The Hamilton Duel

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Experiencing the unexpected is one of the things I love about live theater, so I would love to have been in the audience when the cast of Hamilton decided to explain their position to vice-president-elect Mike Pence the weekend before Thanksgiving. (Although I would not have been happy if it had been my first experience with the play.) I support the right of the cast to exercise their free speech, and I agree with those who say they were respectful and sincere. They even silenced the booing. Sort of.

However, I wish the cast had trusted their art more. Everything they said in their speech was heartfelt and important. But it had already been said in the play. Storytelling is a powerful art form, perhaps the most powerful way of expressing a message, because it touches the heart as well as the mind. It’s the reason I’m so passionate about film. And when you add music, the power increases exponentially. The lecture simply wasn’t necessary.

I remember the night I saw Hamiltonshortly after it opened, before I had heard the music or the hype. It was a transformative experience, and I’m glad it wasn’t marred by a post-performance lecture. I stayed at my seat until the last chord of the postlude and applauded one more time. The music stayed with me as I left the theater. The play ends with an epilogue focusing on the women in Hamilton’s life and what they did to preserve his legacy and his writings after his death, and I thought about their contribution to the cause of liberty during the Revolution.

Everything they said in their speech was heartfelt and important. But it had already been said in the play.

As I walked to the train station, I contemplated the rich heritage portrayed in the play, particularly as demonstrated in the casting of ethnic minorities in all the major roles and most of the ensemble. It made me think more deeply about those revolutionaries we usually see depicted in brocade finery and speaking the king’s English, men who were actually more like the Occupy movement of our day. It made me wonder whether I would have been a royalist or a revolutionary, something I never questioned before. It also helped me understand the royalists’ position better, and how hard it must have been to give up a way of life that had been comfortable and familiar to them. Would I have been willing to sacrifice all that I have for the ideal of freedom?

In short, I got it, in my mind and in my heart, through the storytelling and the music. The audience who saw the play with Mike Pence also had an unforgettable experience, but I doubt that it was focused on the music or the story.

It made me wonder whether I would have been a royalist or a revolutionary, something I never questioned before.

Like the characters they play onstage, the actors took a risk Friday night. It wasn’t a risk to their lives but to their livelihoods. I admire their courage and their sincerity. But they weren’t the only ones at risk that night. I can only imagine the consternation of the Secret Service agents as they tried to move their charge from the crowded theater before the curtain calls were ended, as they are instructed to do. Transitions are always the most dangerous time for a Secret Service agent, so it must have been a nightmare for them when the cast invited the audience to take out their cellphones to record the speech, and everyone reached into their purses and pockets! They put everyone at risk at that moment. Fortunately Secret Service agents have better training than cops, and no one was trigger-happy. I’m sure they surrounded Mr. Pence with their bodies, ready to take a bullet rather than use one. But there could have been a tragic outcome as everyone reached for those phones.

So yes, the cast of Hamilton had every right to say what they said, just as those who argued both sides of the issue that weekend had every right to express their opinions. I just wish the cast had trusted their art to tell the story and convey the message by itself. Perhaps they could have invited Mr. Pence backstage to talk to them about his experience and their hopes in a meaningful way. They knew he was coming, so they could have arranged it ahead of time. Then the news story might have been about Mr. Pence’s response to the play, instead of everyone else’s response to the lecture.




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Revolution by Revolutionary Means

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When Barbra Streisand announced Hamilton as the recipient of the Tony for Best Musical on June 12, it was the most anti-climactic award in the history of awards shows — everyone knew it was going to win. (I knew it the moment I saw the show, even without seeing the other potential contenders. It’s that impressive.) Yet it was the most electrifying Tony show in ages, precisely because Hamilton was going to win. Audiences across the country would finally get a taste of what everyone had been talking about, because at the Tonys the casts of each nominee for Best Musical perform a medley of scenes from their show. The cast of Hamilton closed the night and brought down the house.

Hamilton has become a nationwide phenomenon this year, with people who have never attended a Broadway show purchasing the cast album and reading the Ron Chernow biography on which the play is based. Even the Treasury Department has been caught up in the newfound enthusiasm for its first Treasurer, announcing, after years of promising that a woman would replace Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill, that Jackson would be replaced on the twenty instead. Hamilton has had that kind of influence.

Hamilton erased my impression of the Founding Fathers as white-wigged, brocade-jacketed, lace-jabotted aristocrats whose success as founders of the free world was a foregone conclusion.

So does the play live up to the hype? It’s just a bunch of rap songs and hip-hop dances, right? Anyone could do that. It’s street entertainment, not Broadway! And the show isn’t even accurate — they cast minority actors for the major roles of Washington, Hamilton, Burr, Lafayette and the Schuyler sisters — only King George is played by a white man. Doesn’t Lin-Manuel Miranda — who wrote the music, lyrics, and book, and stars in the production — know anything?

As a matter of fact, Miranda knows plenty. His decision to use rap, hip-hop and minorities for Hamilton was carefully calculated to tell a richer, truer story than racial “accuracy” could have achieved.

