Revolution by Revolutionary Means

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When Barbra Streisand announced Hamilton as the recipient of the Tony for Best Musical on June 12, it was the most anti-climactic award in the history of awards shows — everyone knew it was going to win. (I knew it the moment I saw the show, even without seeing the other potential contenders. It’s that impressive.) Yet it was the most electrifying Tony show in ages, precisely because Hamilton was going to win. Audiences across the country would finally get a taste of what everyone had been talking about, because at the Tonys the casts of each nominee for Best Musical perform a medley of scenes from their show. The cast of Hamilton closed the night and brought down the house.

Hamilton has become a nationwide phenomenon this year, with people who have never attended a Broadway show purchasing the cast album and reading the Ron Chernow biography on which the play is based. Even the Treasury Department has been caught up in the newfound enthusiasm for its first Treasurer, announcing, after years of promising that a woman would replace Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill, that Jackson would be replaced on the twenty instead. Hamilton has had that kind of influence.

Hamilton erased my impression of the Founding Fathers as white-wigged, brocade-jacketed, lace-jabotted aristocrats whose success as founders of the free world was a foregone conclusion.

So does the play live up to the hype? It’s just a bunch of rap songs and hip-hop dances, right? Anyone could do that. It’s street entertainment, not Broadway! And the show isn’t even accurate — they cast minority actors for the major roles of Washington, Hamilton, Burr, Lafayette and the Schuyler sisters — only King George is played by a white man. Doesn’t Lin-Manuel Miranda — who wrote the music, lyrics, and book, and stars in the production — know anything?

As a matter of fact, Miranda knows plenty. His decision to use rap, hip-hop and minorities for Hamilton was carefully calculated to tell a richer, truer story than racial “accuracy” could have achieved.

Let’s start with the rap. To the untrained ear (and the untrained rapper) it’s the laziest form of rhythm and rhyme, seeming to ignore all rules about meter and feet so as to shove as many syllables into a single beat of music as the human mouth can manage. It’s also associated with minorities and outsiders. Miranda chose rap for both reasons. “Rap is uniquely suited to tell Hamilton’s story. It has more words per measure than any other musical genre . . . It has density, and if Hamilton’s writing had anything, it was density,” Miranda explained to Graham Messick in an interview for 60 Minutes. “Hamilton spoke in whole paragraphs, so the opening song of our show is this crazy run-on sentence":

How does a bastard, orphan,
son of a whore an’
a Scotsman,
dropped in a forgotten
spot in
the Caribbean
by Providence,
impoverished in squalor
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Well, OK — you have to hear the rhythm and tone to experience the passion and cleverness of the line. But trust me — when it’s sung, it works. Miranda says he took weeks to get each couplet right. “Every couplet needed to be the best couplet I ever wrote. It took me a year to write ‘My Shot,’ which is Hamilton’s big ‘I want’ song,” he says. He imbues his lyrics with the playfulness and creativity of a Cole Porter (one of his early influences) but with a decidedly non-Cole Porter ferocity. It took six years to write the show, financed in part from his success with his Broadway debut In the Heights, also a Tony winner for Best Musical.

And what about those minority actors? Here’s the effect it had on me: it erased my impression of the Founding Fathers as white-wigged, brocade-jacketed, lace-jabotted, upper-crust-accented aristocrats whose success as founders of the free world was a foregone conclusion. It reminded me forcefully that the colonists were themselves immigrants, and the Founders were outsiders who were working against the powerful government, not part of it. In essence they were the Occupy movement of their day, but they weren’t sitting around waiting for someone to fix the injustices they saw. They risked everything they had, even their lives, and they were not “throwin’ away their shot” — their one shot — at freedom and self-government.

It made me realize, too, that the founders had the mental, physical, and financial resources to focus on just one battle — one shot — for political liberation from the monarchy of King George. They did not have the power or resources to overturn all injustices at once. Thomas Jefferson recognized the evil of slavery and in his draft of the Declaration of Independence furiously inveighed against the slave trade. But that was a battle that would have to wait for another day. Just as Martin Luther King focused on civil rights for black Americans and left the fight for gay rights to the next generation, so the Founders blazed the trail for political freedom but left the fight for racial and gender equality for generations to come. Future generations will look back and criticize us too for not recognizing the needs of other marginalized groups. The Founders had the power and resources for “just one shot,” and they would likely have failed if they had tried to shoot in every direction at once.

The idea of liberty cannot die. When one hero falls, another rises up to continue the fight. And that one is likely to be even stronger and more charismatic.

Miranda also recognizes the important influence of the women who surrounded Hamilton, particularly the three Schuyler sisters, one of whom he married and another of whom he loved. Peter Stone included women to some extent in 1776, with John Adams’ letters to and from Abigail and Jefferson’s visit from his wife Martha as he is writing the Declaration. But in 1776 the women were mostly back home in Massachusetts or Virginia, wearing their pretty gowns and taking care of their lovely homes. They show up for a moment but remain mostly offstage, while the men create a nation. By contrast, the Schuyler sisters and other women in Miranda’s cast and chorus are an ongoing, integral part of the action.

The decision to cast actors in multiple roles also adds to the message of liberty as a living movement. I was keenly disappointed when Lafayette went back to France at the end of Act 1, because I had been so enamored by Daveed Diggs’ charismatic performance. Not to worry — Diggs returned in Act 2 as Jefferson, with an even greater intensity and charisma. This was not a money-saving tactic on the part of the producers; in fact, all the actors whose characters die in Act 1 return in Act 2 with new roles. This technique reminds us that revolution is not about a single person. The idea of liberty cannot die. When one hero falls, another rises up to continue the fight. And that one is likely to be even stronger and more charismatic.

Sadly, many of the actors who created the roles of this landmark play are leaving the cast this summer. I’m grateful I was able to see the original cast — it’s a moment I will remember as vividly as I remember seeing Les Miserables in 1985 with Colm Wilkinson and Patti Lupone. It was still in previews; the music was brand new, and it was breathtaking. I look forward to seeing what the actors of Hamilton do next.

But the beauty of this show is that new actors can enter the roles and the message will remain. As Miranda points out, in America we would keep changing leaders, and it would work. We didn’t need a monarchy. So my hope is that when a touring company comes to a theater near you with its new leaders in the roles, Hamilton will still have its message and its passion — that it doesn’t need a Miranda or a Diggs. Music and theater arts schools had better start adding rap to their repertoires, because Hamilton is going to be touring for a long time to come.

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