Hamilton

I’ve never posted here about a stage show before, for the plain and good reason that I don’t see stage shows. They are expensive and I live in America’s backwash. I am not going to be able to write here about acting, dancing, sets, costumes, lighting, etc.; all I have to go on is the soundtrack. But Hamilton still feels like an okay show to write about, despite the fact that I’m as likely to get a ticket to Hamilton as I am to get a ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory, because most of the other people on the Internet haven’t seen it either. What Hamilton reminds me of most, based on the number of fans versus the number of people who have actually seen the show, is a concept album; the original Chess and Evita come to mind here, as does Tommy. The analogy is imperfect, but I think it’s fairly close to the reality.

The smartest choice that Lin-Manuel Miranda made in Hamilton was to keep the cast of characters – and thus the scope of the play – intimately small. (The limited double-casting means that when Hamilton comes to high school, it can really expand the number of potential cast members; it’s like the opposite of Into the Woods.) Hamilton was closely connected with most of the major figures in the first thirty years of the American nation, and while three of the nation’s first five presidents have significant roles, two of them could have been important characters: “I Know Him” and “The Adams Administration” last all of about two and a half minutes together, but John Adams represents a shadow Federalist Party that could have taken shape if Hamilton had been abducted by aliens during Washington’s second term. Perhaps Miranda decided to forbear from more Adams because he already has a musical. (Miranda dropping a “Sit down, John!” makes me happy every time.) Meanwhile, James Monroe and one of his friends were the people who initially confronted Hamilton about the scandal that eventually became the Reynolds Affair, and Aaron Burr mediated a conflict between Monroe and Hamilton before it became a duel. This says nothing of Hamilton’s connections to people like John Jay, the Bayards, the Pinckneys, Oliver Wolcott, Henry Knox, Citizen Genet, etc. It’s not hard to imagine a Hamilton which spends much less time on Hamilton the ambitious young revolutionary and far more on Hamilton the partisan Federalist, or Hamilton the statesman with interests beyond a National Bank. This Hamilton – the Hamilton whose first gift is not statesmanship or partisanship or force of will, but his incredible skill as a writer – serves plenty well, but it’s nonetheless a credit to Miranda that Hamilton, the story of a man who packed about as much into thirty years of public service as any of his contemporaries, is so smooth.

Miranda’s Hamilton is, not unlike William Daniels’ Adams, “obnoxious and disliked” but with a “legal mind and brilliance” as well. I imagine your history teacher was as fond as mine of saying that the Constitution was drafted by one of the great braintrusts in the history of the American continent, but it’s hard to imagine a more divisive, fragmented, ambitious, individualistic, and grating group of people, of which Hamilton was one of the leaders in each category. Miranda’s Hamilton is much the same: unable to speak without triggering the dual reaction: “Bright young man!/Yo, who the f is this?” It’s not as if he doesn’t know: “I’d rather be divisive than indecisive,” he tells Burr early on. Better to have an opinion – and, as we come to understand based on his rigorous self-education and rap battles, no uninformed opinion either – and shout it loud than to weasel one’s way to acceptance by sacrificing his beliefs. In other words, Hamilton is the attractive idealist and Burr the scuzzy pragmatist. It’s the same role that Valjean and Javert play in Les Miserables, Che and Evita in Evita, Act One Tevye and Act Two Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.  It’s one of the many reasons that Hamilton works at a structural level; it uses the same kind of format that people are used to in well-beloved musicals while throwing most of the rest of the rules into the East River.

I have nothing besides a vibe to back this up, but my guess is that people who prefer Hamilton to Burr probably prefer Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar to Judas, and vice versa. The stories are so similar that it’s hard not to make the connection between the two men. Like Jesus, Hamilton has arisen from darkness to become a corona, an icon which either attracts people due to its brilliance or repels them for the same reason. Like Judas, Burr is consumed by jealous incomprehension and cannot overcome how his actions are the immediate cause of his friend’s death. Both musicals even make a point of noting that the betrayer was, at one time, the key friend. Hamilton refers to Burr as his “first friend” in “The World Was Wide Enough,” while Judas drops a “I’ve been your right hand man all along” in “Heaven on Their Minds.”

