Monday, November 16, 2015

Five Comments on Hamilton

If you're like me, you probably spent some portion of the last six months watching your online acquaintance slowly become consumed with (or by) something called Hamilton.  And then when you looked it up it turned to be a musical playing halfway around the world that you will probably never see.  But something strange and surprising is happening around Hamilton--a race-swapped, hip-hop musical about the short life and dramatic death of Alexander Hamilton, revolutionary soldier, founding father of the United States, co-author of The Federalist Papers, and creator of the US financial system.  Unusually for a work of pop culture that is only available to a small, even select group of people, Hamilton is becoming a fannish phenomenon, inspiring fanfic and fanart and, mostly, a hell of a lot of enthusiasm.

The soundtrack for Hamilton has been available for purchase since the summer, and it's through that channel that many--probably most--of the show's fans have become acquainted with it.  The musical is sung-through, so it's possible to follow the story just by listening, as a sort of radio play (though it's best to follow along with the lyrics, just to get a sense of who's speaking when; this site collects them, and adds annotations which provide background on the historical events that Hamilton is depicting and shed light on the musical references the play makes to the stalwarts of the hip-hop genre).   Hamilton is a stunning musical and lyrical achievement--writer, composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda was recently awarded a MacArthur Genius grant, and from listening to the play it's easy to see why--and on that level I don't feel that I have a lot to add to its much-deserved praise.  In fact, it's hard to know where to start talking about Hamilton, not only because there are so many angles--musical, historical, theatrical--but because it's in the unique position of existing in different forms for people who saw the play and those who listened to the soundtrack.  The Hamilton in my head is different from the one experienced by someone who saw the show (and, given the ephemeral, transient nature of theater, people who saw different performances of the play probably experienced subtly different versions of it as well).  It's unusual for a fannish discussion to coalesce around a work that has no canonical form, and I'm hoping that some interesting conversation results from that.  In the meantime, however, here are a few observations based on my experience of the play.
  • I think that a huge component of the appeal that Hamilton holds for fannish people is that it is so obviously the creation of a fannish person.  The play is brimming with odd details about Hamilton's life and the lives of his fellow revolutionaries, and Miranda quite clearly finds his subject fascinating and inspirational (as one would almost have to, to have spent seven years working to get a musical based on the life of a founding father off the ground).  One of the joys of diving into Hamilton-ia is the discovery that Miranda himself is constantly embroidering around his creation, whether it's a cut scene denigrating John Adams, or an impromptu rap telling the audience about the fate of the Hamilton children who are not featured in the musical.  It's almost impossible not to be caught up in Miranda's obvious enthusiasm for its subject, which seeps through every moment of the play.

  • If, despite the above, the fannish reaction to a play about one of America's founding fathers seems unexpected, listening to the soundtrack makes it very clear why it has occurred.  Hamilton has some irresistible character hooks, practically designed to tug at the heart of a certain type of creative, enthusiastic fan.  The crux of the play is the slowly curdling friendship between Hamilton (played by Miranda) and Aaron Burr, who will eventually kill Hamilton in a duel.  The two men, who are opposites in almost every respect--family background, financial prospects, temperament, political outlook--shadow each other throughout their careers as revolutionaries and politicians.  Their relationship progresses from fond incomprehension--Burr urges the impetuous, loquacious Hamilton to "Talk less.  Smile more," an approach that is anathema to Hamilton's fervent convictions, as he replies "If you stand for nothing, Burr, what'll you fall for?"--to dislike and enmity.  Burr arguably has the most complete character arc in the play.  Hamilton spends the story defined by his determination and hunger for success, traits that do not change, even if their effect on the world and his life goes from salutary to destructive.  Burr, meanwhile, goes from confident in his worldview, to baffled by Hamilton's success, to consumed with envy when his own political ambitions fail.  It's a transformation that is echoed in the play's music--the refrain "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore..." which expresses Burr's amazement at Hamilton's meteoric rise repeats several time over the course of the play, and each time Burr's state of mind is noticeably altered, going from casually superior to audibly deranged.  (A huge part of Burr's success as a character is due to Leslie Odom Jr.'s performance, which to my mind upstages even Miranda's.  Even on the soundtrack, Odom imbues his singing with so much emotion that Burr becomes a fully-formed character.)

    To that, add rounded and enticing portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and a complex, fraught relationship between Hamilton, his wife Eliza Schuyler, and her clever, imperious sister Angelica, and you've got a play overflowing with rich seams of character and relationship drama.  At the heart of Hamilton's success--and its ability to capture its fans' hearts--is the way that it humanizes and makes relatable the historical figures it depicts (whether or not it gets their personalities right is a matter for historians to debate, of course, though Miranda bases the play on Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton).

  • Having said all that, I have to say that what captures my interest about Hamilton, even more than the character drama or the depiction of the Revolutionary War, is the fact that this is a deeply political musical, one that is interested in political process at a time when the structures of modern democracy are just being figured out.  It's entirely unsurprising to learn, in the play's annotations, that Miranda is an Aaron Sorkin fan--if only because for a writer of his age who is interested in popular culture that touches on politics and its processes, there aren't a lot of other influences to be found.  There are moments in Hamilton that are deeply, recognizably Sorkin-ian--not just its profound love for America and belief in the American experiment, but the way it depicts political debate, and the seriousness with which it takes the issues it touches on.  How many other musicals feature characters discussing--in song--the pros and cons of a centralized financial system, and coming off as smart and knowledgeable as they do so?

