In case you don’t know, Hamilton is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical based on Rod Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. It takes a non-traditional approach for a play about a bunch of dead white people; most of the cast is nonwhite and the music features a lot of hip-hop. It is very well reviewed and incredibly hard to get tickets (unless you are rich, famous, or lucky). If you’re reading this, you have an internet connection, so how could you not know about Hamilton? If my twitter, tumblr, and facebook feeds are any indication, Hamilton is the only thing people wouldn’t shut up about this year. In fact, I’m posting this on New Year’s Eve as a concession to the fact that the last thing the world needs is another thinkpiece about Hamilton. This won’t even be the best late year think piece about Hamilton that concedes that it’s written by yet another person who won’t shut up about Hamilton.
And yet even though I know no one wants to or maybe even should read this, I was lucky enough to see Hamilton this month and it touched me in such a way that I feel compelled to add to the pile of words spilled about this show. This best way to quantify how strong it affected me is to describe how much I cried. I am not a crier. I don’t say this to sound tough becaused I am decidedly not tough; this is just a fact about me. I teared up a little when my wife and I had to put down our cat Professor and when my sister-in-law’s childhood friend gave a speech at said sister-in-law’s wedding about my wife’s late Grandma (who I spent a considerable amount of time with in her final years), but I can’t actually remember a time I’ve cried in the last decade. By the end of Hamilton, I was sobbing uncontrollably.
Why did it touch me so?
First off, it’s very good! I think it might be better than people are saying (and they’re saying it’s very good).
All the positive things they say about it are true:
- That Miranda read a book about America’s first treasury secretary and saw Biggie and Pac in his story is amazing
- The use of hip hop battles makes debates about financial policy seem interesting
- The nonwhite casting makes this story universal and more relatable for this time
- There is an emotional heft to the ballads that is undeniable, especially by the end of the show
Also, there are things I don’t see mentioned as much that I also found noteworthy:
- As indebted as the show is to hip hop, there’s also as deep a love for the tradition of musical theater which is paid homage to in clever ways. In addition to allusions to Mobb Deep and DMX, there are also lyrical hints of South Pacific and Penzance as well a melodic deftness with recurring themes not often heard outside of the opera.
- There are also nods to other styles and genres including jazz, R&B, baroque, and pop
- The technical elements are underrated. There’s a balcony, portable stairway, and a rotating stage of concentric concentric circles that combine with the company for some really inventive choreography.
- Finally, one song and scene that I think doesn’t get it’s due is “Satisfied.” It’s one of a few places where Miranda employs distinctly filmic techniques like freeze frame and slow motion where they rewind a previous scene a reply it from the perspective of another character in live action!
In addition to being good, it feels right (as in correct about things).
Miranda couldn’t know how focusing on Hamilton’s origins as an immigrant would resonate in this oh-my-god-Donald-Trump-is-still-a-presidential-frontrunner hellscape we call late 2015, maybe it’s speaking to some universal truths of the American experience.
I love the story of America while realizing the promise of America is unfulfilled for a lot of marginalized people (something the show deftly references). Most people who unapologetically wrap themselves in the flag don’t really seem to understand American History, how the government works, and hate immigrants. That’s where I think the genius of Hamilton really shines through; it’s a very succinct refutation of the kind of lowest common denominator rhetoric that’s dominating our political discourse.
That’s why I think my strongest reaction to seeing Hamilton is I want as many people to see Hamilton as possible. It deserves its status as the hottest ticket in town, but the more people that see it the better. I think the Hamilton team realizes this and is trying to address it through the #HAM4HAM raffle as well as a low cost program for NYC highschool students.
They need to go bigger. They’ve announced a lot of Hamilton merch for 2016, but I need a movie. I need soundtrack stems for remixes. I need everyone to feel what I feel about Hamilton.
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