For the last few months I’ve been part of a local writers group and it has inspired me to explore different forms of writing. I’ve now written short stories, non-fiction essays, even poetry. This is my first try at a review.
A few years ago we drilled a new water well at our house. When I say we, of course, I mean that we hired a crew of professional drillers to do it for us. While I did not turn even a spadeful of earth, I found that I could sit for hours and watch these masters of their craft at work.
As they emerged from the ground on steel cables, the heavy lengths of pipe would be casually tossed over the shoulder of the hoist operator and would arc around his back and be guided smoothly and apparently effortlessly into the rack by his assistant. Any one of these 1000 pound chunks could maim, cripple or kill in an instant. These men knew their business. They knew the physics involved in every step even if they had never drawn a vector diagram. They were masters of their art. Watching a master work is one of the great pleasures of life, as far as I’m concerned.
I have never considered myself a Broadway guy. I worked on the lighting crew for Godspell in high school but if more recently, I had won tickets to see Rent on Let’s Make a Deal I might have asked to trade it for curtain #2. Also, I seem to have a powerful curmudgeonly aversion to anything that is suddenly “must see.” When the crowd is surging one direction, I am usually lurching in the other. So it was with great skepticism and out of respect for her feelings that I let my daughter play and sing for me a few of the songs from the Broadway phenomenon called Hamilton. “Pffft! A rap version of the life of a more or less obscure founding father. Yeah, that must be great.”
I will grudgingly have to tell you: It is !@#$% GREAT!
Taking in Lin Manuel Miranda’s play is like watching a ballet, or in my vernacular, watching a couple of really talented guys drill a well. The music is masterful. He makes it look easy. But the songs are complex with layers of meaning and each interacts with and builds upon the preceding songs. Miranda’s songs draw you into the story. You find yourself suddenly invested in the lives of people who are dead two centuries. You catch yourself getting choked up about the plight of a former Secretary of the Treasury. You find yourself rooting for the ostensible villain, Aaron Burr. You are made to care about the women, Eliza, Angelica, Peggy, and Theodosia, who made these founding fathers what they were but never got the credit. I don’t know what you can say about someone who can take a Broadway skeptic and have him humming “talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for” as he walks through an airport. Lin Manuel Miranda drills a mean well.
The story of Alexander Hamilton’s life is compelling. It has been told before, of course, in history books and biographies. We look at his face nearly every day on the ten dollar bill, though most could not say what he did to earn that honor. Miranda’s genius, aside from songwriting of course, was to recognize a good story when he heard one and to retell it in a way which is fundamentally true but which also distills the battles of a lifetime into an understandable and digestible morality play.
An example is worth a thousand explanations:
Hamilton is blackmailed, at the height of his powers, by the husband of the woman he has had an affair with. Not one man in ten-thousand would do, in that circumstance, what Hamilton did: he openly published an account of the affair to undercut the blackmailer. This is a truly unique and fascinating episode which reveals a unique and fascinating personality. It requires some unpacking as to motivations and consequences. Hamilton stopped the blackmail at the expense of his wife, his children, and his career. The approach turns out to be consistent with his history, and his hard-headed principles, while it would be unthinkable for a modern celebrity, say Bill Clinton, to take this approach.
Miranda captures and distills this story masterfully into the song The Reynolds Pamphlet. He opens with whispered voices saying “Have you read this?” This sets the salacious tone. The song, two minutes and nine seconds long, progresses quickly to the taunting voices of Hamilton’s antagonists Thomas Jefferson and James Madison singing “never gonna be President now. Never gonna be President now. That’s one less thing to worry about.” In these lines Miranda speaks to the complexity of Hamilton’s relationship with his fellow founding fathers and invites the question: who has one less thing to worry about, Jefferson or Hamilton? The next heart-rending verse is sung by Hamilton’s sister-in-law and long-time confidant Angelica, as she dresses him down and leaves him twisting in the wind with the phrase “I’m not here for you” and “you can never be satisfied! God I hope you’re satisfied!” It ends with the powerful final phrase uttered again by the uncomprehending crowd “Have you ever seen somebody ruin his own life? His poor wife.”
Hamilton’s behavior would be incomprehensible to us here, except for the beautiful and haunting song Hurricane which precedes it. If past is prologue as Shakespeare says, Hurricane, explains Hamilton’s particular devotion to the idea that the truth will set him free and to his confidence that he could explain things, to the nation and to his wife, through his writing.
