Hamilton was like nothing I have seen in my life. The intensity, the integrity, the amazing cinematic staging (a framework that is popping up in current theatre performance to tremendous impact), the rhythmic repartee, the anachronistic tensions, the dynamic interplay of the softest whisper to the loudest bang – the show was a complete and beautiful narrative carried on a river of sound and movement.
While I have encountered bits and pieces of Hamilton over the last few years, the only focused experience was of Lin Manuel Miranda singing the opening song from what was to become Hamilton at the Obama White House in 2009. People actually laughed because it seemed absurd that this guy from the Heights was rapping a song about a founding father of our country. We know who had the last laugh here. All of this to say, I came to the show with an open and curious mind, hoping I could follow the language.
Sitting on the front row was an exhilarating experience, and I felt a little too close to get the full visual effect of the physical staging/choreography. While everyone has raved about the soundtrack, the physical staging was mesmerizing. The chorus literally turned “the world upside down” by lifting furniture in slow arcs on levels as Hamilton stood center stage. The set included a turntable of sorts which allowed the actors to moonwalk and the action to boomerang at times. There was a “Matrix moment” when Burr fired the shot at Hamilton. The choreography was a physical embodiment of the emotional and political tensions of the times. The Chorus worked as hard as the leading performers. The ending was poignant and expansive. Critics often say, “The actors really carried that show!” In this case, given a company of good singers and movers, Hamilton can carry the actors.
To be fair, the show owes a lot to some predecessors. 1776 was an incredibly moving experience when I saw it onstage and screen in the 1970s. The song Molasses to Rum opened my eyes to the role the Northern economies played in the sale of slaves to the South. This brought about the recognition that hypocrisy was strongly rooted in US government practices from the beginning! (Dare I say “Hail to the (current) Chief” for bringing it front and center?) The shows were vastly different in two major ways. Hamilton is almost an opera, with very little spoken dialogue. 1776 has a 30 minute section where there is no music. (When the show played Broadway, the musician’s union negotiated a break for the players during that section, something that had never been done in a musical to that point.) And the treatment of John Adams is so different in each – he is central to 1776 and a laughable footnote in Hamilton. While Hamilton and 1776 are quite different in style and presentation, both resonate some radical revisions of American history.
Another Hamilton predecessor was Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, a musical narrative of the Western world opening up trade with Japan (which was an isolationist island nation prior to 1850). This show comes to mind because that simple plot description sounds pretty ridiculous and really difficult to pull off – much like Hamilton. Both shows are layered with ideas and global/cosmic perspectives that are presented in the most engaging and vibrant ways. Both of these shows conclude with a socio-political expansiveness that evokes incredible wonder as the final curtain goes down.
One other show that opened the cultural wormhole that allowed Hamilton to rock through was Spring Awakening. The muscular choreography, the passions of the players, the anachronistic music and language are all part of what made both these shows resonate with audiences. Jesus Christ Superstar paved the way for Spring Awakening. I am sure there are a few more stepping stones along the way that I am not aware of or forgot, but it is interesting to give some attention to a pattern of lineage when it is so recognizable.
Both Hamilton and 1776 ask the audience to reflect on and revise beliefs about American history. When I was in high school American History class ended at World War II. The US were the “good guys” and the “bad guys” shifted around depending on…well, I wasn’t sure what or why, but the US had everybody’s best interests at heart, right? Some 50 years later, and I have woken up to the overwhelming greed, racism, megalomania and hypocrisy on which we have built our nation. There is more there, many good and noble pursuits as well, but the noble pursuits are celebrated and commemorated over and over. We seem to be unable to own the violent and aggressive roots of how we became the USA. Nations, like the human beings who create them, suffer greatly when shadows are denied and projected outward. “We become what we resist” plays itself out before our eyes and ears. In this way, works of art can act as pointers toward deeper truths, on which we must reflect or surrender.