As a few of my friends already know, I have Hamilaria. (I don’t randomly break into song, I promise. I do find the tunes popping up in my mind at inopportune moments.)
I was late to the party when it came to discovering Hamilton. I tend to resist anything that feels over-hyped, usually certain that it will turn out to be at best shallow and at worst–unintentionally or not–deeply offensive to one or more segments of society. Or just awful and inexplicably popular. (Still mystified why anyone bothered to read Fifty Shades of Grey. If you’re into pornographic novels, surely there are better-written examples lining the shelves of the Romance section–ones that don’t glorify manipulative, abusive, and controlling relationships. Surely.) Occasionally, however, I have come to regret this tendency. It was about four years into the show’s run before I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer out of boredom, mostly because I remembered Sarah Michelle Gellar from Swan’s Crossing and All My Children and I was convinced she couldn’t possibly have become a good actor. (I was being a snob. This was stupid of me.) The same happened with the Harry Potter novels, which I regret a bit more, because the first editions of those first few novels must be worth quite a bit now.
When mentions of Hamilton suddenly started popping up on just about every media platform I read and watch, I didn’t pay much attention, because a) I haven’t really enjoyed many musicals written after the 1980s, and b) the idea of adapting the life of Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution struck me as excessively odd. I thought the multi-racial cast was an awesome idea and was interested by the use rap in the music, but I just couldn’t get my head around the idea of writing a musical about the American Revolution. The outcome was a great thing, but living through it must have been a harrowing experience for most of those involved. It’s not a subject that lends itself to comedy, and the notions of comedy and musical theatre are inextricably linked in my mind. I really ought to have known better–Miss Saigon was my favourite musical prior to this, and it isn’t as though there’s anything saccharine about Rent or Gypsy.
Oh me of little faith. There are some moments of humor, to be sure–many provided by Jonathan Groff’s deliciously camp King George III–but Hamilton is decidedly a drama, not a comic opera. I finally decided to give it a listen when I heard Leslie Odom Jr. sang the part of Burr–I’d been waiting for his reappearance since
Smash was cancelled. One afternoon when I finished work early I pulled up some of the songs on YouTube (most, although not all, of the soundtrack is available here).
I was hooked after about three songs, and overwhelmed when I was finally able to listen to the whole album all the way through. This is not just a good musical, and a useful hook to get high school students to pay attention in history classes: it’s one of the most impressive and important cultural works of the decade. There is so much more going on in the songs alone than just well-rhymed lyrics and excellent delivery. There are references to other significant works of musical theatre, and direct quotation of the historical figures embodied in the characters. There is also a constant theme throughout the story that while avarice and arrogance usually bring ruin, intelligence is the most valuable of a person’s assets, something to celebrate rather than quash. The musical presents us with a new view of the American Revolution: familiar topics such as Washington’s genius as a commander and Jefferson’s libido are addressed, but so are the seeds of the movements and arguments that we are still living with today–the continuations of the Civil Rights and women’s rights struggles, and the question of what it means to be American. Are you born one, or is it something you choose to become? This is something I think about a great deal, being a first-generation American whose right to be here has never been questioned because I happen to be Caucasian and able to alter my accent if I choose. I witnessed perhaps a handful of occasions where people were rude to my mother because she was so thoroughly not from the U.S., but for the most part those who noticed that she was English were either indifferent or interested in that fact–we were never told that we should go home if we couldn’t adapt and become “real” Americans. This has always highlighted for me that the bitter fight over immigration to this country is about race and ethnicity–I am accepted as part of the status quo, while people whose forebears arrived here decades and centuries before mine are still told to “go back to” Africa / Mexico / wherever. This is why it matters so much that well-known historical figures are performed by people of colour in this production–aside from the unprecedented audience engagement this has spurred, it creates a layer of meaning that would not be present were the performers all white. (If that bothers you, blame Shakespeare and Ben Jonson–they started it when they began to question the limits of gender in plays such as “As You Like It” and “Epicoene”.)
I am thrilled to bits that Miranda, Thomas Kail, and the magnificent cast are winning *all* the awards for their work, and are getting so much exposure for their other creative work. I cherished a hope for about half an hour that I’d be able to see the play with the original line-up at some point this year, until I saw the prices that tickets were going for and that most of the performances until the end of next year were pretty much sold out last February. Now I’m just holding out hope that there’s a full taping of an early stage performance somewhere and they’re just sitting on it until the national tour ends.
I was going to write about Miranda himself as well, but if I do this post may never end, so I’ll save it for a later post. (He is awesome in all kinds of ways, and I can’t think of any other public figure to have spent so much time engaging with his audience on a personal level just being nice. Check out his twitter feed some time.) The Tony awards are on this Sunday and will feature a live performance of a song from the show, for all the fans like me who are desperate to see as well as hear the real thing.