Who Tells Your Story: My Hamil-thoughts

I’ve wanted to write this post for a couple of weeks now, but I haven’t quite figured out the best way to approach the subject. My girlfriend bought me a ticket to the touring production of Hamilton, which further demonstrates that she is just the best you guys! I left the theater with dozens of thoughts swirling around in my head, and I’ve been trying ever since to put them in a coherent, pseudo-intelligible order.

And this is why my blog post about Hamilton visiting Salt Lake City is going up well after Hamilton has moved on.

So what follows is a random jumbling of thoughts, with very little connecting them other than the source material. I wish I had something more profound to say about one of the most profoundly affecting productions I have ever watched, but I’m afraid I can’t be quite that insightful. Here we go:

When my cousin first told me that someone put together a hip-hopera about the life of Alexander Hamilton, I thought for sure we had reached peak Broadway self-parody.  I could easily see a Hamilton musical sliding neatly into Simpson’s episodes, right between that time they did a Planet of the Apes musical and Mark Hamill singing, “Luke, be a Jedi tonight!”

Still, I’m interested enough in both rap and history that I tuned in to a CBS special on the production and was immediately blown away. Snippets of particular songs caught my attention and imagination – bits of “Yorktown” and “You’ll Be Back,” in particular. It would be months before I heard anything more substantial about the show, and almost two full years before I finally heard the soundtrack in its entirety, but from almost the very beginning, Hamilton proved itself to be an earnest, moving, and relatable exploration of the life of one of the founding fathers of my nation.

Even more than the music, though, the bit from the above-linked special that got me was when musical author Lin-Manuel Miranda mentioned that the story of the founding fathers would be told by “America, now” – meaning a multi-racial cast would play the nearly all-white congresses and cabinets of the nascent U.S.A. I latched onto this idea and loved it from the very start. See, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest are part of the heritage of all American citizens, regardless of when they or their ancestors came here. So why shouldn’t all American citizens have the opportunity to play these founding fathers and honor their own heritage? It’s a lovely sentiment, and one I’m happy to support.

I am, unfortunately, one of those white boys who really likes to listen to hip-hop and rap. I love poetry, and I especially love complicated, clever rhymes. You just don’t get those sorts of rhymes outside of hip-hop anymore – and, frankly, you don’t get them often in mainstream hip-hop, either. Hamilton, though, is chock-full of deliciously clever rhymes and wordplay. Read this bit from “The Schuyler Sisters”:

I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine

So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane

You want a revolution? I want a revelation

So listen to my declaration:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident

That all men are created equal”

And when I meet Thomas Jefferson

I’mma compel him to include women in the sequel!

Work!

The first two lines in particular are loaded with internal rhyme – somehow, “so men say” winds up rhyming with BOTH “Common Sense” and “Thomas Paine.” And this is just one small section of one small song. The whole show is filled with moments like this.

The best moments, though, are probably not even the lengthy verses of intricate rhymes and masterful spitfire delivery. Rather, they’re these the little, almost incidental lines. Some are repeated leitmotifs – emotionally-charged statements that recur repeatedly throughout the show, each time with a slightly different meaning. Others are just one-off utterances that manage to land with the impact of a fist. Any one of these could easily be someone’s favorite line in the show:

  • “I am not throwing away my shot!”
  • “It must be nice to have Washington on your side.”
  • “In New York, you can be a new man.”
  • “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”
  • “History has its eyes on you.”
  • “Well, he’s never gon’ be president now.”
  • “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

And my personal favorite:

  • “Immigrants: We get the job done.

I guaran-dang-tee that I missed somebody’s favorite in there.

If you haven’t seen the show or heard the soundtrack, these lines probably don’t mean much to you. If you have, though, you now have about a million great songs stuck in your head. And, for that, you’re welcome.

As a younger, more naive student of literature, I assumed that a lot of the themes and messages of great literature was accidental – that writers just composed stories they liked, and readers extrapolated themes from those stories based on their own experiences. Turns out that’s typically not true. Writers put an exceptional amount of effort into crafting themes and braiding motifs together, and you can see that clearly in the way Hamilton took shape.

