I somehow got in the habit of picking up historical biographies. I have never been one for the “Great Man” theory of history (if anything, I am a dialectic stan), but my favorite local bookstore and Costco always have a pile of alluring titles, so I fell into the habit of picking up and having a historical bio at hand. So the stack of Chernow Hamilton books called to me and I found it a fascinating and surprising read. I had always had a low level hostility toward Ham, feeling that somehow the Federalists were the bad guys in the early years of the country, that Hamilton was some sort of monarchist apologist. I had read Nancy Isenberg’s excellent bio, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr and H.W. Brands’s The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr so I had a new-found sympathy for the feminist Burr. For me, the murder and the later attempted traitorousness became footnotes in Burr’s more complex life. So I picked up Hamilton almost itching for a pro-Burr fight. Team Aaron!
Hamilton’s story is one of an improbable and breathtaking rise above circumstances, buoyed by his intellect and cunning. Chernow does a remarkable job detailing Ham’s early life on the Carribean island of Nevis and the communal support that carried him to the mainland for an education. He was quite literally one smart bastard, his brains and savvy making a path for him, all the way into the tent of George Washington during the Revolution. By now, you probably know the story. Team Aaron?
Without embellishment or sentiment, the dual tracks of Burr and Hamilton’s lives seem destined to cross, and they do, multiple times. There are several titles that make hay on this seemingly inevitable collision of personalities and philosophies, one that played out in the infamous duel in Weehawken. By now, I am primed for this conflict and have moved from Team Aaron to Team Aaron-ish. The Chernow book is meticulous and comprehensive but also highly readable and understandable. I even managed to follow and be interested in the financial discussions that showed the real genius of Hamilton. Maybe his love of labyrinthine financial transactions is really at the root of my Hamilton distrust; if he dug that, how could I dig him? Team Math?
OK, I’ll watch C-SPAN; there I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda perform a song at the White House for Barack Obama, a piece from his proposed hip-hop album on Alexander Hamilton. I was charmed but skeptical. (Link to White House performance.) That tune became instead the opener for the Broadway play, Hamilton. Still, I still thought Burr was the one with the compelling story. Burr educated his daughter without gender restraints, supported women’s rights, and was staunchly anti-slavery. His grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakening preacher, a super interesting guy. At least the song Miranda debuted was sung by Burr. Hmm. Maybe there is something here to this Miranda project. Team Lin?
Flash forward a few years and Hamilton, the musical, emerges as a Broadway juggernaut. I was fortunate to catch the show on its first national tour at Durham’s Nederlander-affiliated theater. I had seats close enough to see the performers’ spittle fly and was dazzled by the stagecraft and thoroughness of the storytelling. And our Aaron Burr, portrayed by a magnetic Nik Walker, stood out in a uniformly great cast. You know I liked that. (Link to review,) Hamilton the play, is an immersive experience that manages to hit all the key points in the Chernow biography, maintain nuance and sensitivity about the two central figures of Burr and Hamilton, give grace notes to figures like Lafayette and Laurens, and portray the key women in Hamilton’s life, sisters Elizabeth and Angelica Schyler, as figures with intellect and agency. Team Hamilton!
There are so many clever and perfect moments in the show. For example, there’s a rap battle between Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton that manages to serve the story of the show, the style of the musical, the development of the characters, and the spirit of the history. That’s just one great moment of many. For me, the biggest lump in the throat moment came during “Dear Theodosia,” a two-hander where Burr and Hamilton sing to their newborns of their love and hopes for them. Knowing the stories of the lives of Theodosia Burr Alston and Philip Hamilton deepened the impact of this number for me, added layers of meaning to the lyrics. Miranda is such an astute and avid historical pupil, Hamilton is unique that in the more you know, the richer the experience of Hamilton becomes. The collaboration with Chernow on the book for the musical and Miranda’s dedication to an unvarnished, circumspect look at Hamilton and contemporaries makes this more than it needed to be. Team Introspect.
I had an unusual introduction to the other leading American Revolution musical. In the 80s, pre-home Internet, my insomnia often led to watching overnight movies on cable superstations. Unable to sleep, I began watching an in-progress overnight movie about the Continental Congress. Oh look, there’s the White Shadow as Thomas Jefferson. Hey, that’s Dr. Craig from St. Elsewhere as John Adams. They go on about some legislation, and I begin to think maybe I will finally get some sleep. Then it happens: John Adams, unprompted and with no warning, begins singing. WHAT! There was no on screen channel guide in those days to tell me what’s happening, but I eventually learned that this was a musical, the slightly ham-fisted 1776. Hamilton is no 1776; its history and the songs are seamless. There are no abrupt stop acting and start singing moments. Still, Team Sleepless!
Hamilton is so packed with reference and nuance. Watching the film for a second time with the tweet along, following the #Hamilfilm and Historians At The Movies #HATM hashtags, it became clear that Hamilton is so dense it becomes a bit of a Shmoo, providing the observer precisely their heart’s desire from the experience. I saw people proudly tweet out “that’s a West Wing reference” when there is an actual historical quote dropped in the musical. Hamilton does have a Russian nesting doll, or perhaps a shelf of dolls, approach to meaning and impact on the audience members. Miranda is clever enough a student of pop culture as well as the history to mean all these layers of reference. If you are a musical lover, you get the quotations and nods to classic theatre. Hip Hop classics get their turn, tributes paid like footnotes to Miranda’s influence and indebtedness to his forebears. Hear him talk about it in regards to the big “I Want” number, “My Shot,” at this link. The complexity of the lyrics lead the staid Wall Street Journal to break the lyrics down in this recent article, including analyzing the rhyme schemes with an algorithm! Team Layers!
The hot button issue I saw raising the most dissention on Twitter was the play’s treatment of “paramour” Maria Reynolds by Hamilton himself, who seemingly takes sexual advantage of an abused woman. Historically, the Reynolds were thought to be opportunists agreeing to use Maria’s allure and their collective wiles to seduce then extort our “hero.” What really went on here? Historically, Hubby Reynolds seems to have been something of a litigation abuser, bringing frivolous suits in attempts to lift himself out of poverty. Collusion between spouses to entrap a mark was a thing at that time; in fact, the late 1700s were sort of a boom time for these lawsuits. A lawyer like Hamilton would have been well aware, and the papers would have been filled with these sensational, tabloid-style stories, meaning striver Reynolds would have been well aware also. (See link.)
By law, wives were essentially in a servant relationship with their husbands, and diversion of a wife’s sexual services, legally which belonged exclusively to the husband, was actionable even if the spouses were not estranged as a result of the affair. This cause of action was known as “criminal conversation,” a misnomer since it is a civil action for damages and talking has nothing to do with it. Simply proving the sexual act has occurred entitles the husband to monetary damages, and the court simply set the amount of compensation based on the evidence of harm presented at trial. The scam set-up went: couple engineers the schtupping, the husband then demands payment. The blackmail is to avert the public lawsuit to which any husband would be entitled. You can see the checkmate situation this sets up: pay now to keep it from being made public in a lawsuit or pay later as the result of a public lawsuit ADDING in the damage to reputation and public standing. This may have been what Mr Reynolds had designed and Maria was the instrument of the ploy. Team Vexatious Litigation!
But back to the play: Maria seeks lawyer Hamilton’s protection from her brutish husband. That is a blemish in the play--Hamilton responds, in song, to Maria’s entreaties by essentially licking his lips, noting (echoing Eliza’s falling-in-love song) that Maria is “helpless” and he can’t say no to her. This serves the musical call back and sets up the parallel with his relationship with his wife but is ugly human relations at best and perhaps the clumsiest storytelling in the play. The awkwardness of this as a story point is shown perfectly through comedian Katerine Ryan’s routine, which, to his credit, I saw retweeted by Miranda. Link. Team Smackdown!
