Elias McClellan, here, to discuss writing and musical theatre and the importance of humor. Really, there is a point here. But my powder-wig covers it nicely.
Musical theatre, as with music in general, tells a story in highly condensed form. The fine detail is left to the reader/listener. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a masterpiece of musical theatre. Thing is, Hamilton is also a masterclass in storytelling.
Miranda’s production covers Alexander Hamilton’s 49 years in 2 hours, 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Sure, movies do similar things (without an intermission). But movies don't tell stories almost entirely in song. Song dictates a special economy to do the heavy lifting. And the songs kinda have to NOT suck.
Hamilton succeeds in aces with nary a flat number—which might be why the show has been on Broadway for four years with two national tours. Full of heart and life, the songs convey an epic story in intimate human terms. Specifically through moments of humor
My writing buddy and veteran actor Fulton Fry says whether your desire is to knock out a page-turning thriller or an edge-of-your seat space opera or coma-inducing technical manual, you have to and I quote “get off the readers’ chest and let them breath.” Too many authors use backstory or information dumps or cookie recipes to dial down the tension. I suggest humor.
A gag-on-the-fly saves your reader from peril fatigue while lending humanity to your story that few other devices can manage. Most importantly, a sarcastic remark or off-key observation or a cute turn of phrase won’t derail your pace like an extended character genealogy or chronicles of organized crime and banana imports.
That’s what Hamilton’s King George reminds us of—the power of laughter.
Hamilton’s petulant King George infuses humor—and humanity—into high drama with on-the-nose petulance and tone-deaf outrage. Songs titled, You’ll Be Back and What’s Comes Next? gives the audience breathing room in segue between Hamilton’s early introduction, Revolutionary War service, and fundamental philosophical differences that would form his finest and darkest hours.
Granted, it takes a deft touch and a thorough knowledge of both genre and audience. There is no harder translation than humor. I get it. Every single Spenser novel showcased Robert B. Parker’s talent at making witty dialogue and colorful asides look all-too easy. Every pale imitation illustrates how hard it is to write “fun” prose.
I can hear the “oh, no, that won’t work for me—I’m writing serious fiction” chorus. To which I say E. Annie Proulx. That’s like saying “your momma” but classier. As required for great-American-novel aspirants, Proulx’ Postcards, is unrelenting in it’s misery bordering on morose. Her follow up, The Shipping News, with family absurdity and local eccentricities, is joyous. Proulx gives a smile through the pain.
So, I have to write jokes, now?
Of course, humor is not necessary. Across genres, Thomas Harris, Cormac McCarthy, and John Updike have produced celebrated works without a note of (intentional) humor. Those aren’t the books I recall most fondly or even re-read. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rollins is a compelling, competent, courageous protagonist but Mosley’s Paris Minton—craven and neurotic in his frightful investigations—is just FUN to hang with and I reread the Fearless Jones books every couple of years.
Also, every humorists isn’t the “card” they think themselves. Seriously, Philip Roth is not everyone’s cup o’ chai. The trick is nuance to avoid nausea.
There is no overstating the importance of stretching to find the funny in your daily experience. You don’t have to be a David Foster Wallace, (please don’t). Daily, circumstantial hilarity, like a joke in four-four time, is the divine music that links all our dances together. King George brings the funny in Hamilton—but he also brings the humanity.
Honestly what’s more human than a crown, ermine cape, and knee-pants with stockings? Um, asking for a friend.
The photo above, King George III from the studio of Allan Ramsay, is a promotional photograph and covered by fair use, details here.