The hip-hop conventions used throughout the show are more than a gimmick. Rather, the rap sections demonstrate actual, significant character development. Take, for example, the character Lafayette. The first time Lafayette appears on stage, he speaks uncertainly in English mixed with French. He has a heavy accent pauses to ask how to pronounce certain words. But then, when he appears again in the song “Guns and Ships,” he delivers a ridiculous line in three seconds:

“And I’m never gonna stop until I make ’em drop

And burn ’em up and scatter their remains.”

Eighteen words. Three seconds. All English.

Miranda confirmed that this machine-gun of a line was meant to demonstrate how Lafayette had mastered the English language since the start of the revolution. The way Lafayette matures into an eloquent polyglot is the apotheosis of “show don’t tell.”

Whenever an actor plays two roles in a single show, I perk up and pay attention. Usually, this decision is made due to a lack of available talent; however, smart directors and producers know that such casting can add a lot to the themes of a particular show. For example, most productions of Peter Pan cast the same actor in the role of Wendy’s father who later goes on to play Captain Hook, thus forcing one to consider that the villain in Peter Pan may actually symbolize adulthood as a concept, and not just a pirate who is literally afraid of the passage of time (oh wait…).

In essence, such casting practically begs for a slew of compare/contrast essays. And if there’s one thing that I, as a recovering English major, love, it’s a good compare/contrast essay.

Four of the main cast wind up playing two different parts. The actors who play Lafayette, Mulligan, Laurens, and Peggy in Act I come back in Act II as Jefferson, Madison, Phillip, and Maria Reynolds. Now, I’m no historian, but it seems to me that these pairings are at least a little deliberate.

In part, the dual-casting illustrates how Hamilton, during his rise, was defined by his friends (his fellow revolutionaries and his sister-in-law). However, during his decline, he was defined by his rivals (Jefferson and Madison) and the people who threatened to destroy his personal life (Maria).

The one outlier here is the dual casting of Laurens and Phillip. Laurens was, as far as I can tell, Hamilton’s closest friend during his formative years. Phillip, Hamilton’s son, was perhaps the person Hamilton loved most in the world, as evidenced by how excitedly he anticipates Phillip’s birth. Both, of course, are killed tragically, and way too young. In both rise and fall, Alexander Hamilton’s life revolved around tragedy.

There’s an interesting lyrical conceit employed in Hamilton. Certain motifs are drawn out and prolonged, only to be truncated a second later for emphasis. From “That Would Be Enough”:

HAMILTON:

Will you relish being a poor man’s wife

Unable to provide for your life?

ELIZA:

I relish being your wife.

Again, this works better with the accompanying score and with the performance of the cast.

It’s a neat trick, one that pops up in the hip-hop inspired numbers as well as the more melodic pieces, and it’s put to great effect in “It’s Quiet Uptown,” the song which might be the most under-rated piece in the whole show.

“It’s Quiet Uptown” immediately follows a long stretch of turmoil for Hamilton and Eliza. Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds drove a serious wedge between the two, and they have now relocated to mourn the death of their son, who died defending his father’s reputation in a duel. The grief these two experience is repeatedly referred to as “unimaginable” – and, indeed, it is.

It would be so, so easy for Eliza to make this the final straw that permanently drives her away from her husband. Instead, though, their mourning brings the two back together. Eliza acknowledging Hamilton is greeted with the chorus singing about forgiveness with the line, “Can you imagine?” This line uses the same rhythm and melody as accompanies the word “unimaginable” so many times in the song to that point, but the phrase is left incomplete, never resolving the tension created in the penultimate chord.

Normally, this tension would create a sense of unease or apprehension; however, in this song, the tension creates a sense of excitement and wonder at how Eliza was able to forgive her husband after all the things he had done to wrong her. He apologized in tears and pledged to make amends, but it’s Eliza’s willingness to forgive that is treated as the miracle, and it well might be.