Hurricane is somber, opening with spare, low piano chords, accompanied by Miranda’s (Hamilton’s) pain-filled voice telling the story of his traumatic childhood on the small, poor Caribbean island of Nevis. His father had abandoned the family early in his life and his mother died when he was 12. Miranda’s powerful verse “She was holding me. We were sick and she was holding me,” encapsulates, in 12 words, much of what we need to know about the tragedies that shaped Hamilton’s view of the world and established his recurring insecurities which he confronted with hard work and “excellence.”
As in all his songs, Miranda’s metaphors are beautiful and poignant here. The hurricane which destroys his town when he is 17 offers him his first opportunity to “rise up” from his squalid condition and to show the world what he is capable of through writing. At that tender age, he wrote an account of the hurricane which was published in newspapers and brought him to the attention of community leaders on his home island. The song’s refrain “I wrote my way out,” begins a powerful momentum at this point which replaces the somber opening. One senses, as Hamilton must have, that his ability to “write it all down” was his salvation, from a real hurricane, and later from the metaphorical one that surrounded him when his enemies discovered the affair and subsequent blackmail. “I’ll write my way out, overwhelm them with honesty. This is the eye of the hurricane. This is the only way I can protect my legacy.”
Perhaps the saddest part of the song is the naiveté revealed by Hamilton’s confidence that other people hold and respect his principles as well. If not one in ten-thousand would respond to this crisis as Hamilton did, not one a thousand would understand and forgive his forthright confession. At the end of the song, as he contemplates writing the Reynold’s Pamphlet there is a swelling crowd of voices urging him to “Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it.” It is a foreshadowing, really, of the collision with Burr that costs him his life. He seems to be asking “How can anyone object to what I’m saying, controversial or not, as long as it is true?” His audience, the readers of the Reynold’s Pamphlet, obviously did object, as did Burr seven years later, about the “truths” Hamilton told about him.
If Hamilton is a morality play, as I have suggested, it is a hazy and troubling one. It would be facile here to sketch Burr as the Snidley Whiplash of the play; he is a killer, after all. But Miranda captures the reality that there is seldom a white hat and a black hat in human interactions. In the song The World Was Wide Enough Burr sings, not in his own defense, but resignedly “He may have been the first one to die, but I’m the one who paid for it. I survived but I paid for it. Now I’m the villain in your history. I was too young and blind to see. I should have known. I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.” Burr is not Snidley Whiplash and Hamilton was no Dudley Do-Right. They are friends, even admirers of each other in the beginning. As years go by and water passes under the bridge, their relationship is sabotaged by their own stubborn and disparate philosophies and by the magnitude of the dramas that envelope them.
Leslie Odom Jr.’s Burr is a complex character. He is a man of high ambition but a cautious nature. His trademark motto “Talk less, smile more” is reiterated in no fewer than four of the songs, by himself in Aaron Burr, Sir and The Election of 1800, by George Washington in One Last Time, and even by Hamilton himself, reluctantly in The Room Where it Happens. His personal philosophy, “work hard, keep your head down, and good things will happen to you,” seems to pay off for him early on. He is elected to the New York State Assembly, appointed New York Attorney General, and ultimately elected to the U.S. Senate, replacing Hamilton’s Father-in-law Philip Schuyler. The one and only time he embraces Hamilton’s hard-driving philosophy, in The Election of 1800, it leads to his downfall.
Hamilton’s philosophy is very different. If Burr’s is “keep your head down” Hamilton’s is “stick your neck out.” He is vociferous and bombastic. He says what he thinks always and frequently draws the ire of his rivals, and as we know, eventually his friends, notably Burr. Burr admires Hamilton’s work ethic but scorns his headstrong ways. He expresses both in the song Nonstop. He sings, “Why do you always say what you believe? Every proclamation guarantees free ammunition for your enemies.”
Hamilton retorts in the song The Room Where it Happens.
“When you got skin in the game, stay in the game. But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game. Oh, you get love for it. You get hate for it. But you get nothin’ if you wait for it, wait for it.” The verse is a direct taunting challenge to Burr’s contemplative song Wait for It.
Wait for It, to me, is one of the most beautiful and enlightening pieces in the musical. It reads like a mantra that Burr repeats to himself, justifying his actions and inactions. Despite his ambition, Burr is afraid to take a chance and therefore passes up opportunities. He believes, honestly, that prudence is his way forward. His self-catechism carries him through the first few verses as his confidence in his own strategy augments with his successes:“I am the one thing in life I can control. I am inimitable, I am an original. I am not falling behind or running late. I am not standing still, I am lying in wait.”
His confidence flags in the middle as he contemplates Hamilton’s success. “Hamilton faces an endless uphill climb. He has something to prove. He has nothing to lose.” That’s not me, he seems to say. I am a Senator. I have a successful law practice.
