Once upon a time in a pitch meeting somewhere:
“So we should do a musical. It will be about one of the founding fathers nobody knows much about (except lawyers and political history buffs), it will be about politics of the 18th Century, we'll use mostly African American actors, and do it with hip hop. It will be a smash hit!”
And of course it was. And I would love to have been a fly on the wall in that room where it happened.
My wife and I knew that when Hamilton came to California, we would go see it. It was inevitable after it sold out in New York, that Los Angeles would eventually get it - and the obvious venue was the gorgeous Pantages theater. Seriously, if you end up in LA, go see something there just to gawk at the Art Deco interior, which is quite a masterpiece.
I am probably in a minority in that I never got the soundtrack or read up on the plot in advance. I decided to go in with merely my own knowledge of history, the opinions of my friends, and an open mind. (My older daughters, however, got to hear quite a bit of the soundtrack from their friends, one of whom is a theater nut and can lay down the lyrics like a pro.)
That isn’t to say I didn’t know the plot at all. I went to a law school that focused to a degree on the Federalist Society type of conservatism (in addition to the more official Reconstructionist leanings of the then-parent organization), which came with a certain reverence for the Founding Fathers and the trio that wrote the Federalist Papers in particular. So I knew a thing or six about Alexander Hamilton and his life and death. And also Aaron Burr, who, it turns out, had a really crazy life after his quarrel and duel with Hamilton. (In fact, one of the most important court cases on treason involved Burr.)
So yes, when Hamilton shocks everyone by endorsing Thomas Jefferson and accusing Burr of having no core beliefs, I am thoroughly in the Hamilton camp there.
But, about the play itself. There may be spoilers here, but, seriously, Hamilton has been dead for what, 200 years?
Let me start with an important observation. One of the things I always do when I go see a show in LA is check to see who is playing in the orchestra. After all, we hire a few from down south to fill out our own local orchestra, so you never know when you will see a familiar name. (Hey, S____, nice to see you a few years back playing for Phantom of the Opera…) No such luck this time, but I was gratified to see that strings were included. Strings make everything better - even hip hop. Just saying. So, in this case, two keyboards, string quartet, electric guitar, electric bass, banjo, and drums. And yes, live drums also make hip hop better. In my opinion. The orchestra was great - really tight, and perfect with the actors. That is so much harder than anyone who hasn’t played a show from the pit really realizes.
The music itself, I must say, was fantastic. I’ll confess, I hadn’t ever seen anything by Miranda previously - although my wife saw a local production of In The Heights. I was impressed that Miranda did the book, music, and lyrics. And the arrangements. Everything. Even the great opera composers didn’t tend to write the librettos - and when they did, you ended up with The Ring Cycle, which has fantastic music...and lyrics which are both poor poetry and endlessly long and repetitive. Stick to what ya know, Wagner.
But Hamilton suffers no such defect. Miranda’s lyrics are fantastic. I was impressed with the quality of the rap, both lyrically and musically. Growing up in a mostly minority neighborhood, and spending much of my teens in an integrated church, I was steeped in the sound. I had friends who aspired to a career in hip hop, and could improvise a witty rap pretty well. I could pick out some of the beats and rhymes, even when I couldn’t recall exactly which MC was being referenced.
Just a note here. I grew up around the sound, but my family didn’t listen to modern “secular” music. (Except when my dad would corrupt us with the Beach Boys or Motown on the radio.) Particularly suspect was music that was liked by my generation, low brow, or worst, African American - rap/hip hop failed on all accounts, so we did not have it in our home. So, I have kind of had to learn my own generation’s music as an adult. Except that I knew the sounds, just not the artists, because it was everywhere.
At least among white, classically trained, reactionary sorts, the status of rap as music has been in dispute. And I think the fact that it is not based on melody or harmony is the main reason why. What should not be in dispute is that rap is poetry. At its best, it can be amazingly good poetry. A common misconception (at least in the circles I ran in) is that rap is just a bunch of boasting and cussing and low class speech. Not so. In fact, a good vocabulary and firm grasp of the rhythm of language is necessary - to say nothing of thinking on one’s feet.
Throughout Hamilton, which requires careful attention to every word, I was thrilled by the clever rhymes, dramatic pacing, and the continual use of the perfect word. And the wit! Many of the direct quotes from the letters of the characters make it into raps, with just a word or two, or maybe just the timing, changed up just enough to pop. Eighteenth Century phrases meet modern hip hop phrasing.
As I noted at the beginning of this post, the whole idea sounds hopelessly crazy, but it works!