After getting hooked on Hamilton, I went nearly two full years before listening to any of the songs past “Burn,” which means that my last impression of Eliza for the longest time was that she was someone who, in anger and with a broken heart, took herself “out of the narrative.” My girlfriend finally coerced me into listening to the rest of the soundtrack, including the finale, where Eliza inserts herself back into the narrative and carries on Hamilton’s work: she fundraisers for the Washington monument, she fights slavery, and she starts an orphanage. Her forgiveness empowers her to become a vital force for good, and that forgiveness takes place during “It’s Quiet Uptown.” Hamilton’s story is incomplete without the sizable contributions Eliza made, both during his life and after.

There’s so much more to be said about Hamilton – and not all of it is positive. It takes a lot of liberties with the history it portrays (it may actually go too easy on Aaron Burr, the chief antagonist). Despite how central race is to the conflict, the actual racism present at the founding of the U.S.A. is only addressed cursorily. And then there’s that looming accusation that, by choosing only to cast non-white performers in the most significant roles, Hamilton itself is racist. I have thoughts on each of these topics, not to mention dozens of little nitpicks and criticisms that accompany me to nearly every movie or play.

The thing is, though, I don’t want to get into any of that. Not yet, anyway.

The time will come to critically re-evaluate Hamilton. Better writers than I will have to tackle those subjects, though, because there’s very little about Hamilton that I want to pick apart. The show may not be perfect, but it’s perfectly inspirational in so many ways that the tiny griefs I usually focus on seem, more so than ever, to completely miss the point.

The seat I had in the nosebleeds cost about $90. I’ve been asked a couple of times if the ticket was really worth that price, and, if I’m answering honestly, I have to say, “Yes.” The experience of seeing Hamilton on stage was beyond wonderful. As crazy as it sounds to say – after all the accolades, all the attention and controversy, all the theater kids learning the Cabinet Meeting raps – despite all the hype, Hamilton may still actually be underrated.

Braddy Reads Klaus: How Santa Claus Began

Hey, remember that old Rankin Bass stop motion cartoon, Santa Claus is Coming to Town? Remember how that short went out of its way to explain every little aspect of Santa’s character, like why he wears red, or why he crawls down chimneys, or where Christmas trees come from?

Okay, so Klaus: How Santa Claus Began is basically that story, only with about a million times more thematic Batman.

This book’s a couple of years old now. It’s been in the back of my mind ever since, mainly because the writer, Grant Morrison, happens to be a favorite of mine. I’ve always loved his slightly-trippy superhero plots, whether he writes about that time Superman got cancer and decided to create the Earth:

…or that time that he wrote a comic book that threatened to kill you, the reader:

…or that other Superman story, where he sang so hard that he destroyed all evil:

…or that one time he turned Batman into a time-hopping caveman Puritan private-eye pirate:

…yeah. So turning Santa Claus into Batman doesn’t actually feel that weird in the context of the rest of Morrison’s work.

Matter of fact, for the first several chapters, I felt somewhat let down by how conventional Klaus felt. Morrison’s Klaus is a disgraced former guardsman, framed for a crime he didn’t commit and exiled. He’s never strayed far from the town where he used to serve, and he’s never forgotten the love of his life, Dagmar. Dagmar is now married to Klaus’s rival, the local baron, who oppresses his people with a cruel and joyless regime. It’s up to Klaus to save the day and bring back happiness to the etc.

Then we get to the part where a literal hell-demon refers to Santa’s sleigh as “a bright machine from the 8-cornered orb! Forged of the rarest thought-metals by the hated elders of my kind!” That felt like the Grant Morrison I like.

Of course, Morrison isn’t on this journey alone. The artwork from Dan Mora depicts a pretty believable buff Santa, younger with a brown beard and muscles like a professional wrestler. The action scenes are paced well. Mora’s got particularly good timing with one gag where Klaus tosses a snowball onto the roof of a building, where the snowball… umm… snowballs until it’s large enough to take out some pursuing soldiers. It’s the sort of move that wouldn’t feel out of place in any child’s Batman story, but it’s pretty darn well executed here.

