Shockingly, I never got around to writing about my favorite piece of pop culture from 2015 as promised. I mean, I've never gotten overloaded with work and let something go before. Thankfully, today I get to rectify that problem because of The Grammys, of all things.
Like many people right now, I am completely obsessed with Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, the musical about Alexander Hamilton and the founding fathers. Also like many people, I have not seen the show and can't imagine when I'll actually be able to get tickets. It's distinctly possible I won't see it until it comes to LA in late 2017, and even then, who's to say when I'll be able to get in? It's going to be a bloodbath, because people have fallen head over heels for the thing. It was Matt Zoller Seitz who described it as “Sondheim meets Schoolhouse Rocks,” and that is a pretty heady combination of things, and a heck of a good description. It's got me crazy.
Well, check out this clip of the performance, which we'll hopefully be able to replace with one posted by the Grammys or by CBS in a few, and then we'll discuss it.
Wait… you should also check out Lin-Manual Miranda's amazing acceptance speech from his award for Best Musical Theater Album, which might as well have been called the Hamilton Award this year because I can't imagine what would have remotely competed with it.
Look at that cast. Look at how excited they are about the show they get to do every night. Look at Lin-Manuel. He's such a blast of energy, such a wholehearted musical theater uber-nerd, unapologetic and positively in love with what he gets to do every night. I love the way he plays with both hip-hop form and Broadway convention, and that combination gives Hamilton an energy that is unbeatable.
I have a definite fondness for musicals in general, and I'm amazed by how many things Hamilton does right. It is what happens when you take a super-talented and super-hungry musical theater nerd and a juicy piece of material and you set him free. Miranda is like Quentin Tarantino in the way he takes different styles and sounds and eras of musical theater history and blends them into something that is distinctly his. The thrill for me tonight was actually seeing the staging of the sequence at the Rogers Theater. I've heard that song at least 50 times now. Since the first we played it, my sons and I have pretty much just used this as our driving music. They are fascinated by the flow, by the cascade of language, while Toshi is also intrigued by the way it teaches the details of history in a way that none of his school texts have so far. History has been his latest “deep dive” interest, and he's been picking movies lately about historical characters and events, as well as reading non-fiction for the first time.
Obviously, I don't want Hamilton to be his one stop for information about the founding fathers, but it managed to electrify him by making them into vibrant living human figures. The way Miranda cast the show is another of its genius ideas, with a multi-cultural multi-racial cast playing a largely white European set of characters. Sure, you could try to call it a gimmick or a simple bit of reactionary anti-casting, but I think it's something deeper. It is a reminder that our country is a country of immigrants. We all came here. Unless you are descended from actual indigenous American people, you are, in some moment in your history, an immigrant, and that is one of the things I find most beautiful about America. We may be insane, and right now, we are as mad and strange and lurchingly turbulent as we've ever been, but we are still this nation of people united by the fact that we all came here to participate in the greatest experiment in both political philosophy and economic theory of all time. We all believe in this thing, even if we can't even fully agree on the definition of this thing, and now feels like an important moment to be reminded of just how brilliant and daring that experiment was, and how volatile the people who created it could be.
I would have never imagined that a musical about Alexander Hamilton would be so compelling, and it's amazing how well it works just as an album. All the information you need is built into the dense wordcraft of the song, which introduces all of the major characters.
That's Aaron Burr who sings, “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence Impoverished, in squalor Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
John Laurens, who was an early leader in organizing slaves to fight as actual US soldiers to earn their freedom, sings the next part. “The ten-dollar founding father without a father Got a lot farther by working a lot harder By being a lot smarter By being a self-starter By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter.” These opening stanzas have this sort of great simple stripped down quality, just demonstrating how dense the rhyme schemes are, and conveying a lot of information, including a reminder that Hamilton is a face we see every day and rarely consider.
Then Thomas Jefferson sings the next bit. “And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter” The show does not run from dealing with the reality of slavery and how deeply it is woven into the foundations of this country, and having Jefferson be the first one singing about it is no accident.
This whole time, we're hearing about him, but we're not hearing from him. James Madison, one of the authors of The Federalist Papers, is next up. “Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain.”
And there it is. The real reason I think Hamilton is such a special piece of work. It is, at heart, about how the simple act of writing can change your life if the words are good enough, if they matter, if they speak to a particular time and place and affect people. Aaron Burr sings again, “Well, the word got around, they said, 'This kid is insane, man,' Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland 'Get your education, don't forget from whence you came, and The world is gonna know your name. What's your name, man?'”
And finally, there's Lin-Manuel, with his simple, direct, “Alexander Hamilton.” Listen to the crowd at the Rogers Theater, the way they fill that entire first beat with thunderous applause. “My name is Alexander Hamilton And there's a million things i haven't done But just you wait, just you wait…”
It's an amazing build-up and a great entrance, and you can watch the rest of the number for yourself. I love how much the song emphasizes the way New York is a place for reinvention, and Hamilton's hunger is clear over the course of the song. There's a big of foreshadowing, and Burr in particular is given full due as the “villain” of the piece, although I think that's a real oversimplification of the piece as a whole.
It was great to see this number given such a big audience by the Grammys, and my only real problem is that every time there's something like this that showcases just how powerful this musical is, it's only going to make it harder to get tickets.