It Didn’t Throw Away Its Shot

On the one hand, I love American history and music.  On the other hand, I’m not a huge fan of musical theater or rap, and I’m skeptical of hype.  Initially, I refused to get caught up in the Hamilton mania, although I was happy to take up my in-laws’ offer to give us a pair of tickets.  I kept hearing and reading the rapturous reviews, and yet I continued to be dubious.

I gave Katharine the soundtrack for Christmas, and we played it during the holidays, but I didn’t focus because there was so much going on.  After my son reacted to seeing the show with an almost religious rapture, I started to think that maybe I would enjoy it.  The soundtrack found its way back on, and I could see why, even without the visuals, Hamilton was something special.  And when I saw the scene in the video above from the Grammys, I could sense the power of the production. (A better video is here, but I couldn’t figure out how to embed it–I’m still new to WordPress….)

On Monday, members of the cast of Hamilton performed at the White House, with much ballyhoo and praise, none more over the top than this quote from the First Lady, who had seen the off-Broadway production: “It was simply, as I tell everybody, the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.”  And that got my bullshit detector back up, because, no matter how damn good the show could possibly be, how can such a well-educated person think she can pick the single greatest piece of art ever created?

Last night, Katharine and I went to see the show, in a packed, appreciative and enthusiastic house.  I wish, like Hamilton, I could make palaces out of paragraphs and truly describe what I saw, but I can’t, except to say that the first act was exhilarating, and the second act was devastating. And while some of the dialogue (almost all sung or rapped) was hard to make out, I had little trouble understanding what was happening.  And I have to admit, the rapping worked.

One of the most fascinating things about studying the early days of our country is how, as deep as these deep thinkers analyzed, argued and worked to create systems of government, much of what actually happened was unplanned and was created by circumstance.  Act I of Hamilton embodies the youthful excitement and impetuousness of Hamilton, Burr (both of whom seem, from historical record, to have been brilliant, arrogant and deeply flawed men) and their cohorts who were able to move from drunken conspiracies formed in taverns, to public declarations of rebellion, to defeating Great Britain, turning the world upside down.  Interestingly, the song that brings the Revolution to a close is a stirring curtain closer (if there was a curtain), and I almost expected the crowd to leap to its feet for a rare mid-show standing O.  But that wasn’t the end.  Instead of finishing the act on that high note, there are three more songs–first, some comic relief from King George (which introduces the critical point that revolution is one thing, but governing is something wholly different), a contemplative number in which Burr and Hamilton address their young children, and finally, “Non-Stop,” which reinforces the Burr/Hamilton frenemy relationship and Hamilton’s obsessive focus on his work, all of which plant the seeds for the events of Act II.

Because in Act II, it all starts to go to hell.  First, Jefferson returns from France and proves to be a formidable adversary, as they try to figure out how to do pretty much everything.  Then, Hamilton makes the crucial mistake of having an affair with a married woman, whose husband enjoyed extortion, leading to what is generally considered America’s first sex scandal, damaging both his political future and his marriage (and his relationship with his sister-in-law, which was itself interesting).  Burr starts to ascend, defeating Hamilton’s father-in-law for a Senate seat and Hamilton leaves the cabinet as his mentor, Washington, prepares to retire (inaccurately portrayed in the show as Hamilton being fired by Adams after his election).  Then, tragically, in a “you can’t make this stuff up” situation, Hamilton’s son Phillip dies in a duel on the same spot where Burr will later shoot him.  In the play, Hamilton is portrayed at this point as an almost broken man, doddering alone on the streets of upper Manhattan.

But after his reconciliation with his wife Eliza, he reemerges as a power broker during the election of 1800, able to not only assist in the defeat of his fellow Federalist and rival Adams, but also getting to decide which of Jefferson or Burr would become President, because the drafters of the Constitution had made a pretty bad mistake in setting the election rules.  On the one hand, Hamilton is back, but on the other hand, he pretty much hated all of his options, ultimately siding with Jefferson over Burr, supposedly because of the former’s principles, and the latter’s lack of any.  I’d have been curious to see more analysis of how this “lesser of two evils” situation weighed on Hamilton, but it’s a long play as it is, so you can’t do everything.

We know what happened next.  Burr and Hamilton engage in the 1800s version of a flame war, but instead of unfriending each other, they end up in Weehawken, with their grievances, injured pride and guns.  And while who shot first, and who aimed where, and lots of other things about this episode are disputed, what is not is that Burr walked away from the duel, and Hamilton didn’t.  The play ends with Burr remorseful and on the run, and Eliza, in mourning, devoting herself to upholding the legacy of her husband and continuing to honor him with her own good works.

A great piece of art should affect you on numerous levels, emotionally, intellectually, viscerally.  And Hamilton did all of those things.  I laughed, I cried, I was angry and happy.  I thought about not only the historical events of the play, but also about the way that issues discussed and decided (or not) centuries ago still resonate today–issues of race, immigration, class, government power, guns.  And about how audacious it was to create a musical about our lily-white founding fathers using hip-hop and rap as the basis, with a cast of mostly non-white actors, and important female characters.

So, when it was over, I, and everyone else in the theater leapt to our feet because while it may not have been the greatest work of art ever, it certainly was a great work of art, which, if anything, exceeded its hype.



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