All said, the conventionality of Klaus is probably a strength. Said conventionality makes this a far more accessible comic than it might be otherwise, and that’s a good thing, because this is a story most people who like comics should probably read. What Klaus lacks in Morrisonian weirdness it more than makes up for in that odd Morrisonian optimism I never get tired of.

See, Dagmar’s son, Jonas, is a petty and sniveling child. He’s been spoiled rotten by his father, and he’s… well, he’s pretty much the worst.

But, you know, Klaus is a Christmas story, and if there’s one thing a Christmas story should do, it should encourage naughty children to be nice. Jonas’s redemption arc begins with a simple act of kindness – his mother shares one of Klaus’s toys with him, and together they play out a story that takes a much kinder turn than Jonas’s stories usually take.

That’s probably the best thing I can say about Klaus: it manages to take the toy, the symbol of childish greed and selfishness, and turn it into a mechanism for positive change. A simple gift, sincerely given with love, can be the thing that transforms a person for good. It’s great, great stuff that manages to imbue Christmas with more meaning and goodwill than possibly anything outside of the Nativity itself. Worth the read, any time of year.

…and we’ll go with that being the reason I’m writing about this now and not, say, in December.

Field of Loss

I admit: when I first started drawing these little dino people, I drew them in robes because I didn’t want to figure out how their limbs worked. After drawing a few statues of non-robed critters, I have a much better understanding of what my li’l boys and gals actually look like.

Original plans for this drawing were a lot more ambitious, with ruined buildings and sunsets… but then I got tired.

March Madness: Disney Songs Bracket

Not much time for preamble today. If you spend any time on Twitter at all, you’ve probably seen a slew of different brackets making the rounds, usually pitting great movies or Internet boyfriends against each other. Yet of all the brackets, though, only one truly begged for completion:

ROUND ONE

Now, I imagine I would have seeded this a little differently, but we play with the memes we’re dealt. First round went pretty quickly. Wherever possible, the edge went to the iconic song over the merely nostalgic.

A few items of note:

  • The behemoth “Let It Go” lost in an early season upset to “Part of Your World.” Whether this demonstrates the strength of longing over empowerment, or whether the judge was simply some random thirtysomething unable to set aside his childhood, we may never know.
  • Classic dad-rockers Phil Collins, Billy Joel, and Elton John all survive into Round 2. Joel is probably the biggest surprise there, but even “Why Should I Worry” performed well against the cut-rate Prince ripoff from The Goofy Movie.
  • The defeat of “I See the Light” hurt far more than I expected. Although Tangled is one of my all-time favorite animated movies, “Part of Your World” is easily among the best Disney songs ever composed and readily curbstomped the competition.
  • On the other hand, “Go the Distance” and “How Far I’ll Go” aren’t even close to the same level. The Hercules song is fine enough, but, thematically, Moana just hangs together so much better, and “How Far I’ll Go” plays an indispensable part in that film’s execution.
  • “You’re Welcome” and “Friend Like Me” made for a tougher competition than I expected. The difference came down to performance. The Rock does well enough, but there’s no world at all where he out-sings Robin Williams.

ROUND TWO

Something really interesting happened this round: I realized just how much I esteem the songs of A Little Mermaid. I can’t discount the fact that Mermaid was one of the first movies I ever saw in the theater, but I also suspect that there’s something objectively timeless and classic in the songs from that film.

Some more notes:

  • Perhaps no song in Disneydom is more revered than the villain song, and “Hellfire” is among the best of those, easily trouncing the iconic “Beauty and the Beast.” Given a choice between love and damnation, leave it to me to make the… questionable choice.
  • This same tendency is on display again on the other side of the bracket, as “Poor Unfortunate Souls” wins out over “Remember Me.”
  • Of the dad rockers, only Elton John endures. Likely this is due to the relatively weak competition. “Heffalumps and Woozles” worms its way into your brain, but “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” managed to pull ahead, perhaps demonstrating some awareness that it alone remains to represent the best film of Disney’s second golden age.

ROUND 3

Let’s jump straight to the commentary:

  • The Little Mermaid continues to impress, sending two of its numbers to the Final Four. Its third representative, “Part of Your World,” loses its footing against “Hellfire,” but it goes home with its head held high, having made a good showing to this point.
  • “When You Wish Upon a Star” may carry a questionable message, but it’s undoubtedly classic. Not even Elton John stands a chance.

