Hamilton (musical): Worth the wait

Warning: I don’t know if people would consider what follows to be spoilers or not, but if you haven’t seen Hamilton yet, I thought I’d put this tag here. I don’t really dig too much into the actual story or what transpires, but hey, I want to be sensitive to those things.

hamilton

That’s a play on the song, “Alexander Hamilton,” from the Broadway musical:

My name is Alexander Hamilton
And there’s a million things I haven’t done
But you just wait, you just wait.

Well, five years after first premiering, the musical reached streaming services with Disney+. I’m one of the hundreds of thousands of people who downloaded the app when the musical was released on the streaming platform July 3.

I’ve been a theater and musical fan since high school, but unfortunately, haven’t had an opportunity to see very many. That said, the ones I have seen in-person, and certainly the film versions, have been fantastic. (Two of my favorites in-person: Dirty Dancing (yes) and a one-woman performance of Anne Frank’s Diary at my local theater). Film-wise, Singin’ in the Rain is the gold standard and an obvious pick, but I also quite liked Les Misérables.

I went into Hamilton knowing, obviously, the hype around it, but having no engagement with it. I hadn’t heard any of the tracks from the soundtrack or read any reviews about it. All I knew was that it was based on Ron Chernow’s (speaking of gold standards) 2004 biography on Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers.

That in and of itself is fascinating to me. A story about one of America’s Founding Fathers not only gets told to critical acclaim and commercial success, but also matches up quite well with hip hop and R&B? And it wasn’t about one of the more known Founding Fathers, but Alexander Hamilton. I mean, they turn a cabinet meeting between Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton into a quasi-rap battle, and it works so well. And it’s a rap battle about central banking and the economic system in America, rendered compelling, including with a damn pipebomb. It’s great.

Not to mention, a Broadway musical that is heavily hip hop — not to say anything about Founding Fathers and other characters being played by black and Latino actors and actresses — being that successful is quite the breakthrough. I’m not saying anything new there, but it’s still worth remarking upon.

One of the first songs of the musical is, “My Shot,” which seems to be one of the more popular songs of the musical. I loved it. It set the tone for the entire musical, and almost felt like a pump-you-up song.

The lyrics though:

“Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry.”

It’s also a song that exemplifies Hamilton and the entire theme of the musical: Legacy is everything. Hamilton is obsessed with his legacy, his story, and being remembered as a giant of history. Getting to that point would mean rising far above the station from which he came (“a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman”). From, “The World Was Wide Enough,”:

Legacy, what is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me

Viewed in that way, legacy is an interesting idea to chase because you’ll never see the fruits of your labor. Not to mention, it seems fleeting. After all, Hamilton, as the musical mentions many times, “writes like he’s running out of time,” and poured considerable energies into doing so. And yet, if not for his wife, would he even be the source of a Chernow biography and a hit Broadway musical? So much of legacy is luck and happenstance. While that depends on the quality of the labor itself being something to fall back on, it sort of knocks a point off of chasing a legacy.

Because you don’t get to decide what the legacy is, anyway.

A co-current theme of the musical expressed well in my second favorite song of the musical, “The Room Where It Happens,” with Aaron Burr singing it. Leslie Odom Jr. killed the role, by the way. But that song I think signifies is how much Burr thirsts to be “in the room where it happens.” He wants to be at center of power. He wants to be at the table. He wants to matter.

The best song of the musical in terms of performance, because again, Odom killed it, is, “Wait for It,” which speaks to Burr’s concern with legacy and getting to power, too. It’s interesting because he does wait for it, and wait for it, and then as he (in his head) keeps getting subverted by Hamilton, so he decides to kill him.

I’m not a historian, so someone who is can speak better to it, but there are criticisms that the musical isn’t completely historically accurate. I don’t doubt that to be the case. But it’s a musical. I don’t go into it expecting it to be the authority on history. But, I do appreciate it for making history fun, for making disputes about governance (especially for a new country) interesting for the layman, and for pushing the overall idea that compromise is probably a central, under-appreciated concept.

Another person who completely steals the show is Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson. He did a good Lafayette, but my goodness, when he comes back as Thomas Jefferson in Act II, it’s masterful and charismatic. For that reason alone, Act II is slightly better than Act I.

If musicals have sequels or spinoffs, I’d love one on Eliza. Her life lived for nearly 50 years after Hamilton died in 1804 (much less before, mainly the tragedy and dealing with Hamilton being a cheating bastard) is incredible, and a legacy worthy of attention.

A lot of people have likened the musical to a quintessential cultural totem of the Obama years and the Obama ethos: “progressive, multicultural patriotism”(as Ben Brantley calls it) and holding up compromise as a central tenet of those ethos. Not to say anything, either, that Obama himself cares very much about his legacy.

I can see that. I can also see the idea of Obama as a modern embodiment of Hamilton in terms of personal striving and his view of governance (favoring a strong executive, for example).

Another thread worth extrapolating from the musical is how inspiring it is: Even if you’re not a rah-rah patriotic type, there’s something inspiring about a bunch of young rebels, and let’s face it, whatever their faults (which, given slavery, is a huge caveat obviously), the late 1700s and early 1800s had a grouping of incredibly brilliant men and women, who would go on to defy the largest superpower at the time, and forge ahead with their own country. It’s an inspiring story, even if some of context isn’t tethered to the real history.

The best viewings speed by, and Hamilton, at nearly three hours, didn’t feel like three hours. It’s momentous, even the more depressing moments of the story. It feels exactly like the characters at the center of the story: young, scrappy and hungry.

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