HAMILTON: Who Tells Your Story?

Exeunt Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo and Leslie Odom Jr.

Every great musical has those moments. Moments of spontaneous applause, when an audience interruption is justified by sheer enthusiasm. Moments where the actors have to remain in suspended animation for just a beat, just a hair, just a millisecond longer, before letting the show go on. Hamilton has several of these moments, located about where you’d expect if you’ve listened to the album, and I was lucky enough to witness them first hand on December 9th. But of the numerous interruptions that night, two in particular stood out to me, for they were more thunderous, more spontaneous, and simply more potent than your average applause break. The first came a few minutes in, when Lin-Manuel Miranda took to the stage to introduce himself as the ten-dollar founding father. A spotlight hit the actor like a bolt from Zeus, as half the audience cheered, while the other half – perhaps unaware of what they were in for – jolted to attention. The second followed an hour later, when Caribbean-born Alexander Hamilton and French-American Marquis de Lafayette stood on the precipice of battle, one played by Miranda, a first generation Puerto Rican-American, and the other by Daveed Diggs, a black Jewish man of mixed ethnicity. The specific line in question?

“Immigrants. We get the job done.”

For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, Hamilton is a Broadway musical. Don’t worry, I’m not usually a Broadway person either, but there’s a reason it’s become such a massive phenomenon. It tells the story of America’s Founding Fathers – Hamilton, his friend-turned-political rival Aaron Burr, his allies and adversaries from Washington to Jefferson, and the various women throughout his life – all played by people of colour, and using one of America’s most vibrant original art forms: Hip-Hop.

Miranda wrote the book on Hamilton (he quite literally wrote the libretto, adapting it from Ron Chernow’s biography), in addition to scoring the production, writing the lyrics, and starring in the lead role. He previously wrote and composed In The Heights, another New York-set immigrant musical that captivated Broadway after ten years en route. Hamilton’s conception was about as lengthy, going back as far as a modest White House performance in 2009, where Miranda performed what would eventually become the opening number. To call this modest is a testament to the show’s journey since – some of it was even written at the Morris-Jumel Mansion on 162nd Street, Washington’s battle headquarters and home to Aaron Burr – after which it finally arrived on Broadway last August. Thirty-six-year-old Miranda has since become synonymous with the show, and this Saturday July 9th, he’s set to take the stage one last time, as are fellow powerhouse performers Leslie Odom Jr. and Phillipa Soo, the original Burr and Eliza. And my, oh my, what a legacy they leave behind.

The brazen re-enactment of America’s birth, through rap and song and dance, is set to not only expand to Chicago and LA, but will also hit London’s West End by 2017. Tickets are nigh impossible to procure – unless you want to drop somewhere between $1,100 and $20,000 on StubHub for the trio’s swan song – but the album alone has taken Broadway (and the internet) by storm. In addition to winning a Grammy, sweeping the Tonys, being awarded a Pulitzer, changing the face of U.S. currency and bringing Miranda’s journey from the White House full circle, the show is also part of a recent wave of mainstream art created by people of colour (and about people of colour) that’s changing the face of the popular culture. Hamilton in theatre, Beyonce’s Lemonade in music & music video, Empire on television, Marvel’s Black Panther comic by Brian Stelfreeze & Ta-Nehisi Coates, and a full two years ahead of its release, the Black Panther movie. As quick as social media could say “viral,” each one rose to the level of phenomenon, something that could only happen if there was an existing hunger for these stories. What makes Hamilton stand out amongst these modern titans however, is a daring recontextualization of America itself. As fun as it is to convince people that cabinet-meetings-as-rap-battles are a thing they need in their life (they do, but that’s besides the point), Hamilton strikes at the heart of the dying American dream as it gasps for air, determined to bring itself back to life.