ROUND FOUR

At this point, there is nothing more I can do but be true to myself. When forced to pick between a pair of villain songs, one of the most charming and romantic Disney songs of all time, and a song that is arguably the MOST Disney song of all time… how I could I not pick the villain songs?

And now, we come to…

ROUND FIVE – THE FINAL ROUND

“Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a delightfully, unapologetically wicked number, easily among the best Disney songs ever composed. Its opponent, “Hellfire,” lacks the tongue-in-cheek fun of “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” but it makes up for it with deep feeling and pathos. So who wins in the battle between earnestness and camp? In the end, there was really no question:

Well, I Guess I’m Old Now (or: How I Broke Myself Trying to Impress a Pretty Girl’s Family)

I texted my boss today:

I managed to sprain my ankle pretty badly this weekend. I should be okay to work, but I would like tomorrow off, just in case.

He responds:

Please do. A sprain is no joke, especially when we aren’t 12 years old anymore. Get wel.

And then:

Well

You know, like you do.

This probably isn’t the first time that I’ve sprained my ankle, but it’s definitely the first time I’ve sprained it so severely that I felt the need to run to urgent care. A few hours had passed since the injury, and I was trying to muscle through the pain with the help of a cheesy Netflix martial arts movie and some Little Caesar’s pizza (which I stood in line for fifteen minutes to get) (yes, that means I stood in line on a sprained ankle) (no, it was not worth it) (I mean, how could it be?). After a while, I decided I probably ought to at least wrap the thing up, and I think it was my frustration with trying to wrap my own ankle that finally led me to get in my car and drive to the urgent care, about twenty minutes away.

The doctor was nice. He wore a green scrubs top and khakis, and he had a very strong vibe that said, “As me about my trip to Amsterdam.” We bonded over a mutual interest in the “Yoga with Adriene” YouTube channel, and he joked about charging me hundreds of dollars more than he was supposed to. You know, normal doctor stuff. He did some X-rays to confirm that it was a sprain and not a break, gave me an ankle brace, and wished me luck. Pretty sure the luck was for dealing with the ankle brace. It’s a complicated tangle of cords and velcro that took both me and the nurse poring over the instructions to figure it out.

So I’ve been dating someone fairly seriously, which is incredibly important to the story, because of COURSE me hurting myself involves trying to impress a girl, right? Well, only sort of. See, at this point, we’ve been dating for about ten months, which I think is probably enough time for her to see right through any attempts at flattery. Her family, on the other hand, doesn’t know me that well yet. So this is really about me trying to impress them. Specifically, the two people whose negative opinion of me would put our continued couplehood in jeopardy.

No, not them. I’m referring to her six-year-old nephew and her four-year-old niece.

Saturday night finds me with my lady friend at her cousin’s wedding reception. Her niece and nephew, hopped up on youth and wedding brownies, decided that they were done sitting around and wanted to run outside to play. The girlfriend and I joined them, and we tracked around the grounds surrounding the church where the reception took place, our feet unsteady in the wet grass.

“Boy, this ground sure is soft,” I said, demonstrating a little principle known as dramatic tension.

The game we wound up playing is a popular one among all kids of a certain age. It’s called, “Watch the grown-ups do silly things.” The grown-up in this case was me, and the silly thing was attempting to chop down a tree using a bunch of those long, brown seed pods. You know, these ones:

Darn things are everywhere.

After slapping the side of the tree a few times, the pods would break, leaving me with a comically short stub pinched between my fingers. The kiddos, of course, thought this was hilarious, and I, pleased with the impression I was making, started playing up the comedy by employing increasingly ludicrous wind ups. Truly, a great time was had by all…until I bashed my hand into the tree.

The shock and pain from the impact sent me staggering back a couple of steps, where my ankle decided to do a Gordon Hayward (don’t look that up). My memory of the immediate aftermath is a little fuzzy, but I’m reasonably sure that’s right when my ladyfriend’s parents came out to get us for the cutting of the cake. Which means that they, and the girlfriend, and her niece and nephew, all beheld the exact moment I realized that I’m not a kid anymore.

