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.