Aaron Burr is glacial; Alexander Hamilton is overwrought; King George has skinny legs and a hilarious voice; Eliza Schuyler (Hamilton’s deceived wife) is heartbroken and enraged.
The unprecedented and prize-winning musical, Hamilton has been touring far and wide—I finally had the chance to see and hear it here in Southern California. Invigorating, wonderfully brazen, pungently wordy—yet all the words, emotions, nuances, dreams, heartaches, victories, defeats, and transferred dysfunctions from childhood fit together, carried with artistic economy by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliantly realized rap score and libretto.
‘Dying is easy, young man, living is harder.’
In this interwoven national and personal story, based upon the exuberant and tragic life of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington cautions Hamilton that “dying is easy, young man, living is harder.” Aaron Burr admonishes Hamilton to “talk less, smile more” at their very first meeting. Father-figures advise and/or manipulate younger men, husbands betray their wives, children and grownups are killed in honor-stricken duels.
These continental saints are real people with classic depravities. Women live at the margins of male decadence, generals chafe and undermine one another—even as the United States is founded with great ideas and flowing blood. Hamilton, a martyr of his own arrogance, reaches beyond all parameters as he declares to his frenemy Burr: “There’s a million things I haven’t done, just you wait!” You admire Hamilton’s boldness yet embarrassed by his neediness. He makes people nuts, yet they perceive his uncommon skills and chronic diligence. He was a brilliant man drenched with insecurities and a painful need for approval.
So, floating energetically with the outrageously appealing rap score, combined poignantly with the flow of genuine pain and loss, you suddenly realize that our founding parents were just like us—they hurt each other, helped each other, consoled and inspired each other, and killed each other with gun violence. This emotionally nuanced production reverts our American heroes into, simply, American people. As in every age, from Christ to Concord, the humanization of these vaunted men and women is the signal and most compelling aspect of this triumphant piece. They inscribed eternal documents about democracy, law, and sovereignty. They wrote secret letters of passion and lust to their lovers.
Hamilton is old as the Bible and as new as this week’s cable news. The new America was egalitarian on paper, but racism crammed the daily traditions of the nation’s culture. Black and brown people were hardly regarded as persons; they were enslaved for some 300 years by white Americans who collaborated with this hideousness.
The Civil War hardly resolved this nightmare—black folks subsequently writhed under horrifying Jim Crow decrees and heaping, depraved layers of state segregation laws that were not eradicated (again, on paper) until the modern Civil Rights era. But the cry for hope, eloquently chanted by the completely diverse and color-blind company of Hamilton, is again rejected by the draconian government we now endure in this nation of bittersweet narratives. And by average folks, with their firearms and detestation, who have now been empowered to speed along on our crumbling roadways and wreak havoc on Alexander Hamilton’s promise and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.
From a deep place in his animated soul, Alexander Hamilton intones: “America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference. A place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up.”