When I was younger, of course, I’d walk of a rolled ankle like it was no big deal, because it wasn’t. I tried to play it off the same way last night, turning down my girlfriend’s offer to pick up some drugs and an ankle brace from Wal-Mart. I even lied to myself about it (hence the standing in line at Little Caesar’s). Eventually, though, I realized that I no longer have the resiliency of a six-year-old, and so I drove myself to urgent care.

When the girlfriend found out, she was… frustrated, to say the least:

Dude!!!! Why didn’t you call me?? Sheesh, you shouldn’t be driving.

And:

Oh brother. If you weren’t hurt I’d be so mad at you right now. But you are hurt and it’s kind of my fault so I can’t get mad.

And:

Ugh. Men are the WORST.

So there you go. I guess part of the process of getting older is learning to accept help again after striving so hard to be independent for so long. I eventually accepted some help from my parents, who brought me ace bandages and an old prescription for Ibuprofen 800 mg, which is GREAT STUFF.

Seriously, I’m not much for taking medicine, even when I need it, but nowadays, I’m all singing, “Ibuprofen! He be profen! She be profen! We’re all profen! Wouldn’t you like to be a profen too?”*

I even let the girlfriend finally help me – she brought me a pair of crutches, which was absolutely lovely of her to do. I could have saved myself a big headache by simply accepting her help in the first place. Which means.. which means… all that time spent watching Home Improvement as a kid taught me not a blasted thing.

Thanks for nothing, Tim Allen!

===

Apologies to Dr. Pepper.

Opera Night: Pagliacci

When I was a child, I remember seeing this commercial on PBS on a Saturday afternoon about opera. Specifically, about how ridiculous it is that the opera has a reputation for being “boring,” especially since the most famous operas are chock full of sex, violence, and murder. I get where that reputation comes from. It’s difficult to get engaged in a plot where you don’t understand anything the major characters are saying. Heck, I went to the opera once in the Czech Republic. The singing was in Italian, while the supertitles were in Czech, so I was utterly lost in two languages at once.

That said, I’ve been at least curious about getting into this opera thing for years. For example, a song from Madame Butterfly inspired the only bit of writing I ever got paid for (a poem which netted me a whole dollar bill!). I’ve attended a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, which was great, although somewhat pricey. However, when I finally got the chance to go see a real, live opera (with supertitles I could actually understand), I leapt at the opportunity.

Utah Opera put on a double feature at the Capital Theater. One of the shows, a comedic little episode called Gianni Schicchi, provides some much needed context to the operatic standard “O Mio Babbino Caro.” It is not, as I first suspected, a lullaby sung by a mother to her baby. Rather, it’s a plaintive plea from a young girl to her father, claiming that she will die if she can’t be with the man she loves. It’s, you know, dramatic and all, but in the context of a comedic opera, it carries about as much depth of emotion as Veruca Salt demanding that daddy buy her a goose that lays golden eggs NOW.

The real draw to me, though, was the classic Pagliacci. I’m pretty sure everyone’s heard of Pagliacci by this point. You know, it’s the opera about the sad clown.

I first encountered Pagliacci in that one episode of Batman: The Animated Series where the Penguin tries to show off for his date by singing “Vesti la Giubba.” From there, I associated the song with the cliches of opera – stilted, boring, overly dramatic, and inaccessible. And yet… in the context of the show, “Vesti la Giubba” is really unbelievable. A brutish man, completely and utterly destroyed by his wife’s infidelity, has to dress up in a clown outfit and make a buffoon of himself, because that’s what show business demands. It’s a real gut punch of a number, and it’s absolutely worth checking out.

But go to a live show, if you can. Operatic recordings are nice and all, but there’s something to be said for seeing the production live. If nothing else, watching the singers overpower the orchestra with nothing but their voices (no mics) is truly awe-inspiring.

Also, in commemoration of the occasion, I drew a sad clown: