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.