Perhaps ironically, Hamilton and Burr are both summed up best by their ambitions, which are roughly the same: become as powerful as possible, to be in the room where it happens whenever just about anything happens. “You wanna get ahead?” Burr asks in “Aaron Burr, Sir.” “Yes,” Hamilton succinctly replies. Their motivations are crystal clear in five words maybe five minutes into the musical itself. I don’t get the impression that it bothers Burr very much that Hamilton in particular gets to be Washington’s secretary, or gets to go to the Constitutional Convention, or is Washington’s secretary of state. But it does bother him that “Even though we started at the very same time/Alexander Hamilton began to climb.” It’s not Hamilton’s achievements or positions that bother him, but he is vexed that Hamilton gets those instead of him, that while Burr loiters as an officer in the Continental Army or as merely a New York state senator, Hamilton is at Washington’s side as his aide-de-camp or his most called-on Cabinet member. (“The world was wide enough,” indeed.) After losing the presidential election to Thomas Jefferson, he writes Hamilton: “I look back where I failed/And in every place I checked/The only common thread has been your disrespect.” Of course that’s not true – Hamilton, at his wedding, openly wished that he and Burr could have swapped jobs during the Revolution, and Burr turns down Hamilton’s starmaking offer to work on the Federalist Papers – but to accept that his reservedness, his caution, was the root of his failure after being denied the presidency by Hamilton is too much to bear. He went for what he wanted – just like Hamilton – and reached a high station – just like Hamilton – and is perpetually, habitually, characteristically unsatisfied – seeing a connection? – and, unlike his chief rival, sees that high position as a roadblock rather than a stepping stone. Hamilton can find a way to channel his ambition sideways in an attempt to further it, where Burr can only fire in spurts.

The key philosophical difference between the two, which can be summed up as “Non-Stop” vs. “Wait for It,” is a statement of American values or, maybe more accurately, of American myth. The moral of “Non-Stop” (or, heck, the moral of Hamilton) is that if you work really hard, there’s no reason you can’t achieve your goals. The American Dream was not precisely stillborn, but it’s hardly a universal truth, and it’s a little annoying to hear anyone sing and dance to the tune of “You let me make a difference/A place where even orphan immigrants/Can leave their fingerprints and rise up” or, for more itemization, see “Hurricane,” where Hamilton expresses his belief that he was the source of his own salvation more than once. (One of course can problematize the latter: after all, the Reynolds Pamphlet, from publication to effect, is not unlike Nixon believing that he could alter public opinion far enough to get folks off of the Watergate bandwagon. It’s not meant to be a song that makes us love Hamilton unconditionally, I don’t think, but it does provide all of his greatest hits in a way that is meant to be nostalgically endearing.) Hamilton has an essentially conservative message: work your butt off and you’ll get ahead, which is kind of a weird adage to take from the life of a guy who is on the record as supporting a president-for-life and who may well be thought of as the father of American capitalism. Burr represents more obvious privilege – the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the son of the president of the college that became Princeton – but who, despite his patrician bona fides (“I’m a trust fund baby, you can trust me”), represents  a kind of chaos that I think is more honest and is thus more attractive. You can work hard to get ahead, or you can choose your moments, rest on your laurels, and get ahead anyway. Or you can die on the battlefield, like John Laurens, maybe two months before the Battle of Yorktown ends.

“The Room Where It Happens” has become one of the most popular songs from the show, and for good reason: it is that rare jewel, a seamless mash-up of AP U.S. History factoids and vocal runs. The Compromise of 1790, which ended in Hamilton getting his financial plan through Congress in exchange for giving the site of the national capital to the South, is painted as a win for Hamilton, as well it should be. Hamilton keeps his personal power as Secretary of the Treasury, makes it clear that he’s the Federalist at the top of the food chain, and gets what he wants to boot without, in his mind, giving up very much at all. “We’ll have the banks/We’re in the same spot,” he tells Burr. The votes might happen in D.C., but, apologies to Ted Cruz, New York City remains the key arbiter of American interests to this day. It’s hard not to read this as a corollary to what happened to Hamilton and Burr through the “Non-Stop” v. “Wait for It” conflict; indeed, the lyrics reflect that pretty specifically when Hamilton drops “You get love for it,/You get hate for it./You get nothin’ if you just wait for it, wait for it.” Hamilton is the same man as ever; Burr is the one who has changed. Apparently confident that America and its Constitution will endure at this point, Burr is no longer interested in waiting for his moment; in his opinion, the moment has done arrived already. When the chorus asks, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” “I want to be in the room where it happens,” he replies, and proceeds to repeat that phrase several more times. And, as we know, Burr climbs up the political totem pole farther than Hamilton ever does, running for president and very nearly winning the whole shebang. But who would argue that Aaron Burr is a more influential figure than Alexander Hamilton? At the end of the day, Hamilton was in far more rooms than Burr ever was, and Burr seems to know that he has lost that competition even as he contemplates his drink after a busy morning in Weehawken.

