Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Hamilton in New Orleans

         Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton opens with a question: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” Miranda answers this question with a musical that pulses with relentless energy, employing a multi-racial cast of sympathetic and flawed characters to invest all Americans—regardless of race—in the history of early America. 

         In person, the musical itself is a wonder to behold. From the very beginning of Hamilton, the performers move across the stage with an unrelenting energy. The excitement of the performers and the audience highlights the unique ability of live theater to immerse us in a different time and place.  

Hamilton inside the Saenger 

         Miranda presents Alexander Hamilton as driven, brilliant, and brazenly arrogant. His journey from Caribbean orphan to cabinet secretary epitomizes the American myth that greatness awaits anyone willing to work for it. Hamilton is a Horatio Alger hero incarnate. His skills raise him out of poverty and into the simmering cauldron of Revolutionary era New York City. By the end of the first act, Hamilton is accepting the position of Secretary of the Treasury in George Washington’s administration. In the second act, Hamilton’s arrogance and devotion to his own legacy overwhelm him. He cheats on his wife Eliza with a woman named Maria Reynolds. Later when Hamilton is accused of paying cash to Reynolds’s husband as part of a land speculation scheme (and not as hush money to cover up the affair), Hamilton decides to clear his name. The song “Hurricane” reveals that Hamilton has learned the wrong lesson from his life. Instead of ignoring the insinuations about his character, he decides that he’ll “write ev’rything down, far as I can see… I’ll write my way out… overwhelm them with honesty.” By admitting that he cheated on his wife, Hamilton ruins his political career and his marriage. His reconciliation with Eliza only comes after the death of their son Philip in a duel. Hamilton, however, cannot find peace for long as his simmering conflict with Burr boils over onto a dueling ground in Weehawken. 

         While ostensibly the villain of the show, Burr is a tragic figure. After having being orphaned, Burr is cautious and self-interested. He outlines his philosophy in “Wait for It.” Burr sings, “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.” Burr stands in comparison to the ambitious Hamilton. He remains patient until he sees Hamilton succeed after following Burr’s advice to “talk less, smile more.” Angry that he's been denied credit and power, Burr declares, “I wanna be in the room where it happens.” From that point on, he does whatever is necessary to accumulate power for himself, including unseating Hamilton’s father-in-law in the senate, allying himself with Jefferson and Madison, and most famously trying to steal the election of 1800 from Jefferson. After Jefferson excludes him from his administration, Burr focuses his rage on Hamilton, the man he now believes has undermined his entire career. It’s only after the duel that Burr realizes that his ambition killed his best friend and further ruined his political career. He laments his own failings and recognizes that “the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.” 

Hamilton and Washington 

         In the hands of a lesser storyteller, the women of the Revolutionary era might have fallen by the wayside—reduced to the sideshow roles of many musicals. But not in Hamilton. He elevates their role to that of active participants in the Revolutionary era. Angelica Schuyler is introduced searching the streets of New York City for someone who can match her intellect and rejecting all those, like Burr, who fail to measure up. She eventually finds a intellectual equal in Hamilton, but directs him towards her sister Eliza in a show of sisterly love and in acquiescence to the social demands of her time—the penniless son of an immigrant is no fit for the eldest daughter of one of the colony’s richest men. Hamilton wins Eliza over, but his relentless ambition drives a wedge into their relationship. When he cheats on her, Eliza destroys their correspondence, striking a blow at Hamilton’s most prized possession, his legacy. She asserts her own agency through this act of destruction. In depicting the Schuyler sisters as fully realized characters with motivations outside of their relationships to men, Miranda embraces a broader understanding of the Founding generation. It is not just the Washingtons, Adamses, and Jeffersons that are worthy of our attention.

         Through the racially diverse cast Miranda has brought forth a new interpretation of the past--of the Revolutionary generation through the lens of hip-hop. He makes their struggles relatable to people of the 21stcentury. If the nuances of financial policy and cabinet debates fall upon deaf ears in the classroom, when reconceptualized as a hip hop battle they become more understandable. By portraying Americans of the past as Americans of today, Miranda also opens up American history to those who learned it solely as the province of dead white men. The Founders aren’t dead. They’re alive and they look like us. This more inclusive view of the Founding gives everyone a stake in American history—even those who didn’t have one then. In Hamilton, everyone can be in the room where it happens.      

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