In the Room Where It Happens: The Broadway Smash Hamilton

In the long and storied history of Broadway, there are countless shows which have opened to great reviews from the fickle New York theatrical critics, only to disappear relatively quickly when they fail to connect with audiences. And there are far more Broadway shows which leave critics (and audiences for that matter) scratching their head saying, “How did anyone think THAT was a good idea.” (Yes, I’m looking at you Carrie the Musical.) But there are only a few shows in the history of Broadway which not only nail the sweet spot of critical acclaim and pronounced popularity, but are landmark productions which profoundly affect American culture and truly change the art form of musical theatre itself. Shows such as Showboat, Oklahoma, West Side Story, Hair, and Rent have achieved this status. These works are seen as the seminal moments in the timeline of Broadway history, which have reshaped the musical as an art form and reflected the nation as it was at that time in history.

Well, without hesitation, I can tell you that we have another seminal moment on that timeline. Hamilton, at the Richard Rodgers Theater, is a work of pure theatrical genius. Drawing upon Ron Chernow’s book Alexander Hamilton, writer and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda freshly articulates the story of the founding father who’s story doesn’t usually get told–a Scottish bastard raised in the West Indies who would go on to have a profound impact on the creation of this nation. Before this production, if you asked the average American who Alexander Hamilton was, you might be lucky to get fifty percent who would know that his face is on the ten dollar bill, and probably far less who could comprehend his role in the creation of the federal government and our financial system. (Interestingly and ironically enough, prior to its opening, the consensus was that Alexander Hamilton would be taken off of the $10 bill in favor of a more diverse American historical figure. That decision has now been changed to take Andrew “The Trail of Tears” Jackson off of the $20 bill. Mention that the next time someone says that musical theatre doesn’t matter.)  

Sometimes the most fascinating people in any story are the antagonists in history–the first eyewitnesses to the moments which shape the world and its destiny. Think Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar or Che in Evita. Hamilton uses that very device; from the downbeat of the first note we meet Aaron Burr, the ill-fated senator who will forever be indelibly linked with Alexander Hamilton. Burr wonders out loud, “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and 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?” In this sentence we realize that this is, at its heart, a deconstruction of a founding father and his accomplishments. Burr even lets us know that he is “the damn fool who shot him” with all of the regret of someone who knows he has been a pawn in some larger narrative. But knowing the end of the story doesn’t make this story any less compelling; instead we are more engaged as we fill in the pieces we may have learned in history class but forgot over time. What unfolds is truly astounding. Drawing upon the influences of rap and hip hop and using an astounding, ethnically-diverse cast, Hamilton exhilarates audiences every night. And it is this casting which truly cements this production as a work of art.  

This past Sunday, the United States once again endured another in a seemingly neverending series of mass shootings. This time the target was The Pulse, a club in Orlando, Florida catering predominately to the LGBTQ community. Once again, a segment of our society was targeted for being “the other.” Whether it’s the ongoing battle for racial harmony and equality, or the fevered demagoguery of the presumptive Republican candidate for president, we have heard it all before, all of the usual platitudes. We watched as politicians once again attempted to stake the high ground on this tragedy. And somewhere inside, I think we all cried out, “Isn’t there anything else we can do?”  

At the Tony Awards this past Sunday night, Lin-Manuel Miranda read a sonnet to the audience after he had won the award for Best Score. It was, in large part, a salute to his wife and child, but also a message of healing to all those hurt by the previous twenty-four hours of senseless violence. This phrase drew my attention:

We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they're finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, 
Remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love
Is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside.

Hamilton is proof that our history does remember times when hate and fear did seem stronger. When I saw the production in May, and when I saw the Tony Awards telecast this past Sunday night, I was struck not only by the craft and artistry, but also by my own personal beliefs in what America truly is. I didn’t see the race, ethnicity, or gender of the performers, I only saw my country’s founding fathers (to borrow from Hamilton) living, dying, and telling their stories.

I exalted at George Washington, played by the incredible Chris Jackson, leading the troops at Yorktown and turning the world upside down. I laughed at the British pop-rock “You’ll Be Back” sung by good old mad King George himself, and eagerly applauded the boogie-woogie feel of “What Did I Miss” (sung by the immensely talented Daveed Diggs). I marveled at the stunning poetry of “One Last Time,” taken directly from Washington’s address to the nation before he stepped down from the presidency. I grieved with Alexander Hamilton and his wife after the death of their son and openly wept as he and his wife, estranged at the time, rediscovered their love for one another through forgiveness and compassion. I winced as Aaron Burr, our erstwhile narrator remarkably brought to life by Leslie Odom, Jr., began to let hate and envy consume him and lead him to that fateful duel with Alexander Hamilton.  

Finally, I realized what Lin-Manuel Miranda had been saying to us in that verse and through this exhilarating production: that America itself was the melody and unfinished song we were (and are) chasing. Love is the answer and, indeed, cannot be swept away. Lin-Manuel Miranda has given the world a gift–a chance to reflect on both the greatness of our past and all of the sins we have committed in the creation of this nation. Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life getting to see the world for what it would it be like without him, Hamilton allows us to see that the sacrifices and challenges we faced as a nation so long ago have guided us to become a society in which all men and women truly are created equal.   

And while nothing here may be promised to us (as this weekend’s madness has shown us), we at the very least can revel in the fact that our society, our great experiment, may be finally turning an important page on how we see one another and respond to the challenges of how we co-exist and yes, love one another. Yes, there are still those in this world for whom this change is unacceptable, hated and something to be violently opposed to. But we, as a nation, were founded on the idea that change in and of itself was indeed a revolution. Like a mirror, art reflects society and shows us the world with all of its beauty and all of its warts. Hamilton challenges and encourages us to look into that mirror with a sense of pride, of patriotism and, most importantly, of understanding not only where we have been, but where we are going.