More importantly, Burr’s desire  to be in that room, especially when it’s repeated in “We Know,” is played as a little insidious. “We Know” has one of those moments where I wish I could have seen the show, because it’d answer a whole bunch of questions – I can’t say one way or another if that Virginian “Um, yes” is a reluctant comment, a “well, duh!” comment, or a “what the heck was that, Burr?” comment. In either event, Hamilton’s frustration with Burr’s oblique pleasure in that scene makes Burr more odious than he had been previously. Until then, it wasn’t necessary for Hamilton to fail for Burr to be in the room where it happened (though it helped Burr get his seat in the Senate); now, Hamilton’s fall from grace is obviously connected to Burr’s self-perceived rise, and that seems to bother Hamilton at least as much as getting accused of a federal crime or admitting to serial infidelity.

Many of the same reasons I like Burr – foremost among them his effort to thwart Hamilton, which would be, of course, the end of the bootstraps narrative – are the reasons I love Jefferson. In high school, I believed in the myth of the yeoman farmer, a position that the play’s Jefferson adheres to in more words. And while Hamilton is given his due for being forward thinking about a centralized government and his financial plan (“I hate to admit it, but he doesn’t get enough credit/For all the credit he gave us”), as well as his not-awful opinions on slavery, Jefferson is largely drawn as the villain. And of course, he was on the wrong side of history about a bunch of things. If he had his way about an agrarian America, there probably would have been a Bolshevik Revolution in America in 1917. His opinion on slavery – that it was wrong, but that he wasn’t going to free any of the people that he needed to run his mansion or the ones that he, y’know, raped – is somehow more odious than the opinion of a John Calhoun or Edmund Ruffin or Robert Barnwell Rhett. At least those guys were actively awful; Jefferson tried to have it both ways about slavery. All that said, Jefferson of the play makes a fantastic supervillain because he is totally unafraid of Hamilton. Burr always fails with Hamilton because he wants to wait for it; Hamilton’s entire life is centered on going for it; Jefferson trumps them both, because everything they want, he’s had for years. Burr turned down the Federalist Papers; Hamilton wrote most of them. And then there’s Jefferson, who trumps them all. “These are wise words,/Enterprising men quote ’em,” he says of the famous lines of the Declaration of Independence. “Don’t act surprised, you guys,/’Cause I wrote ’em.” He’s this musical’s Alan Shepard or Chuck Yeager; it doesn’t matter how high, far, or fast you’ve gone, because Shepard and Yeager did it first, and did it again and again. But what makes him the most fun and the most dangerous character in the show is that he isn’t beholden to anyone. “You’re nothing without Washington behind you,” he says. When Washington calls for Hamilton at just the wrong time, you can just hear Daveed Diggs sneering. “Daddy’s calling.” And that’s when you remember, “Oh, yeah. Hamilton is Robin and Jefferson is the Joker, and the Joker doesn’t answer to anyone.” It is no surprise that Hamilton’s seemingly unstoppable rise hits its apogee with Jefferson’s arrival; everything from 1791 on is, at best, anticlimax, and at worst, self-immolation. His last victory is convincing Washington not to intercede in the French Revolution; after that, it’s all downhill. The Reynolds Pamphlet is published and Eliza all but kicks Hamilton out; Jefferson was the one who went looking for a weak link in his armor. George Eacker, a member of the party Jefferson founded, kills Hamilton’s son, Philip, after Eacker trashed the elder Hamilton in public. And of course, even when Hamilton endorses Jefferson for president (despite having “never agreed with Jefferson once”), it makes Burr so mad that he kills Hamilton. The last twenty-five percent of the show – everything from “The Adams Administration” on – is pretty bleak.