Let’s start with the rap. To the untrained ear (and the untrained rapper) it’s the laziest form of rhythm and rhyme, seeming to ignore all rules about meter and feet so as to shove as many syllables into a single beat of music as the human mouth can manage. It’s also associated with minorities and outsiders. Miranda chose rap for both reasons. “Rap is uniquely suited to tell Hamilton’s story. It has more words per measure than any other musical genre . . . It has density, and if Hamilton’s writing had anything, it was density,” Miranda explained to Graham Messick in an interview for 60 Minutes. “Hamilton spoke in whole paragraphs, so the opening song of our show is this crazy run-on sentence":

How does a bastard, orphan,
son of a whore an’
a Scotsman,
dropped in a forgotten
spot in
the Caribbean
by Providence,
impoverished in squalor
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Well, OK — you have to hear the rhythm and tone to experience the passion and cleverness of the line. But trust me — when it’s sung, it works. Miranda says he took weeks to get each couplet right. “Every couplet needed to be the best couplet I ever wrote. It took me a year to write ‘My Shot,’ which is Hamilton’s big ‘I want’ song,” he says. He imbues his lyrics with the playfulness and creativity of a Cole Porter (one of his early influences) but with a decidedly non-Cole Porter ferocity. It took six years to write the show, financed in part from his success with his Broadway debut In the Heights, also a Tony winner for Best Musical.

And what about those minority actors? Here’s the effect it had on me: it erased my impression of the Founding Fathers as white-wigged, brocade-jacketed, lace-jabotted, upper-crust-accented aristocrats whose success as founders of the free world was a foregone conclusion. It reminded me forcefully that the colonists were themselves immigrants, and the Founders were outsiders who were working against the powerful government, not part of it. In essence they were the Occupy movement of their day, but they weren’t sitting around waiting for someone to fix the injustices they saw. They risked everything they had, even their lives, and they were not “throwin’ away their shot” — their one shot — at freedom and self-government.

It made me realize, too, that the founders had the mental, physical, and financial resources to focus on just one battle — one shot — for political liberation from the monarchy of King George. They did not have the power or resources to overturn all injustices at once. Thomas Jefferson recognized the evil of slavery and in his draft of the Declaration of Independence furiously inveighed against the slave trade. But that was a battle that would have to wait for another day. Just as Martin Luther King focused on civil rights for black Americans and left the fight for gay rights to the next generation, so the Founders blazed the trail for political freedom but left the fight for racial and gender equality for generations to come. Future generations will look back and criticize us too for not recognizing the needs of other marginalized groups. The Founders had the power and resources for “just one shot,” and they would likely have failed if they had tried to shoot in every direction at once.

The idea of liberty cannot die. When one hero falls, another rises up to continue the fight. And that one is likely to be even stronger and more charismatic.

Miranda also recognizes the important influence of the women who surrounded Hamilton, particularly the three Schuyler sisters, one of whom he married and another of whom he loved. Peter Stone included women to some extent in 1776, with John Adams’ letters to and from Abigail and Jefferson’s visit from his wife Martha as he is writing the Declaration. But in 1776 the women were mostly back home in Massachusetts or Virginia, wearing their pretty gowns and taking care of their lovely homes. They show up for a moment but remain mostly offstage, while the men create a nation. By contrast, the Schuyler sisters and other women in Miranda’s cast and chorus are an ongoing, integral part of the action.

The decision to cast actors in multiple roles also adds to the message of liberty as a living movement. I was keenly disappointed when Lafayette went back to France at the end of Act 1, because I had been so enamored by Daveed Diggs’ charismatic performance. Not to worry — Diggs returned in Act 2 as Jefferson, with an even greater intensity and charisma. This was not a money-saving tactic on the part of the producers; in fact, all the actors whose characters die in Act 1 return in Act 2 with new roles. This technique reminds us that revolution is not about a single person. The idea of liberty cannot die. When one hero falls, another rises up to continue the fight. And that one is likely to be even stronger and more charismatic.

Sadly, many of the actors who created the roles of this landmark play are leaving the cast this summer. I’m grateful I was able to see the original cast — it’s a moment I will remember as vividly as I remember seeing Les Miserables in 1985 with Colm Wilkinson and Patti Lupone. It was still in previews; the music was brand new, and it was breathtaking. I look forward to seeing what the actors of Hamilton do next.

But the beauty of this show is that new actors can enter the roles and the message will remain. As Miranda points out, in America we would keep changing leaders, and it would work. We didn’t need a monarchy. So my hope is that when a touring company comes to a theater near you with its new leaders in the roles, Hamilton will still have its message and its passion — that it doesn’t need a Miranda or a Diggs. Music and theater arts schools had better start adding rap to their repertoires, because Hamilton is going to be touring for a long time to come.


Editor's Note: Review of "Hamilton," directed by Thomas Kail. Richard Rogers Theater, New York.



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