The show imagines an America, and an Alexander Hamilton, just as flawed yet just as passionate as their originals, but also a small step closer to an ideal. Not by virtue of alternate reality, but by that of forward momentum. “We’ll never be free until we end slavery” is one of the show’s memorable lines, and while America’s ‘original sin’ would stick around for nearly a century, by winding the clocks back to independence, the show serves a dual purpose: it’s part history lesson, and part plea for a better future. Recognizing America’s missteps during its pursuit of happiness is necessary (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel”), but it was passion, political compromise and sheer will to fight for freedom that gave birth to America in the first place.

America is most certainly its mistakes, but America is also its progress. Miranda understands this, and rather than composing either a demonization or a melodious hagiography, he crafts a rough and at times hard-hitting treatise on the imperfections inherent to absolute freedom. Yet at the same time, he advocates for this freedom absolutely. Certain works of art have a magical quality to them, but Hamilton is akin to performative alchemy, separating base grievances from noble ideals despite them being closely bonded. These are America’s contradictions, writ large for the world to see, yet the positives we extrapolate make for a future worth singing about. As warning, as instruction, and most importantly, as celebration. As much as the show is about past and future, it’s about the propulsive nature of the present, especially for those who will go on to write history.

More often than not, there’s a devastating complexity to how Hamilton deals with time. The story is at once drama and civics lecture, dropping us off at the beginning as we’re told how the story ends. “Me? I died for him. Me? I trusted him. Me? I loved him. And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him.” Though more than just its narrative framing, everything from the costumes to the lighting to the ensemble functions as time itself, either propelled forward through movement, or dilated through stillness. Everything slows down as Angelica recounts her first meeting with Alexander, as we see familiar events through different eyes. “Satisfied” expands on every heartbeat and every thought process behind massive, life-changing decisions, ones that would determine America’s future in their own ways. In “The World Was Wide Enough,” the show’s climactic number, time stands still and the stage rotates like the hands of a clock, as a dancer (the captivating Ariana DeBose, who also takes her final bow this Saturday) reluctantly guides Burr’s fatal bullet, as it travels toward his former friend. In his final, music-less moments, Alexander not only recaps the show via life flashing before his eyes, but expands on each vital moment and the lessons therein. He speaks of ‘the other side’ as if it were the afterlife, but in this realm, where time both stands still and catapults us through decades, we see what he cannot. The ‘other side’ is the future and how history will remember him. And us.

“America, you great unfinished symphony.”

On the simpler side however, is the use of time in “Dear Theodosia,” where Burr and Alexander speak not only to their respective children, but to the audience. It’s a technique done to death, from Shakespeare to your average school play, but it’s never been done quite like this. As they sit in the different rooms on the same stage (separated only by our imagination) rivals Burr and Hamilton, and the actors tasked with portraying them, recite their hopes and dreams for our future, wishing us the best as we embark on the path laid out for us so many years ago. In that moment, we aren’t just Theodosia and Phllip, but all the Theodosias and Phillips yet to come. It isn’t merely an aside. It’s a guiding hand reaching through history, preparing us to re-learn all the lessons we’ve forgotten.

There’s a periodic grandeur to Hamilton, juxtaposed perfectly with its modern details. As the ensemble pops and locks, they do so against a backdrop of warmly-lit timber, what feels like an unfinished ship in New York’s eighteenth century harbour, being toiled over by candlelight like America itself. The vessel’s ropes however hang helter-skelter, evoking the gallows and lynchings that have plagued America’s past. The inevitability of death looms large over the characters, but being bogged down by it, as Washington advises Hamilton, is the easy way out. “Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.” There is struggle in progress, but so too is there progress in struggle.

