Hamilton: an appreciation

I keep listening to the Hamilton cast recording. My son C and I listen to it aaaaallll the time, and he knows almost all the words. He tells me Hamilton’s son Philip should have his own musical, and I tell him he can write it if he wants. We take him to piano lessons. He taps out new notes on score sheets.

I didn’t know the show before I saw it, which was just this past Christmas. I’m really good at knowing hardly anything about the thing everyone is talking about. I manage to hide under my own personal cultural rock and read Hawthorne or Wharton and listen to random EP’s and riff on my own track.

But when I saw the show, I fell in love with it, so did C, and now he carries his phone around the house blasting the show. He has his favorite parts, the beginning, the part where Alex, a young man with all the odds in the world stacked against him, all the grief knowable, finds the courage, light, and purpose within himself to drive forward into his whole life. He likes how Hamilton came to New York, my son’s hometown, and invented himself there in the thick of a fight for the founding of a nation. It captures his imagination. It captures mine, too.

There are sections to the score that I listen to in chunks, and it’s only when I’m listening with C that I start at the beginning and finish when we get to the end. Each time I listen I follow a different character’s track. Lin Manuel-Miranda did a truly exquisite job giving each character a distinctive and complete arc and voice. For all the playwrights out there, you know how hard this is.

Hamilton’s track is the first one you hear, and I identify w his problem of writing like he’s running out of time. Bc yeah, we’re running out of time. Faulkner says the same thing. He says there’s not time to write all the things you want to write, and that’s one of the hardest things to accept. For reals.

Then I started to hear the Schuyler sisters, Hamilton’s wife and her sister Angelica. They each have songs where the first meet Alexander. Each is so beautiful, and they bring me to tears w the memory of uncontrollable, untamable love, the kind that won’t sit down when bidden, that drives lovers, unawares, to self-destruction. And then it crumbles. It it not tended, it is given away in favor of Hamilton’s self important pursuits, his belief in his essential role in nation building, and hedonism. He loses both of them, wife and confidante. It’s a devastation. These songs, Helpless, Satisfied, and Eliza’s epically beautiful Burn hit me sharp in the chest, a painful intake of breath, and I bite my lip to stop the blossom of tears.

Aaron Burr’s track is harder to comprehend. The man who won’t speak his mind in fear that he is heard and contradicted by circumstances favorable to his opposition. It’s laid out so plainly, the benefit of keeping one’s own council. But I can’t quite get w it. Could be bc I can’t manage to keep my fool mouth shut. But when he sings “I am the one thing in life I can control,” I understand that is a hard learned truth, and the show tells us how Burr learned it for sure the hard way.

The story of the duel bw John Lawrence and Gen. Charles Lee brings me bravery when I wander these New York streets, hustling as hard as I can. Hamilton says “look him in the eye, no higher, summon all the courage you require.” And I look up, just in time to not walk into a lamp post or parking meter. Courage.

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we fought for these ideals we shouldn’t settle for less, these are wise words, enterprising, and quote ’em. Don’t be surprised you guys, cuz I wrote ’em!” Sings Thomas Jefferson. The words these guys wrote and published were as contemporary and evocative now as Manuel-Miranda’s are now, and it’s best we don’t forget it.

The more I listen to the show the more I find it so incredible, as much as my jaded Gen X self wanted to hate it for the simple reason that everyone loves it. Every moment is a narrative of epic proportions. Part of the reason so many stories can be woven together is bc the form of music Manuel-Miranda used to tell them sinply contains that many more words than other musical forms. Hip hop has more words, and more words can tell more stories.

Here are a few of the other, truly genius things:

The casting of non white actors in roles based on historical characters who were white creates a distinct transition between the US origin story as historical event and transforms it into mythology and legend. The historical figures can be embodied by anyone. Nation building, intellectual pursuits, scrappy fights for honor and pride, all of it— these are not mere history, they are part of who we are as Americans, from those who got here yesterday to the ones who have blood going to back to Washington, or Manuel-Miranda. The story is universal, it is foundational, and it’s not even really about the guys as they were, it’s about the guys as we want to imagine them, as we can contemporize and relate to them.

The music is so incredibly referential across all genres of music and that is so badass. From Biggie to Rick James to Gilbert and Sullivan. All these influences and references mix into one score and every time I listen I find a new lick or phrase that I recognize from the pop radio of my youth.

Showing the men of American myth and legend as though they are contemporary writers and troublemakers brings to mind the integral nature of youth and what it is capable of. Young men and women of drive and determination, stealing canons from the British, advocating for abolition, writing like they’re running out of time, bc perhaps no one as well as youth knows just how little time there is to activate before the crushing weight of age and responsibility comes to dictate action.

My son asks me why I let him listen to the score “even though it has the f word in it,” and I tell him bc it’s effing brilliant, and he doesn’t have to bleep the words when he sings it— at least not in the house.

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