When my wife and I talked at the intermission, I noted the epiphany that I had during the first half. I was used to Broadway musicals having set numbers at key moments, with the bulk of the action taking place in ordinary dialogue. Hamilton eschews this modern style, and goes back in time to an earlier era. The comparison was unmistakeable. Miranda has practically zero spoken dialogue. Everything is in the context of music - hip hop music.
This is opera!
The idea of using recitative to serve as dialogue and further the plot dates to the beginning of the operatic form. And, believe it or not, a recitative isn’t really that different from a rap, if you think about it. A set rhythm (and harmony, in the earlier case) with the words fit into the form. A stylized form of storytelling in poetry.
Or maybe we should go back further, to Homer (and his predecessors), who told whole epics this way. Rap is nothing less than a modern incarnation of a timeless (and pan-cultural) form of storytelling. The rhymes, rhythms, and forms aid in the memorization of long stories, and connect with the intended audience, because all of these are both predictable and familiar while allowing the bard or MC to use his or her creativity within the form.
Anyway, Miranda was much better than I expected at writing a story within the form. I don’t use the word lightly, but I think genius applies here. From conception to execution, Hamilton is a masterpiece.
It's not just the hip hop, either. Miranda hits the notes from R & B, classical Broadway, and a bit of pop and classical for fun.
It's not just the hip hop, either. Miranda hits the notes from R & B, classical Broadway, and a bit of pop and classical for fun.
What else was interesting? Miranda manages to make Hamilton’s back story interesting. It was a bold move to just go ahead and plunge into a straight telling of the tale, from his illegitimate birth (which meant he was barred from Church of England schools) to his orphanage, to his hard work to succeed with little help, to his rise through hard work and brash attitude. This could easily have been borrrrrrring. But it wasn’t. Between the creative choreography and that first, brilliant rap, it was fascinating. And that is the genius. “Let’s educate an audience about 18th Century history without them falling asleep…”
I also loved the contrast of characters. The obvious one is the central one. Hamilton versus Burr. The impetuous hothead and the cautious plodder. The consummate politician and the revolutionary.
But there are more too. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are a contrast in style, as are Washington and King George.
Perhaps the most intriguing was the one between Eliza Schuyler, who marries Hamilton, and her sister Angelica, who carried on a long (and seemingly emotionally intimate) correspondence with Hamilton even after she married a British nobleman. In the musical, Eliza is the loyal sweet - and somewhat naive - wife, while Angelica is the worldly, cynical, and brash contrast.
This required some excellent work by the actors portraying these parts. Solea Pfeiffer played Eliza, and really brought out her natural devotion and sweetness - but also her strength. In contrast, Angelica was played by Emmy Raver-Lampman, and, well, damn. Eliza is a worthy woman, and not to be underestimated. But Angelica owned the stage. No wonder men from Hamilton to Jefferson to Lafayette to Washington (and more) remained fascinated by her. (Jefferson went so far as to semi-jokingly suggest an affair.) The correspondence she had with these and other figures were invaluable to historians. She apparently talked statecraft as well as any man.
Solea Pfeiffer (Eliza Schuyler), Emmy Raver-Lampman (Angelica Schuyler), and Amber Iman (Peggy Schuyler).
Iman also played Maria Reynolds, Hamilton's paramour...
But let us not forget Eliza - the play ends with a brief recounting of what she did with herself in the 50 years after Hamilton died. Just little stuff, like founding a society to aid widows, starting and running an orphanage, editing the tens of thousands of pages of documents Hamilton wrote and publishing them to preserve her legacy. And, well, raising their seven children too. By all accounts, the Schuyler sisters were pretty badass. (My kind of women, clearly.)
In the LA version, the parts of Hamilton and Burr are played by Michael Luwoye and Joshua Henry, respectively. Both were fantastic. I know it is pretty widely known, but Miranda chose to cast the major American parts using non-whites. Bold, and effective. I am reminded of the casting in Theatricum Botanicum’s version of All’s Well That Ends Well.
Michael Luwoye (Hamilton) and Isaiah Johnson (George Washington)
We got Dan Belnavis as Washington, but I couldn't find a good picture.
The other three parts for which the casting really stood out were Jordan Donica in the dual role as Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (the latter with an epic ‘fro) and Rory O’Malley as the simpering King George.
Ah yes, King George, who serves both as the comic relief, and as the “sassy gay friend,” as my wife put it. Miranda chose to make the numbers by King George cheesy homages to classic Broadway. And giving George stereotypically flamboyant gestures and pouts. He was hilarious.