I’ve come to really appreciate that tail end, which I place from “It’s Quiet Uptown” through to the end. Miranda’s theater influences are pretty wide. You can hear snatches of 1776, of course, because content, and there’s more than a little Les Miz, and I’ve done the Jesus Christ Superstar angle to death already. But there’s a little bit of Jason Robert Brown here as well. I love The Last Five Years, and that “nobody needs to know” in “Say No to This” is an absolute sledgehammer of a direct reference to the song of the same title and same content in the Last Five Years. But in terms of plot, it reminds me most of (spoilers, but not really, because the show is like, twenty years old now) Parade. Parade is based on the true story of Leo Frank, an American Jew who was lynched outside Atlanta in the early 1900s. For most of the play, Leo is either an inattentive husband or an ineffective one, but towards the end of the play, not long before he is dragged from his jail cell and murdered, he reconnects with his wife in “All the Wasted Time,” one of my favorite Broadway duets. The two of them simultaneously lament the time they spent distant from one another while celebrating the sadly fleeting love they’ve rebuilt. I’m not saying that Miranda tried to throw Parade into his show. “It’s Quiet Uptown” sounds absolutely nothing like “All the Wasted Time.” It’s not a duet, it has a completely different tempo, and it relies on different instrumentation. But the concept – a brief rapprochement, forgiveness – is addictive. What Wicked thumbs its nose at (“The most celebrated/Are the rehabilitated”) is nothing short of grace in Hamilton, and it is cream on what would otherwise be a pretty damaged palate.

On the album, Eliza doesn’t have much more to say or do until “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” – the “Best of Wives and Best of Women” interlude is so predictable that it almost doesn’t mean anything. Her best moments are, of course, the moments where a woman who self-describes as “I have never been the type to try and grab the spotlight” does exactly that. “Helpless” and “Burn” are two of the best individual performances on the album, and of course they fit into each other conceptually like a hand into a glove, about how a woman falls in love with a man and how she falls out of love. Eliza is incredibly attractive – aside from being “trusting” and “kind,” she has a brain and significant pride – and yet is fated to share the same problem that other wives of Founding Fathers seem to have thrown at them: whether they are as brainy and forward-thinking as Abigail Adams, or as charming and engaging as Dolley Madison, or as obsessed with moar children as Martha Washington, they always seem to be home alone while their man is off doing manly, nation-building activities. Few characters bring out the best in Hamilton; everyone who affects Hamilton positively, even someone like Laurens, seems to get him involved in some kind of trouble. Yet Eliza manages to bring out the best in him, the man who is a loving father and a brilliant writer. One wonders if Hamilton brings out the best in Eliza; he certainly does a good job of making her more interesting, because “Burn,” excepting that weird verse which Ron Chernow apparently got to write so he could vent his frustrations, is one of the show’s highlights. But it’s very clear, even if Maria Reynolds had never existed, that the Hamilton of Hamilton was never going to be one of history’s great husbands. Good enough, I suppose, to get to listen to an Eliza who is one of history’s great wives.

It took me a few listens to get on board with “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” as the end of the play. (I admit this freely, because it’s a secret that it took even more listens to get used to “Epilogue” in Les Miz as the end of that musical, and if that ever got out, I’d be in real trouble.) I haven’t spent a whole lot of time talking about Miranda’s incredible virtuosity as a lyricist, largely because if I were to start talking about how clever the show’s words are, I would be here until Ragnarok dissecting the most verbally dense musical maybe ever. I love the context of the show’s tagline. It of course hears as a series of three questions, but within the song itself, it’s anything but. “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” It’s the Mobius strip of lyrics, a line which is about the person singing it and the person who wrote the line in the first place, and which sits in the musical as a piece of advice. Hamilton flatters itself a little. I’m not sure that it is as relevant to the 21st Century as it wants to be, and I know it’s not as relevant as it thinks it is. Alexander Hamilton the immigrant born in 1755 has very little in common with the immigrants who come to this country now; the opportunity that unfolded for Hamilton and his huge talent has been locked away by a xenophobic segment of the population that has no empathy or patience. But if one has no control over who lives, dies, or tells one’s story, it may as well be that one’s story is told as a phenomenal objet d’art, and it’s hard to deny that Hamilton is just that.

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