Mostly whimsical reflections on life
It isn’t often that you feel grateful for the chance to spend hundreds of dollars for tickets to a play. But grateful is how you feel after seeing Hamilton the musical.
The first half of the play projects so much energy, the audience needs an intermission more than the actors. You are transported by the lively, fulsome portrayals of Revolutionary-period figures who usually come across as crusty white men in wigs – because they were crusty white men in wigs.
The music drives the narrative of Hamilton, but the story speaks volumes, too. The musical will go into the annals because it celebrates the achievements against the odds of an orphan and an immigrant. It is as timely a reminder of our moment as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was for the infamy of the McCarthy communist witch hunt period.
But Lin-Manuel Miranda’s marvelous musical probes much deeper. He rightly relegates Aaron Burr to a role of a wishy-washy historical wannabe, while deftly suggesting a deeper strain of improbable comity between Hamilton and James Madison, which mostly benefited Thomas Jefferson.
As the musical shows, these three didn’t necessarily like each other, but there was a deep mutual respect in the role each had played in creating our nation. Jefferson gave America its defining beginning, but Hamilton and Madison toiled to give the nation sustaining life through a constitution, for better for worse, filled with ambiguity that allowed it to mature with the times.
In the play, Madison is Jefferson’s co-conspirator. In reality, Madison was Jefferson’s pragmatic political companion. They both held common views as Southern slave-owning plantation mavens, but their viewpoints veered notably when it came to the mechanics of a nation. Jefferson railed against central government and the Supreme Court. Madison quietly agreed with Hamilton on the foundations of a republic.
That’s pretty hard to convey in lyrics and songs, but Miranda’s script subtly gives us hints – the secretive three-man negotiation over grog that resulted in the nation’s capital being established in what we now call Washington, DC and Hamilton’s support in a deadlocked presidential election for Jefferson over Burr.
Miranda also uncovers an especially dusty page of history – what happened to Eliza Hamilton after Burr shot her husband in a field in Weehawken, New Jersey. Eliza Hamilton assumed her dead husband’s sense of urgency to make a difference and in the following 50 years advocated for the abolition of slavery and established one of the first private orphanages – a homage to her husband’s heritage.
Eliza’s lines end the play, which underscores Miranda’s point that history has many faces and many hands, including the faces and hands of women.
The majority of actors in the musical, including Hamilton, Jefferson and George Washington, are African-American. This gives the play an underlying irony that is brought home when one of Hamilton’s long-time comrades is killed in battle during the Revolutionary War. In a touching soliloquy, his friend laments that the valor of black soldiers who helped win the war of freedom would be forgotten, a prophecy that regrettably came true and, to some extent, remains true even today.
And then there is King George III, who provides the play’s comic relief like Falstaff wearing a crooked crown. But even the King has his historical moment when he mockingly marvels at Washington’s decision to leave office as two terms as President. The King deadpans, “Who knew that was possible.” Washington’s fateful goodbye has become a bulwark of our democracy and the precedent for peaceful transition of political power.
Hamilton is a piece of performance art that you can see over and over. It may rank as one of the best – if not the best – musical of all time. We feel fortunate to have gotten tickets, even though we had to wait 11 months before we actually saw the show in Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.
A couple sitting next to us had more of a Hamilton experience. In town from Springfield, Missouri for a family event, they nervously tracked the availability and price of tickets on StubHub. When the price dropped from thousands of dollars to a nudge over the face value of the tickets, they rushed to pick them up and ran to the theater. They arrived just before the play began. You couldn’t help feeling that Hamilton would have wanted to shake their hand.
If there is any melancholy about this marvelous musical, it is that this wondrous way to show living history may be thwarted by the absence of talented people to perform it. Hamilton will travel to several cities, including Portland. But the audience that would benefit the most are young people.
Miranda has wisely insisted that seats be made available to students. But the real way for its message about history being about people, not mummies to reach a wide audience is for it to be performed in high schools across the country. The challenge in many high schools will be to find the singers-dancers-actors who can do justice to the parts Miranda has created. That’s not a criticism.
It’s just a lament that a great show is hard to replicate because of the talents it requires, even when replication is exactly what we need.