I get it, I’m coming a little late to the party on this one. I did not jump on the Hamilton bandwagon the first time that it came around. Or the second. Or even the third. I had heard all, or most, of the songs over the course of a year where my very dedicated friend Sarah played them “Non-Stop” in her car. Well Sarah, you were right. I was foolish. Please accept the following post as my apology.
I never had anything against Lin Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece. I just never felt like sitting down and listening to it. I knew that I would like it. I’m a liberal theatre geek with a Bachelor’s degree in history. There was no way I could dislike it. It’s a bit like how I feel about Good Will Hunting. I know I’ll like it, I’ve just never actually let myself experience it all the way through.
Regardless, I sat down and listened to Hamilton, and I enjoyed it. Then about a week later I found myself with some lines stuck in my head, so I listened to it again. And again. Then I listened one more time, just to get it out of my system. And then I bought the soundtrack and started obsessing over every line, every beat, and every character one by one by one. So I suppose you could say that I was “not standing still,” I was “lying in wait.” I’m sorry.
Hamilton is a truly special, truly great, work of art. Like so many great piece of art, I would argue, it works on a number of levels. It is the story of a truly remarkable man who has to a large degree been lost to history. Although it is biographical, it is also very much not about Hamilton. Lin Manuel Miranda’s depiction of Hamilton cannot be completely accurate, because no portrayal of a historical individual can ever truly capture them. They are always serving the story that is being told, and it is almost impossible to achieve verisimilitude.
On that note, the play also has its own agenda, most notably casting actors of different races from the Founding Fathers. This serves to write these marginalized groups into the very fabric, the central mythology, of American history. It is perhaps the most distinctive element of the play, and lends so much extra meaning to the performances. The sly, but important, reference to Sally Hemmings carries particular weight given the fact that the actor portraying Thomas Jefferson is himself African American. It is why the show has so much more staying power than another production such as 1776 (which I adore) that spends considerable energy grappling with the problematic history of its characters. These casting choices serve to remind us about the universal nature of the Revolution, and of the importance of the most downtrodden and marginalized groups in the United States’ history and culture. Finally, Hamilton is, like all great works, about itself and the process of story telling.
This is perhaps the most difficult, nebulous quality for a piece of fiction to achieve, but when done effectively it is remarkably powerful. The show is very self-conscious of its own importance, and of the importance of storytelling in general. Like Dante Alighieri with the Divine Comedy, Miranda has composed an epic that reveals the inner workings of his mind and it is delightful. The lyrics are littered with references to music, other musicals, history, and even podcasts. He doesn’t even care if you understand them. Because the songs work whether you do or not. It almost takes a special kind of arrogance, (a beautiful, well deserved kind of arrogance) to be confident enough to make the importance of your work an integral part of your work.
The play is about Hamilton, but it is even more so it is about telling Hamilton’s story, and the importance of telling Hamilton’s story. Hamilton’s ability to write effectively, to spin a good story, is his greatest strength. Even his actions are perceived as a kind of writing, when he notes, “every action’s an act of creation.” He can tell his story as he chooses while he lives, can shape his life into the narrative that he desires, but needs someone to do it for him after he is gone. The play is obsessed with legacy, knowing that it is itself a part of Hamilton’s legacy and is perhaps the most important part. Miranda positions this as the driving force behind all of Hamilton’s actions in the second act, and like any tragic flaw it is also what undoes his marriage and his happiness. The finale centers around that central question, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” and the careful construction of Eliza as the storyteller is wonderful.
In addition to the many reasons that the play is so effective, the curious thing about Hamilton, I’ve found, is how it does seem to seep into every aspect of each listener’s life. The characters are so vivid, and so masterfully expressed through the music, that it has each new listening session yields new insight into the characters themselves. It’s a bit like a good Shakespeare play, or like Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. You can see every line a thousand times and never tire of the show because there’s always some new perspective or piece of information. (Lin Manuel Miranda is, in case you were not aware, an ardent Sorkin fan.) Moreover, the sheer span of the work makes it difficult to deny its accessibility.
As an audience, we see our titular character go through seemingly every phase of his life. The opening lines relate the circumstances of his birth as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” and in three minutes of brilliant exposition we hear the story of his first nineteen years. From there we accompany Hamilton through every sort of trial and tribulation, every soaring victory and crushing defeat. We see him as a young man struggling to make it in the world, watch him develop into a success who is still frustrated by the need to establish a legacy. Finally we watch the tragedy of his losses as he enters what will be the final stage of his life. In a way, Miranda has captured every step in Shakespeare’s famous monologue from As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
It was that strangely universal quality to Hamilton that drew me to it, and has kept me interested to this day. The first line that I ever connected with was Hamilton’s promise to Eliza, “All I have’s my honor, a tolerance for pain, a couple of college credits and my top notch brain.” I was in a dentist’s office and needed to be reminded of my own tolerance for pain. My next vivid memory came during a long sparring round in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu when I (finally!) established a dominant position over one of the people whom I have the most trouble with. As I set my weight over his chest and held him down I remember the lines ringing through my head, “Got a lot farther, by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter…” Given recent events it is difficult to listen to the line, “another immigrant coming up from the bottom,” without being moved.
(Seen today, by me, at an immigration rally of 20,000 people)
However, although these moments were poignant, I was much more affected by Hamilton’s drive, ambition, and his dissatisfaction. My listening experience with Hamilton coincided with my studying and taking of the GRE exams, and I listened to “My Shot,” just as I was about to enter the test. Hamilton helped to drive and inspire me, and to remember why I was pushing myself in the first place.
I tend to see things on a large scale, a perhaps unfortunate side effect of four years of history education. It does, after all, have its eyes on all of us. As someone who worries about his life rapidly flitting by him without being able to capitalize on his chances and opportunities, Hamilton’s need to do something connected with me. I’m currently in the process of trying to decide what my legacy will be, if any.
I want to do something to affect people, to make the world a better place by doing what I love. For me that means becoming a history professor, teaching, and trying to write something that will move people in a way that will, perhaps, do some good. At a certain point I fell in love with the song “Non-Stop” and immediately began to question what I was doing with my life and my choices.
I started this blog after a long night of tossing and turning in bed to decide what I would make of myself, and how I could push myself forward. I’m not, as a rule, the most intelligent person in the room and most of my limited successes have come from having a good work ethic. But I sometimes have been told that I have a way with words, and it seemed that the best way to sort out my thinking on different issues would be to start sharpening these tools, even outside of my work and school life.
One of my favorite writers and podcast hosts, Jack Slack, observed that the key to learning to write well was simply doing it. So I began this blog to try and organize my thoughts and learn to write in an accessible way so that one day I can write a real history book that will touch people. I suppose I just decided it was time to start writing like I was running out of time.