Hamilton

The neighborhood was a quieter last night than I expected on the “observed 4th”. Tonight may be a different story. Neighbors set off the Oregon regulation fireworks, small bright things that don’t shoot up into the sky. We are in drought status here, after all.

My fireworks party was “Hamilton”. I paid Disney Plus $6.99—planning to discontinue before the next month, maybe after browsing through some of the classic animated films from my youth, if they’re offered (Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella)—and settled down to watch the whole thing.

It’s a high energy, non-stop extravaganza of dance and song, a film of the original Broadway cast with Lin-Manuel Miranda in the role of Alexander Hamilton, the same Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the story, lyrics and composed the music. I recall reading, somewhere, sometime, about Miranda taking Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton to a beach on a vacation and reading it start to finish. Impressive.

Hearing about this musical storming Broadway, I was skeptical. A 2-hour rap about Alexander Hamilton, first secretary of the treasury, primary author of the Federalist Papers, assistant to General George Washington? An impoverished boy from the British West Indies?

And touching on a reality check, uncomfortable as it is via my white fragility—yes, own it—an interracial cast?

How can this be good? “I hate rap music!” There. I said it.

But the love kept coming. Praise, accolades, Tony awards, a personal plea to Mike Pence. I think the tipping point for me—I had been leaning toward wanting to see it, however, the cost was prohibitive and that is too bad, because there are loads of people who would thrill to see it—was that my sister, who loves musicals, with her husband acquired tickets at the bargain price of $100.00 each, viewed a San Francisco production and was gobsmacked.

It seemed a stretch for her, a liberal with a conservative lifestyle, if you can imagine. But this is my sister. Planning for the show, she read Chernow’s book, a doorstop tome of 832 pages. She, too was fascinated just like Miranda.

In a recent NPR interview with Miranda and director Thomas Kail, Miranda talked about how the story can be interpreted in new ways, through the lens of current domestic turmoil and angst. Watching the tale unfold in soaring choral effects, muscular dance, and heartfelt, gliding solos—arias, really—I keenly felt revolutionary fervor. I knew nothing much about Alexander except that he died in a duel with Aaron Burr, the cause of which I never knew. Oh, and he adorns the U.S. 10 dollar bill.

A highlight of the Disney film is Jonathan Groff’s portrayal of the tyrant King George.

Which brings me around to a discussion of tyranny, when I’d really prefer not. Americans do have an acute sense of justice. It’s just that we identify tyranny in very different ways. I feel a bitter dislike of the tyranny of the current White House administration, the tyranny of losses—loss of worker protection during the plague, butchery of environmental protections, and the strange defense of monuments to traitorous slave owners. But I also know, anxiously, that a portion of Americans have taken the word “tyranny” as their personal epithet, throwing it at anything hinting at a violation of “individual rights”. Their “right” not to wear a mask is one example. And they are armed. To the teeth.

Miranda’s story doesn’t glorify Hamilton’s actions, but uses him, an “immigrant” with no land or slaves or societal standing, as an example of how either bravado or bravery—maybe both—can catalyze a rebellion, and set the stage for the world’s first working democracy. Whether it is still working is a matter of debate, but here we are, and today marks the day the 1776 Continental Congress ratified Jefferson’s paper. The Revolutionary War had been going on for more than a year. Hamilton’s greatest talents were accounting and the written word, and his greatest achievement, depending on who you consult, was convincing the citizens of New York State to support the United States Constitution.

Aside from all this, the musical is an experience that shouldn’t be missed, especially if you despise rap.

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Hamilton — 9 Comments

  1. We watched it (I am fine with rap–far as I am concerned, rappers are kin to th old Viking skalds) but I can’t stand bouncy/jazzy tunes, and musicals tend to use a lot of them. But there was only one in Hamilton–Thomas Jefferson’s song. The rest were a nifty variety, well blended instead of the old and worn out reprises, and the dance served the action and emotional byplay beautifully.

    I do wish the camera had stayed in wide shot more often, as it tended to cut dance codas in favor if closeups, and seeing King George drooling and spitting as he sang was something that made me close my eyes during his numbers.

    But overall, super impressive. Three of us watched it, two of whom don’t watch musicals, but they stayed all the way, and everyone liked it.

  2. I watched my DVD of 1776 instead. I do it every year. I tear up at the same moments every year.

    This time through John Cullun’s operatic “Rum, Molasses, to Slaves,” was particularly moving.

    In the original John Adams has a line about striking the anti slavery clause of the Declaration of Independence that if we do not deal with this issue now, it will come back in 50 years to bite us in the ass. Adams actually said it. The producers made Sherman Williams take it out because it sounded made up and too modern…

  3. We watched Hamilton on Friday and 1776 (we watch it every year, too) on the 4th. We had seen Hamilton last fall in San Francisco, and I would argue that the actor who played Hamilton has a better voice than Miranda’s, but Miranda gets top marks for his acting, which I loved. And I was again gobsmacked, and brought to tears several times.

    And this morning, thinking about the show, I realized that in my mind there’s a lyrical through line from Oscar Hammerstein to Stephen Sondheim to Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hammerstein’s lyrics are brilliant at conveying feeling, but they’re not difficult, and not often (to my mind) witty. Sondheim, my favorite Broadway composer, evokes emotion–often more complex, darker emotions than Hammerstein–with wordplay wit, and poetry, and he’s often fast. So watching Hamilton I kept thinking “if this is rap, then Stephen Sondheim often did something awfully close to it”. The show is steeped in Broadway culture as well as the culture of the streets, and my God, does it work.

    Now I have to go hunt out In The Heights, which I never got to see.

  4. I saw the first half yesterday, will watch the 2nd half today. It’s a lot of work to listen to that much music and try to catch all of the words. I’m old and not a big fan of poetry, so I don’t “get” rap. But it’s hard to catch all of an English language opera too. I love musicals that have a song with a melody that can be whistled that ends for the play to continue using normal dialog. What were the sleeveless white outfits all about? Looked like underwear with vests. Loved Jonathan Groff!

    • When we saw Hamilton at a theatre this was, obviously, not an option, but when we watched it the other night we kept the subtitles on, and it was a huge help in understanding the lyrics, which do move fast.

      The sleeveless white outfits were only worn by women in the ensemble–I’d guess to differentiate them from the men in the ensemble. The standard breeches and stockings of the time, with a vest over. And given the amount–and vigor–of the dancing the ensemble does, I imagine they’d have to be comfortable to move in!

  5. Once you have the Disney subscription, you can see it again. Also, you can turn on the subtitling, so that the lyrics scroll by for you to read.
    This is the watershed musical of our time, the way COMPANY or CAROUSEL was. Every musical written after 2005 has been affected by it.

  6. I’ve been to live operas with subtitles. I saw both women and men in the white outfits. (We haven’t gotten around to watching the second half).

  7. I look forward to eventually seeing this, but the logistics of getting it out here in the hinterlands is such that I expect to be very late finally getting around to it. My internet drops out too often to get it that way, and cable is impossible because they no longer make metal control boxes.

    Thank you, Jill, for the report.

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