Look Around

If you haven’t yet experienced Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about the ten-dollar founding father, then carve out three hours to listen to the soundtrack or, even better, watch the newly released film on Disney+. My family, along with families across the country last night, planned our evening around the musical. Dinner included “Burr-itos,” “Peggys-In-A-Blanket,” and “Not Throwing Away My Sheet Cake.” My mom, who had seen the play live, and sister, who had watched it online first thing in the morning, were forbidden from discussing details until the rest of us had seen it ourselves. After setting clear rules concerning movie-watching etiquette and cranking our speakers up higher than they’d ever been, it was finally time.

I thought familiarity with the soundtrack would prepare me for the experience of the film. I was wrong. While I could sing praises about the play all day long, no compliments for the precisely crafted writing or the passionate performances or the jaw-dropping vocals could do it justice. Attention has clearly been paid to every detail of the production, from the small cast of dancers to the overarching themes of the narrative. Hamilton’s wild success is due at least in part to its focus on themes that resonate with the audience today, despite being set over two hundred years ago. (Who would watch a musical that was purely focused on a financial system?) There’s enough here to fill several blogs with in-depth analysis but, after watching, I landed on three core attentions that helped make Hamilton what it is.

The first is attention to individual relationships. This is a no-brainer for any sort of storytelling, of course, but this play is driven by relationships. Early on, the audience sees a blossoming love story between Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler with the song “Helpless.” This is immediately followed by “Satisfied,” a retelling of the same events from Angelica Schuyler’s perspective, in which she regrets realizing too quickly the socio-political implications of an engagement with Hamilton. A bit later, incredibly personal interactions end up motivating political choices. These relationships are necessarily interwoven into the rest of life rather than remaining in some sterile and separate realm.

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Alexander Hamilton meets Angelica and Elizabeth Schuyler

The play doesn’t only focus on romantic relationships, though. Out of several friendships portrayed on-screen, I was most struck by the dynamic between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. They seem to be polar opposites, Hamilton’s headstrong decisiveness contrasting with Burr’s willingness to “wait for it.” Although present in the soundtrack, their tentative friendship-turned-rivalry was even more pronounced on stage. Their relationship is made all the more interesting by the fact that Burr appears as the narrator of the play, beginning with his introduction as Hamilton’s killer. Hamilton is plagued with concern for his legacy, and it seems for most of the play like Burr is the one who lives to tell Hamilton’s story. In the closing number – by which time the tears will start flowing, if you haven’t been emotionally compromised already – Elizabeth Hamilton returns to finish Alexander’s story (and tell a bit of her own).

The relationships drive the story, but other aspects of Hamilton feel particularly relevant in today’s cultural climate. The second item that stood out to me was the play’s almost affectionate attention to our country. Set during the nation’s wobbly first steps, the musical comes across as a love letter to the best of American ideals. This is evident even in the intentional casting of the play; although many of the historical figures at Hamilton’s center were obviously white, the play was made all the more powerful by its racially diverse cast. The idealism isn’t tone-deaf; it doesn’t brush the founding fathers’ faults under the rug (although individuals may try). Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, said in an interview, “Hamilton shouldn’t be confused with hero worship…. I think that one of the many statements that are made happen to be about the fact that we’re bringing these men and women down off of pedestals, we’re looking at them in their most trifling states. The founding of this country was always aspirational and was always meant to not live up to it because the men that were actually in charge at that point were not capable of being their greatest selves in regard to the way that we view this now. But slaves back then, sure enough, didn’t see any greatness in them.” It’s fitting that when characters sing in “Yorktown,” “Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom,” George Washington responds, “Not yet.” The play reminds the audience of national values to be preserved even as it looks forward to the progress still to come.

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Christopher Jackson as George Washington

Hamilton’s patriotic love is perhaps most prominent in Jackson’s song “One Last Time.” In it, President Washington prepares to step down instead of running again, much to Hamilton’s chagrin. Where Hamilton and so many others are scrambling to build the system up and put themselves in power, Washington’s choice seems counterintuitive. “If I say goodbye,” Jackson sings, “the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I’m gone.” He makes warnings concerning neutrality and partisan fighting; he admits the probability of unconscious errors in his administration and affirms the decision to step down as strength rather than weakness. It becomes clear that he is not merely eager to retire, but that he is attempting to imbue a spirit of humility into the American experiment. It’s a thoughtful and even loving decision made with the nation’s future in mind rather than a desperate grasp for power. The lyrics to this song are drawn straight from portions of Washington’s farewell address, a combination of Washington’s ideas and Hamilton’s writing that is well worth a read today.

“Not unconscious in the outset of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps still more in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself; and every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome. Satisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary, I have the consolation to believe that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.” – Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address

The third element that came to mind was Hamilton’s attention to the written word. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrical wordsmithing is absolute perfection – again, something you have to experience yourself in order to properly appreciate. The time and care he put into the crafting of the play is obvious. True to style, the musical continually calls back to itself, reminding the listener of the narrative’s scope with a single phrase. (If I ever wrote anything with a fraction of Hamilton’s quality, I could die content. But I digress.)

This careful attention is found in the actual content of the play as well as its script. The examination of Hamilton’s life emphasizes the communicative value and creative power of the written word. In “Hurricane,” Hamilton (played by Miranda) sings, “I wrote my way out of hell/I wrote my way to revolution/I was louder than the crack in the bell/I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell/I wrote about the Constitution and defended it well/And in the face of ignorance and resistance/I wrote financial systems into existence/And when my prayers to God were met with indifference/I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance.” As the credits were rolling, my mom turned to me and said, “It just makes you want to go write, doesn’t it?” (We said something similar after Little Women, too.) It’s very likely that I’m projecting my own affections onto this last topic, but at least it’s not just me! Even without my bias, the writing emphasis is worth noting.

When it comes to my own reflective writing, many other morals could be drawn from the musical, such the difficulty of forgiveness or the importance of taking a break from time to time. There’s a difference between writing to shine a spotlight on Hamilton and writing from my own experience (which includes far fewer financial systems than Alexander’s). At the same time, though, paying attention to the things Hamilton pays attention to is encouraging in our current moment. In 2020, Independence Day seems different, somehow, with our cultural attention turned towards the fact that many Americans were not freed from oppression by this holiday. Hamilton’s digital release was a well-timed reminder that we can both remember the best of our country and anticipate some much-needed changes. It’s a reassurance that even flawed individuals can use their gifts to contribute to a greater good. It’s a warning against polarization and a healthy dose of humility to combat our need to keep ourselves on top.

Throughout Hamilton, characters sing “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” This sentiment may sound forced today (and honestly, it often is) but it may also be exactly the one we need to adopt! There are many reasons to be grateful for this holiday, just as there are many reasons to let righteous anger motivate progress. We are lucky to have opportunities to press forward with humility and love, even if it means the world turns upside down in the process.

3 thoughts on “Look Around

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