Monday, January 11, 2016

My Continuing Cross-Time Crush on "Hamilton"

I can't claim any brilliantly original insights about "Hamilton," since so many good writers have already shared their raves for this historic Broadway sensation. But since today would have been the 259th birthday of the real man, Alexander Hamilton, I'm assembling some of my thoughts and discoveries here in tribute. 

Like many people, I'd long been vaguely aware of Alexander Hamilton as one of America's Founding Fathers, who wasn't ever president but who was memorialized on the $10 bill. That awareness sharpened slightly in 1993 with the award-winning Got Milk? commercial portraying the history fanatic who couldn't make the name of Hamilton's killer, Aaron Burr, intelligible (Aawoh Buuww! AAWOH BUWWH!) for a radio quiz show.

I became a fan of Alexander Hamilton this June, when I learned more about him as the controversy erupted over Treasury plans to minimize him on the $10 bill to make room for a woman on the currency, instead of booting Jackson from the $20 bill as originally urged by the #womenon20s campaign.

Here's a wonderfully entertaining rant about this: "To take Hamilton off the currency while leaving Jackson is to actively make America a worse place. It is picking your awful DMV photo as your headshot."

I read about how Hamilton overcame his humble origin to become a Revolutionary leader (and early abolitionist) and one of the foremost thinkers of the Republic. He wrote over half of the Federalist Papers that convinced states to ratify the Constitution, and founded the country's financial system (along with the Coast Guard and the New York Post, etc.). Not that I'm at all happy with what banks and financial institutions have been doing and getting away with for the last 10 or 20 years or more; however, Hamilton's ideas not only brought stability to chaos, but in so doing fostered investment, innovation, and growth, and brought the Union closer together.   

Also this spring, summer, and fall, I was intrigued by what I heard and read about the hit "Hamilton" musical and its creator. Then in September, the original cast recording was released, and I fell in love. 

Before I get to that, let me set the stage. Here's creator Lin-Manuel Miranda performing what later evolved into the musical's opening number, back in 2009 when Hamilton was just a concept album he was working on, at the White House. I should probably mention that there's some explicit language. And lots and lots of clever language.

And now here's the original cast recording, all 46 songs (the embedded YouTube sends a little ad revenue to the creators). After I listened through once, I bought the CDs and the digital download.



I should mention that there's some explicit language. And lots and lots of brilliant language and interwoven rhyming and stirring music.

I really love the lyrics in Hamilton, and also how the music helps drive the stories. Together the songs are by turns energizing, funny, beautiful, heartbreaking and inspiring. 

(I adored reading the reactions of writer Sunil Patel (@ghostwritingcow), who livetweeted his reactions as he listened to #Hamiltunes for the first time. Here's the Storify. Beware, his language is even more explicit than the musical itself! This one sentence of his may sum up "Hamilton" the best: "The personal is political, the political is personal, huge massive undertakings are undertaken by individual people.")

It's also fascinating how certain phrases and themes transform their meanings when used at different times by different people. For instance, Alexander's wife, Eliza, sings "Helpless" when they meet to show how she's falling in love with him, and later sings "Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now" in an effort to get him to slow down and appreciate their life together instead of always driving on toward the next thing; later, he sings the "Look around" lines back to her to explain that he has a duty to his country and he has to serve when called upon, so she sings the word "Helpless" again, meaning she can't change his mind.

Here's a chart of "Lyrical Motifs and Reoccurences in #Hamiltunes" by @beatricks on Twitter.
To see the fantastically clever lyrics, with many annotations and explanations, visit the Genius site

Obviously, I also love the stories that "Hamilton" tells. Hamilton's greatest strength — his driving passion to create a legacy — is also his greatest flaw, ultimately leading to his self-destruction; it's classic tragedy. He's also arrogant about his "top-notch brain," which alienates potential allies, and he's rashly impulsive. He's neither an angel nor a saint, but he's absolutely a hero. Miranda makes me care so much about him!

(Warning: Listening to the second half while at work or driving may be a bad idea. After hearing the album quite a few times, I'm crying MORE when I listen rather than getting inured to what happens.)

Burr's character and evolution are also fascinating, as are Eliza's, and many of the other characters have some great moments. This is history (a dramatization, but based reasonably closely on Ron Chernow's Hamilton biography and other sources) brought to vivid life with passion and intrigue rather than just being dusty dates and descriptions.

Here's a long but very interesting text interview with Miranda. There's a lot about his creative process and how he came to identify with and write about Alexander Hamilton. He came to understand that the stories of the founding of the United States were still very relevant today and have bearing on what decisions are being made now:
"The fights that I wrote between me [Hamilton] and Jefferson, you could put them in the mouths of candidates on MSNBC. They’re about foreign relations; they’re about states’ rights versus national rights; they’re about debt. These are all conversations we’re still having, and I think it’s a comfort to know that they’re just a part of the more perfect union we’re always working towards, or try to work towards, and that we’re always working on them."
An aspect of Miranda's brilliance is in bringing these people and topics into the current vernacular so that what is often dismissed as dead dry history focused on landed white males becomes not only relevant to today, but important in a way that could hardly be dreamed of before. Miranda combines hip-hop, pop, ballads and other musical forms throughout the show/album in a way that seems smooth and effortless and natural, although he worked on it for six years. His racially diverse casting makes it easier for all modern Americans to envision themselves as George Washington and other people who seemed so remote before. 

So, the "Hamilton" album came out in September. Since then, I've listened to at least part of it nearly every day. I have never been obsessed with any musical, or any creative work I can think of, the way I am with this. I still discover new nuances every time. 

I can't say I have a favorite song, because that depends on my mood and what I've listened to most recently. The song I've listened to most is the opening number ("Alexander Hamilton") because it's so infectiously energetic, and because I decided to memorize it and perform it with my twin sister for our other relatives over the holidays, but other songs have deeper emotional impacts on me.

Because of this musical, I'm reading Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton. (I've read the first three chapters and the last three, and now I'm working on the middle 600 pages or so.) Moreover, my twin sister and I have a milestone birthday coming up soon, and we've decided to celebrate by going to New York City to see the show!
Alexander: Where are you taking me? 
Angelica: I'm about to change your life!
Alexander: Then by all means, lead the way.
If you're reading this and haven't listened to "Hamilton," I can't promise that it will change your life, but I'm here to testify that it changed mine. It gave me an appreciation of hip-hop and rap and made me feel more connected with various communities, and it made me want to write more, do more, and be more. "Hamilton" makes me want to be a better person.

One last note: I am charmed by the Hamilton crew's re-creation of the Got Milk? ad, this time starring Odom as the hapless historian, that they released this summer in preparation for their move to the Richard Rodgers Theatre (Broadway) from the Public (off-Broadway). It's a warm tribute that shows their love of history and meta-history as well as a healthy sense of humor.

(Search for the hashtag #HBH2016 to see birthday tributes to Alexander Hamilton by the U.S. Coast Guard, the AHA society, and more.)

(Edited to Add: Or maybe this essay is in honor of his 261st birthday, depending on which sources are right.)

Update 1/19/2016: Here's a fascinating technical analysis of the music and how it evolved, with "Hamilton" musical director Alex Lacamoire.