Monday, March 30, 2015


Much like the titular subject of his densely chewy, enormously satisfying new musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda is clearly so driven by, fascinated with, and passionate about something that he has been unable to keep from inserting himself into it, messing around with its guts enough to leave an indelible mark. Alexander Hamilton, the exceptionally driven founding father, loved his adopted, newborn country so deeply that he couldn't help but pour most of his energies into it, tinkering endlessly with details of its very foundation in hopes not only of ensuring its best possible future, but his legacy along with it. Just as Hamilton helped make this country what it is, Miranda has worked obsessively to push forward, and thereby ensure the continued relevance of, one of its more iconic art forms, which will not be the same as a result of his multifaceted attention to it.

Even before Hamilton entered previews, it became the hottest show in town, and tickets to see it became almost astonishingly hard to come by. When I finally snagged a pair, I decided to avoid reading or listening to other people's opinions about the musical. It's been a long time since any show snowballed the way this one has, and in far less breathless situations, I tend to believe the hype. I've almost always experienced serious disappointment as a result. It turned out to be pretty hard to tune it all out this time around, no matter how hard I tried. When a production gets lauded as often as this one has--when it regularly gets called game-changing, paradigm-shifting, unparalleled, and even revolutionary--it becomes pretty hard to keep the wax in one's ears and remain bound in ignorance to the mast.

 Hamilton deserves the accolades it's getting (I don't agree with Hilton Als's review, which is the one I gave in and read in advance of the show, and which I think, atypically, sort of misses the point). Still, I can't call it revolutionary, because to do so, at least as I see it, is to insult Miranda and what he and his cast and creative team are doing, here. "Revolutionary" implies something utterly unprecedented, and Miranda has worked too hard--as Hamilton once did, I suppose--to bring the past and the present together in order to shape the future. Hamilton is instead, brilliantly and beautifully evolutionary. It's no invading, disruptive alien; it belongs in the American musical theater canon the way Hamilton belonged in New York. 

I found it hard not to think, while I watched it, of Hair in this respect. That musical, which premiered in the same building (if not the same theater) and was similarly heralded as revolutionary, managed, as Hamilton does, to bring pop forms people have long struggled (and failed) to adapt for the stage, breathe new life into old ideas, thrill audiences in ways nothing else has for a very long time, nudge the American stage musical along at a time when an awful lot of its offerings were seriously played. 

Then again, Hair isn't the only musical that Hamilton evokes, whether directly or indirectly. There are so many references to so many other things that my husband noted he wished the musical came with footnotes. I reiterate, Miranda knows his shit and has clearly worked his ass off, and as a result, Hamilton is practically Talmudic in its layered references, not only to past Broadway shows, but also to popular music styles and performers, dance trends, pop culture, social mores. It's postmodern in the very best sense of the term: a pastiche of American history, American popular music, American stage entertainments. Hamilton propels the stage musical forward, while never once forgetting where it came from. 

As a result, it takes risks in some ways, and remains pretty traditional in others. You won't, for example, see much in the way of commentary on or departure from the serious, and vaguely worrying, bromance trend in contemporary musicals. Hamilton fails the Bechdel test in a big, big way. There's no attempt to challenge or to change the stubborn gender codes and assumptions that are buried deep in traditional narrative, contemporary commercial staging, or modern pop (let's just say all the rap battles are performed by dudes at their most swaggeringly macho). On the other hand, the whole fucking show is rapped by actors of color who earnestly and believably depict our lily-white founding fathers, for crying out loud. Not even a century ago, the whole cast would have been arrested, or much worse, for even thinking about such a production; right now, even the most rap-averse members of my parents' generation are raving about how brilliant Hamilton is. That alone, I would argue, is innovation and accomplishment enough.

Hamilton, then, will surely enter the canon (whatever you feel about the canon is a whole other conversation altogether). But it'll also help ensure that the canon will be wider, smarter, more inclusive, more truly representative. Like this country, after all, Hamilton was made by immigrants. And as most of us know--and as the show itself reminds us--this great, flawed nation's immigrants get the job done. Hamilton is dead. Long live Hamilton. 

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