Rory O'Malley as King George III
Speaking of Broadway references, Miranda has nods to so many great lines and songs, it is a veritable treasure trove for someone like my wife (or, these days, me, since she has corrupted me.) One of my favorites is George Washington’s little riff on Gilbert and Sullivan:
“The model of a modern major general
The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all
Lining up, to put me on a pedestal.”
I was better at naming these references than the hip hop ones, but this cheat sheet and this one are at least a good place to start. Perhaps my more educated readers can add some - because this is fun stuff!
I guess before this gets too long, I’ll mention some of my favorite moments from the show.
Perhaps one of the best riffs on the process of politics is “The Room Where it Happens.” Ironically, one of the worst things to happen the last few years is the abandonment of the messy process of give and takes that makes democracy happen. Compromise and tit for tat are necessary to bring people together, like it or not. “Winning” isn’t quite as effective in real life, it turns out…
I also loved “My Shot.” Both as a hip hop trope and as a synecdoche of the entire story. Hamilton and the new nation are determined to not waste that one shot for success. And, ironically, Hamilton “wastes” his shot in the fatal duel, for moral reasons. Darn good song.
And then, the “Ten Duel Commandments.” Oh my goodness. Let’s take the Notorious BIG’s Ten Crack Commandments and use it to teach a legitimate lesson about history. Fan. Tast. Ic. When this one started, my jaw was on the floor. I know a bit of history, and, yes, Miranda got it right. And I knew the reference from somewhere, I just couldn’t quite place it…an absolutely amazing song - I have played it a few times tonight just because it is so good.
I am such an amateur when it comes to hip hop - I really should sit down with an expert and find all the references. Again, totally brilliant.
And a final one, even though I could mention many more: the cabinet battles. Seriously. I avoided all the debates this election cycle. Not because I am uninformed (quite the contrary, as anyone who reads this blog would know). But because our debates suck. Badly. After watching Hamilton, I think we should just scrap them and go with a rap battle format. Not because they would lead to a nuanced discussion of issues (which too few voters would actually care about, sadly), but because it would be a LOT more fun. And because I suspect that a toddler level of discourse (like, say, a certain elected narcissist who shall not be named) wouldn’t stand up to the skill of someone with a real vocabulary and interest in reading.
There is so much more to say, about the dancing, the sets, the lighting, the costumes, and so on. This show isn’t inexpensive, and the detail that goes into a show like this is amazing - you get your money’s worth at this level. I wish I could afford to see it a dozen times, and concentrate on a different facet each time. But that isn’t in the cards for me, alas.
But let me note a moment that really struck me. After a catastrophic battle led by an incompetent general, Lafayette and Hamilton strike a deal for arms (this is real history) and strategy, and give a nice little fist bump, with the line, “Immigrants get it done!”
At this point in the show, the audience erupted in cheers. This is Los Angeles, my hometown (I grew up in the San Fernando Valley), and LA and California are the West Coast epitome of the melting pot that many of us - including past GOP presidents - believe is the strength of America. We could see around us people of every color and nationality, and the cheer raised the roof. It did my heart good.
I wish I had time to look up the full script, and pull every great quotable line. But let me just go with this one, from George Washington to Hamilton:
“Winning was easy, young man - governing’s harder…”
It’s nice to win on slogans and utopian ideologies. But when it comes down to it, governing isn’t just about forcing an agenda on everyone. It requires getting others on board, and seeking the common good. Something the GOP hasn’t really had to face lately (thanks White Nationalism, Ayn Rand social darwinism, and Tea Party…), but which is absolutely necessary to have a stable and successful government. As Hamilton points out, almost as an aside, Alexander Hamilton had his biggest successes when he learned to compromise and trade a bit. Others got what they wanted, he got what he wanted, and ultimately, his ideas set the stage for a stable union, a killer financial system, and a two-party system that has mostly served our country well.
My wife and I made an overnight date of this, complete with food (of course), drinks, and a couple days of discussion. I am deeply indebted to her for many of the insights I have shared in this post. Like Eliza, she deserves more of the credit for the best of me than anyone can know.
Hamilton is subtitled “An American Musical.” I wholeheartedly agree. The story is of a chapter in our founding, in all its glory and shame. Both aspirational freedom and slavery get a mention, as they should. But at its heart, Hamilton represents the best of us. The dream of freedom and equality, the melding of the old and the new, the use of what Dvorak (back in the 1890s!) called American’s true folk music, the African American tradition in imaginative combination with the Broadway tradition of the past (itself influenced by immigrants like Irving Berlin), and the glorious amalgam that is the American Dream, where all of us aspire to find our own place in the fabric of the nation, regardless of race, nationality, religion, or political affiliation.
Let me end with a couple of the best songs. Enjoy.