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.

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