical stage including repeating lyrics, innovations in hip hop performances, and dynamic characters, Hamilton constructs an emotional bund between the past and contemporary American society, inspiring everyone to realize their “American Dream”, to love the nation and everyone else regardless of their ethnicity and gender. 

“Bread and Love” of Two Female Characters in American Musicals

         From the birth of musicals as a distinctive art form on stage in the early 1900s to the golden age in the 1950s, Broadway has witnessed an evolution of musicals. First, modern musicals remixed elements of music and gradually took the place of European operetta characterized by romantic light music. Second, encounters of culture arose more frequently and more people were available to go to theaters. All of above changes prompted musicals to focus on what intrigued ordinary people the most: bread and love. The musicals Funny Girl and The King and I emerged at this time. It is interesting to note that the main characters in both musicals were powerful females: Fanny, a Jewish American actress, and Anna, a British schoolteacher teaching in Siam royalty, both founded their bread and love yet ended up with a loss of balance between them, even though being in distinctively different geographical settings, one in the United States and the other in Siam in the far east. Through this intersectional lens on Fanny and Anna, the incompatible nature of bread and love still renders a tragic atmosphere on 20th century female.

         “Hello gorgeous,” with such an exhausted sighing, Fanny met herself in the mirror in a theater’s backstage room, and meanwhile met the audiences offstage. Fanny Brice in reality was a famous comedian, performing in the Follies in the 1920s, showing up in radio shows during the later years, and 13 years after her death, her glorious life was portrayed in the musical Funny Girl. However, at the beginning of her story, Fanny was just a funny comedian bringing laughers in the audiences, and a broken woman waiting desperately for her imprisoned husband’s return.

         In 1910s, Fanny represented millions of other girls from ordinary communities, not considered as a beauty compared to the popular appreciation of Ziegfeld girls. Being obsessed with Ziegfeld girls’ skinny body shapes, cute faces, and sweet dances — characters that Fanny barely owned, everyone concluded that a girl like Fanny “doesn’t spell success” and “gets only pity and pat” with such look. Fanny didn’t back down. She replied with a dramatic pose and a confident smile, “The whole world will look at me and be stunned!” Yet after this seemingly easy confidence was her repeated trainings for routines of the audition every night after everyone else was back home, countless falling overs followed immediately by standing up. Her perfect performances won her the chance to Keeney’s, and eventually on Ziegfeld. However, there were more obstacles on her way. Ziegfeld insisted to kick her out of Follies if she wouldn’t exaggerate on performances, and Fanny failed to convince him that she wanted audiences to laugh with her but not laugh at her. Therefore, the eventual success of comedienne Fanny, a “pregnant bride”, and later brilliant characters couldn’t show up without her iron will of singing, compromise, and conciliation at the very beginning. At an era when a delicate look determined a woman’s success, Fanny broke the barrier and won her bread.

         Meanwhile, the appearance of Mr. Arnstein after she stepped down the stage brought her infinite expectations of a glamorous future and infinite longlines when he was not there. “I imagined you every place in the world. You are like a character in the book to me.” After Mr. Arnstein’s leave for several months, Fanny realized what she really wanted is companionship. She was uncertain about this man, with uncontrollable hand shaking and avoidance in eye contact, but her courage and passion still pushed her to confront how she needed him. At the railroad station, Fanny decided to quit Follies performances and run after Mr. Arnstein, as she thought this was the one chance to catch happiness. In “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, Fanny didn’t utilized many singing skills, but instead expressed emotions, exulting in finding her happiness. Though with bright music, the first conflict between Fanny’s bread and love was rooted here. Her marriage life was in a much faster beat. Fanny made a compromise between her bread and love for the second time when she was rushing to return to the stage, so she made light on her husband’s debt trouble. Once again, she chose the fastest way, putting up the money secretly, to help her husband, which indirectly caused his anger, and finally hotheaded crime of embezzlement. Fanny was expecting an equal relationship with the man she loved, and she fought for it fearlessly. However, when she though that they were equally supporting each other, her husband was deeply hurt for receiving Fanny’s help and for feeling dependent upon her. This irreconcilable conflict ended their relationship, regardless of love between them.

         In the final scene, Fanny sang the melodies of Rain on My Parade again, with legs spread apart, with arms holding her chest, with pathos and decisiveness to look forward. She knew that she had to be even a stronger woman, supporting herself and her little daughter. But did she know why things turned out to be like this? No matter how much money and fame she earned from performances, how much inspirations she brough to the Follies and the development of musicals as a whole, or how independent she could be, she always had an identity that should be well memorized: wife. As a wife, she’d better support her husband’s career at least as much as to her own’s and avoid make her husband feel dependent upon her — or they would run counter to the general trend of the society.

         “I whistle a happy tune and every single time,” singing while holding her little boy’s hand, Anna Leonowens arrived in Bangkok, Siam on the other side of the earth. For the unknown journey in Siam where she could not speak any language and knew about no one, Anna sang this song to cheer herself up with courage. After landing, the half-naked outfit of the prime minister Kralahome, the invasive question he asked about privacy, and a group of concubines who messed around her luggage, all of these circumstances evoked Anna’s discontentment. But she bore and focused on her work. She devoted in teaching the children about freedom, equality, kindness, and other western theories. In “Getting to Know You”, Anna expressed her enjoyment making friends with the cute children and Thiang, along with the rising tone of the melody. Anna treated her job as a glorious mission, spreading knowledge and love to her students, thus rendering herself as a successful inspiring figure in the eastern world.

         On the other hand, the relationship between Anna and the king experienced tense moments, moments of reconciliation, and moments of attraction and rupture, eventually a woeful farewell. When the king disrupted her class, complaining about her teaching of “home”, she insisted on the promise of a brick house adjacent to the palace, and indicted that the king broke his promise. Throughout these times, she was never afraid of questioning his decisions or altering his beliefs, which deeply attracted the king. Anna was also aware of his transition, from scorn, weariness to listening to her suggestions in an open mind. Their admiration of each other climaxed after a European reception of the envoys. “Shall we dance?” These syllables repeated along the melody, like the transition from a questioning to a tentative tone between Anna and the king. Their careful affections were vividly depicted by their bodily languages: Anna’s enjoying dances, and the king’s unskillful steps. However, this affection could only be invisible, when the social status, race, and demand of freedom were desperately different between them. These hidden troubles experienced outburst when the king caught Tuptim, his “present”, dating secretly with her lover. He considered Tuptim as his belongingness, something that he could punish whenever he wanted, yet Anna, cherishing the valuable love in the deepest of her heart, tried to protect Tuptim. Both the dialogue and bodily expressions were explosive at this point, indicating that the king and Anna could never reach consensus.

          Throughout the king and I, Anna accepted the eastern culture, just as others embraced her fresh ideas, and along with her intelligence, courage, independence, she succeeded in. teaching the children, spreading thoughts of freedom, and finally helping cultivate the next king. However, she never got to speak her affections toward the king, nor did she get any chance to experience more with him. The king and Anna promoted the encounters of cultures in the late 19th century, but they could never overcome the barrier between their identities.

          Though Fanny and Anna lost their love in the end, the significance of their appearance as a representation of female in the 20th century should not be denied. Their self-confidence, self-reliance, persistence, and hard-working were the valuable traits for them to earn their “bread”, growing to be the iconic person in their field. By establishing these two female characters, the authors aimed to encourage more females to dedicate if they would like to pursue their own careers. In a nutshell, retrospection of Fanny and Anna’s life stories showed that the ceiling for females in the 20th century was the reason for their loss of love when seeking for power and independence, but let’s ponder what if they were born in 100 years later? With all the precious qualities they owned, and dedications they have made, there might be a different ending.