The filmed version of the stage play was gruellingly shot around the 8-show-a-week Broadway schedule in a few days by the play’s director and longtime Miranda collaborator, Thomas Kail, who knows just where the show’s moments and icons are located. There is one particularly breathtaking sequence, shot from the viewpoint of Hamilton, where we see a close-up of Burr and then look past him to the shattered face of Eliza. This takes advantage of the medium, a view only the lead actor could have had in the past. Team Movies!
To cap off a Ham immersive 4th weekend, I listened to an original cast interview with Seth Rudesky on Sirius XM’s On Broadway channel. Miranda detailed the grueling three day schedule in which two regularly scheduled shows were filmed in addition to three special performances without audiences concentrating on close ups. It was well publicized that they pushed the film production schedule so it could be viewed during lockdown, almost as a public service. Each actor was asked about what historical tidbits informed their performance, Leslie Odom (Burr) talked about putting Burr’s feminism as a thread that informed his interactions and performance on stage. You know I like that! I also watched The Undefeated Presents: Hamilton In-Depth, provided as an extra with the Disney Plus presentation of the movie. It is a thoughtful discussion of the development of the play from workshop to Broadway, and there are plenty of great moments with the original Broadway principals and Director Kail. Particularly striking was Miranda’s description of the play’s casting of people of color, like himself, in all the major roles as “the story of America then being told by America now.” Team Perspective.
The incredibly high cost of Hamilton is a hard pill to swallow. Hip hop, born as the music of the streets by the disenfranchised, becomes the engine of a billion dollar Hamil-industry. Lottery tickets at bargain prices and Ham for Ham performances on the street outside the theater were attempts to open access to what remains an elitist, very expensive show. Even the touring show tickets are dear (mine was a generous gift, exactly how generous I am afraid to know). The movie version is shown via a pay streaming venue, one that requires high speed internet. Perhaps the real lesson of Hamilton persists: democracy and equality for some, not all, was the result of the Revolution. Miranda makes some gallant inroads to mitigate the harshness of the realities of Broadway economics, but Broadway is an instrument of the financial system that the subject of its best known contemporary show put into motion at the birth of the republic. Maybe that’s the real lesson of Hamilton. Maybe, as Angelica sings, equality for everyone will be included in the sequel, WORK! Team More Perfect Union.
So where do I come down on this historical showdown? Team Aaron or Team Alex? How do you choose between a pair of New York politicians, both anti-slavery, both brilliant prodigies, both of service in the Revolution: in many ways so alike. The stupidity and savagery of dueling as a dispute resolution mechanism shows just how deeply flawed these times and men were. Hamilton is a beautiful work by artists at every step simultaneously creating the best work of their lives, an artistic apotheosis. It is more nuanced than pure hagiography, but as Hamilton tells us, it is only one interpretation. History is always a function of “who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” as the cast reminds us in the haunting closing number. As we nationally examine how we think of ourselves by those we choose to honor in the public squares and the stories we tell ourselves, we have just begun to reckon with the false narratives and faux paragons. I think the lesson of Hamilton is that the complexities of history cannot be reduced to a team sport.
PS...if you haven’t had enough Hamilton, you really haven’t had the complete experience until you hear the first act performed by Muppets. Well actually it is just one incredibly busy and clever voice actor (Ricky Downes III) re-imagining of Hamilton Act I with appropriate (and hilarious) Muppet casting. Downes performs, multi-track, all the voices and adds special Muppet script touches. Very, very well done, it is really indescribable. Links to YouTube or to SoundCloud. Since Disney owns the Muppets now, perhaps they, Miranda, and Downes will make this a fully realized adaptation.
Thanks for dropping by. This blog is part of zubrecords.com, an indie label run by people who make and love music! Check out Alert for blogs on music, films, books, and more! Our podcast, Singles Going Steady, is on all major podcatchers and at tinyurl.com/SGSPodcast Lots of cool things to read and listen to at zubrecords.com