    At the same time, Hamilton is also yet another example of how the works influenced by Sorkin (which include, among others, The Good Wife and Parks and Recreation) tend to outstrip him in their complexity and inclusiveness.  It's impossible to imagine Sorkin making the connection, as Miranda does, between political debate on the congress floor, and rap battles, which is how he stages the scenes in which Hamilton and Jefferson fight over whether to create a single bank to assume all the states' debts, or whether to come to France's aid after its own revolution.  And yet the connection is obvious in retrospect--like a Sorkin-ian debate, these scenes in Hamilton are all about characters triumphing by being knowledgeable and quick-witted, and most of all, by knowing how to arrange their ideas in the most effective, devastating form possible.  And if the fact that Sorkin (probably) can't write or perform a rap isn't really something he can be criticized for, there still remains the fact that Hamilton is much more interested in people that tend to get left out of Sorkin's stories, especially women.  At its core, Hamilton is just the sort of Great Man story that Sorkin loves to tell, but the choice to cast only actors of color in the roles of historically white people (except for the actor playing George III, who is specified as white in the musical's casting call), and to stress their ethnicity through the show's choice of musical styles, makes a statement that is a direct counterpoint to a lot of Sorkin's work, which too often seems in love with pedigree, with characters who have gone to the right schools and know the right people.

  • There's a lot more to be said about the effect of Hamilton's casting and musical choices, and I'm only going to touch on a little bit of it.  At the most basic level, the fact that people of color play historical figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson is significant because those roles are usually off-limits to non-white actors, even in a medium like theater which doesn't put a premium on realism (it also opens the door to other race-swapped, and even gender-swapped, productions of the show).  But Hamilton isn't simply an exercise in race-blind casting.  The fact that its characters are played by people of color, and that its musical styles are associated with African-American culture and with its protest movements, is making a powerful political point.  It's a reminder that acts of protest and revolution are viewed very differently when they're committed by white, moneyed Europeans, and when they're committed by people of color whose manners and demeanor don't conform to a certain standard of acceptability.  Having black actors portray Washington and Jefferson allows Hamilton to break through the respectful, even reverent lens with which we regard these figures, reminding us that at the beginning of their journey, they were seen as criminals and traitors--and that some of the people whom we class as criminals and traitors today might one day achieve the same respectability as the founding fathers.

    At the same time, I can't help but wonder if Hamilton's race-swapped casting doesn't, paradoxically, whitewash the founding fathers.  The fact is, these people were white, moneyed Europeans.  Their revolution was that of one nation's ruling class rebelling against another's over how much of their wealth they'd get to keep.  Even Hamilton, who was born to poverty and limited prospects in the Caribbean, was incredibly privileged compared to the people he grew up around.  When the play repeatedly describes him as an immigrant, it is blatantly courting certain present-day associations (which are only intensified by the casting of Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent).  But the real Hamilton was a white man whose parents arrived in the Caribbean as part of a massive colonial and imperialist endeavor, one that also brought with it millions of African slaves, none of whom shared even the limited opportunities granted to Hamilton.  The play is by no means unaware of the hypocrisy some of its characters display, demanding freedom while benefiting from slavery--this is the crux of Hamilton's arguments with Jefferson, and several triumphant moments during the war are punctured by the reminder that the freedom it wins isn't for everyone (that said, Hamilton is happy to gloss over the fact that Washington, too, was a slaveowner, painting him as a wholly positive figure, and a fatherly mentor for Hamilton).  But it mostly ignores the larger point, that painting its heroes as underdogs--and especially, doing so by casting actors of color to play them--is a distortion of history whose effect is potentially to erase important aspects of the American story.

  • Having said that, there are multiple levels to this play, and on at least some of them it really doesn't feel as if Hamilton is interested in depicting history.  I don't mean to say by this that the play isn't accurate to the events it depicts--though it gets them right in broad strokes, there are plenty of timeline contractions and other uses of poetic license to make the story flow better, about which it would be ridiculous to complain--but that Hamilton is less a work of historical fiction, and more a contemporary political fable that uses historical events to make its point.  The frequent use of the word "immigrant," for example, feels very pointed.  In another scene, the Schuyler sisters sing that "History is happening in Manhattan and we just happen to be/In the greatest city in the world." This is, of course, entirely inaccurate to the period--New York would not gain the cultural and commercial importance it holds today until at least the middle of the 19th century--and what the line is recalling (beyond paying homage to the city where the play originates, which is also the writer's home town) is the present moment.  And in that present moment, the value of casting people of color as revolutionaries, and giving them the names of people we've been trained to respect, is profound.  It's easy to look askance at the very project of Hamilton--as Kate Nepveu points out, this is still a play in which the protagonist refers to America unironically as a "promised land"--and that strikes me as a fair criticism that is worth exploring.  But the added value of the play, as a sly counterpoint to prevailing wisdom about "good" and "bad" forms of protest, and just as an exceptional work of art, feels more important to me.