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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Hamilton

As I've mentioned before, one of the things I miss the most about leaving New Jersey was access to New York theater. The most recent sensation on Broadway,and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, the musicalized story of founding father Alexander Hamilton (the show may have played a part in keeping him on the ten-dollar bill). Now, even if I lived in New York I may not have been able to see it. It's the hottest ticket in town, and seats are not cheap. It will be playing in Las Vegas, but not until the 2017-18 season.

But, I can listen to the original cast album, which I have done. It doesn't give me the full experience--I happen to know that the cast is racially diverse, quite the opposite of reality, but given that much of the exposition is sung I can follow the story and tap my fingers on the steering wheel to the songs.

Hamilton has been described as a "hip-hop" musical, and while it is more hip-hop than most Broadway fare, it still lovingly holds most of the Broadway conventions in its score. Sure, having Thomas Jefferson drop the word "motherfucker" may be unconventional, but Miranda is clearly both a student of Rodgers and Hammerstein as well as rap and hip-hop. He even "samples" Rodgers and Hammerstein with the line "You've got to be carefully taught," and Gilbert and Sullivan with "modern major general." But then again, he also samples "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash.

"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?"

These lines are sung, and reprised in various versions, by Aaron Burr, who is forever bound with Hamilton by the duel they fought. If you think politics is dirty now, imagine the sitting vice-president killing the former Secretary of Treasury in a duel! At the end of this opening number, Burr sings, "And me? I'm the damn fool who shot him."

Act 1 covers Hamilton's rise in the army and his becoming an aide-de-camp to General Washington, who forever trusted him, much to the chagrin of Hamilton's rivals, who sings that it must be great to have "Washington on Your Side." Hamilton marries Eliza Schuyler, one of three rich sisters, but is also close to her sister, Angelica. He becomes the very first Secretary of Treasury.

Act II covers events after the war. There are two amusing numbers for history geeks, called "Cabinet Battle #1" and "Cabinet Battle #2." The first is about the federal government assuming the debts of all states, which Jefferson and Madison, coming from the rich Virginia, are against. But they finally agree to a compromise when the nation's capital is moved from New York to the south (which would become the District of Columbia). Burr, angry, sings that no one was in "The Room Where It Happened," suggesting some kind of corruption.

The second cabinet battle is over whether the United States should interfere in a burgeoning war between England and France. Jefferson says they should honor the loyalty of Lafayette, but Hamilton sings:

"You must be out of your goddamn mind if you think
the President is going to bring the nation to the brink
of meddling in the middle of a military mess,
a game of chess, where France is Queen and kingless.
We signed a treaty with a king whose head is now in a basket--
Would you like to take it out and ask it?"

Ah, note the alliteration and the internal rhymes. I believe Miranda is the best lyricist to hit Broadway since Stephen Sondheim.

The play follows historical events closely, such as when John Adams is elected President--King George has a short number singing, "President Adams? Good luck." (Adams is not a character). Adams does not keep Hamilton on as Treasury secretary, and he goes back to New York to practice law. He also has an affair with Maria Reynolds, and is then blackmailed by her husband. Hamilton, when confronted by Jefferson and Madison, admits what he did but says none of it was against the law and publishes a pamphlet about it, basically ending his political career.

One thing I learned that I did not know--Hamilton's son, Philip, died in a duel earlier than Hamilton did. He fought a man who insulted his father, and Alexander tells him to just shoot high and it will all be over. It was, like the Burr-Hamilton duel, fought in New Jersey "Everything's legal in New Jersey," they sing, and Hamilton fils did shoot high, but his opponent did not.

Hamilton, though disagreeing with Jefferson almost always, backed him in the election of 1800, against his old friend Burr, which did not sit well with the man who became vice-president upon finishing second (a good thing they changed the law). In 1804, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel for making disparaging remarks, and Hamilton agreed, and they went to New Jersey where Burr killed him.

Hamilton was a flawed man, he acted as if was the smartest in the room (which he frequently was) and of course had an eye for the ladies. But Miranda still paints him as a great man, and in the final number his friends and rivals sing his praises, such as Jefferson singing, "I'll give him this; his financial system is a work of genius. I couldn't undo it if I tried. And I tried."

Perhaps one day I will see Hamilton in person. I did eventually see Cats, even when that seemed impossible.

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