The repetition of his mantra in the chorus, “Wait for it! Wait for it! Wait for it!” doesn’t ultimately assuage his burning envy of Hamilton’s reckless, but successful, methods. He grudgingly acknowledges the method of Hamilton’s madness:
Hamilton doesn’t hesitate
He exhibits no restraint
He takes and he takes and he takes.
And he keeps winning anyway
He changes the game
He plays and he raises the stakes.
And if there’s a reason
He seems to thrive when so few survive, then Goddamnit, I’m willing to wait for it.
Miranda has spoken about writing Wait For It:
“I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve seen friends and colleagues zoom past us, either to success, or to marriage, or to homeownership, while we lingered where we were—broke, single, jobless. And you tell yourself, “Wait for it.”
Burr tells himself that, until, ultimately, he no longer believes it. It is a bitter revelation and he concludes the song confused, shaken, and uncertain of what he believes.
Life doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall and we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When so many have died
I’m willing to
wait for it.
There is comedy here as well as tragedy. Miranda is a master of both. His Message from the King monologs are extravagant tongue-in-cheek works of art. They provide the needed history lesson again in the form of an efficient metaphor, the breakup of a relationship. The talented Jonathan Groff portrays a flamboyant King George III. In the first of the monologs, called You’ll be Back he plays the part of the spurned boyfriend who is irked, but also heartbroken that his “loyal subjects” are no longer so loyal.
the price of my love’s not a price that your willing to pay.
in your tea which you hurl in the sea when you see me go by.
Why so sad?
Remember we made an arrangement when you went away.
Now you’re making me mad.
Remember despite our estrangement, I’m your man.
You’ll be back, soon you’ll see,
You’ll remember you belong to me,
You’ll be back. Time will tell,
You’ll remember that I served you well.
Oceans rise, empires fall.
We have seen each other through it all,
And when push comes to shove,
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love.
There are several clever little historical tidbits in these pieces in addition to the reference to the Boston Tea party. The final verse of You’ll be back includes a reference to George III’s mental illness in his later years.
When you’re gone, I’ll go mad.
So don’t throw away this thing we had,
Cause when push comes to shove,
I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.
From the follow up song I Know Him there is reference to George Washington’s precedent-setting refusal to run for a third term as President. “They say, George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away. Is that true? I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.”
And, finally, in the song What Comes Next King George nurses his wounds about losing the war:
The price of my war’s not a price that they’re willing to pay.
You cheat with the French, now I’m fighting with France and with Spain,
I’m so blue,
I thought that we made an arrangement when you went away.
You were mine to subdue.
Well, even despite our estrangement, I got a small query for you,
What comes next? You’ve been freed.
Do you know how hard it is to lead?
You’re on your own. Awesome! Wow!
Do you have a clue what happens now?
Oceans rise, empires fall,
It’s much harder when it’s all your call.
All alone, across the sea,
When your people say they hate you, don’t come crawling back to me.
When I reflect on the importance of this musical, I come back again and again to Miranda’s metaphors. They are efficient and masterful. Each one provides a perfect brick in the edifice of Hamilton, building a complex and intriguing story of ambition and pride, of loss and sorrow, and, ultimately, a questionable redemption. The metaphors make this play and deserve a final review.
Hurricane – a literal hurricane, surely, but also representing the self-inflicted storms of Hamilton’s life.
The Room Where it Happens – A brilliant metaphor for Hamilton’s (and Burr’s) powerful ambition to play a role in the shaping of the new nation.
I am not Throwing Away My Shot – The expounding of Hamilton’s carpe diem philosophy which is cleverly integrated with the two duels central to the story – the one in which his son was killed and the one in which he was.
Wait for It – Previously explored above.
Quiet Uptown – A beautiful meditation on death and sorrow, and dealing with them.
If you like musicals, or perhaps even if you don’t, if you are a history buff, or even if you’re not, Hamilton is a pleasure and an education. Miranda, of course, has taken liberties with the historical record. The story is true to the spirit of the feud which led to Hamilton’s death at Burr’s hands, but alters slightly the details. He inserts Burr and Jefferson into the episode called We Know about Hamilton’s Democratic-Republican enemies confronting him about the Reynolds Affair. They probably weren’t there really, but it is a minor offense and certainly moves the narrative forward more smoothly.
Thanks to Hamilton many more Americans will know about their history than do now. Will that knowledge be perfect and comprehensive? – no. But neither is history perfect and comprehensive. Hamilton is a work of art, a well-drilled well, brought to us by a master at the top of his craft. I will still admit to being a Broadway skeptic, but I’m learning. Anyone got tickets to Kinky Boots?
By: Dustin Joy