The era-appropriate britches and stockings gel wildly with Hercules Mulligan’s do-rag, or perhaps more fittingly, with the unapologetic hair of the black actors, the kind of hair so rarely seen inhabiting these costumes. American history isn’t just the history of white elites, and the show has no qualms about this. The music draws from both ‘90s Hip-Hop and contemporary Broadway (with occasional hints of Jazz and BritPop), making for a scarce cultural blend within an artistically intersectional space, paving the way for the other elements to fall in line. However, the one thing embodying this duality the most is Lin-Manuel Miranda. Having grown up adjacent to both rap and the stage, there’s an authenticity to his righteous fury, the kind that prevents it from falling into gimmickry. As a performer, Miranda sways between the grand, boastful intellect of America’s first Treasury Secretary, and the choked-up, near-overwhelmed affectations of Miranda himself. There is love and passion in all that he does, on so many levels. From his raw, street-smart swagger, to his contained and at times understated stateliness; a blend between a political figure viewed through the lens of history, and a flawed, ambitious character, bursting at the seams with passion, unearthed lovingly by an equally passionate artist, so much that his love for the material bleeds into every word. He recites Alexander’s hopeful letter to his newborn as if it were meant for his own son (one-and-a-half-year old Sebastian, who Miranda can’t stop tweeting about), as he tears up not only as the Founding Father, but because of him, and on his behalf. Miranda may have written the words, but they were guided by Hamilton’s hand, and his desire for a better future.

“You will come of age with our young nation. We’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you. If we lay a strong enough foundation. We’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you. And you’ll blow us all away…”

Leslie Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr falls somewhere in the middle of Miranda’s sliding scale. He is a fixed point, central to every scene he’s in (and to the cast’s wonderful 360° performance of “Wait For It”) however much like Miranda, his passion and arrogance are at war with one another just beneath the surface. If the story is Hamilton’s reckless search for America, Burr thinks he can find it through withheld calculation. In the beginning, we get a brief glimpse of him post-Alexander’s death, as a man filled with regret over his role in History, but for the duration of the show we’re treated to his unwavering journey to get there, his desire to be “in the room where it happens” matched only by his desire for freedom. While Miranda’s energy pulsates, bouncing off the theatre walls as he captures Alexander’s brashness, Odom Jr. is magnetic, providing a necessary gravity with which to ground both Burr’s levelheadedness, and his ice-cold caution. Villain or not, Aaron Burr is a necessary foil to Alexander, both in character and concept. He is the rational to Alexander’s emotional, for better or for worse, but he’s also the other side of the debate. Not of one specific debate, but of any debate. A necessity for democracy to thrive.

Completing the trio of departing performers is Phillipa Soo. The Schuyler sisters – Angelica, Eliza (and Peggy!) – are as much Alexander’s backbone as they are the show’s, not only belting out New York’s praises, but striking powerful poses akin to Destiny’s Child. Where queen bee Angelica embodies compromise even in the face of passion, allowing her sister to marry the man she loves (for a whole host of valid reasons), Eliza not only plays a supporting role, but is the very personification of support. Soo’s challenge comes in the form of being second best with intention. Both Eliza and Angelica suffer in silence as Alexander sabotages himself through written words and infidelity (one of America’s first political sex scandals!), but they must also suffer thanks to each other, and personify that suffering as women on the fringes of history, fighting their way in. Their love is complicated thanks to Alexander’s place in their lives, and regardless of Eliza’s factual awareness of how her marriage came to be, Soo provides the character with an awareness of stature whenever Angelica and Alexander match wits. Where Angelica is the only rapper whose flow can match Alexander’s, Eliza is a fervent beat-boxer, a dutiful supporter. Soo tries to hide Eliza’s pain whenever possible, acting as a pillar of strength for her son in his final moments, but once Phillip dies, there’s no way she can hold back – and take my word for it, neither can the audience.

The absence of written insight into Elizabeth during this time is dramatized through Eliza burning her letters, “erasing [herself] from the narrative” as if it were a painful sacrifice. Though of course, she not only re-enters it upon Alexander’s death, but carries on his legacy for half a century. For the Schuyler sisters, who lived at a time when women could only be mothers and wives, proximity to the narrative is their claim to autonomy. Renee Elise Goldsberry’s Angelica redirects Alexander’s story. Phillipa Soo’s Eliza writes the post-script. Soo’s performance, which is central to the show’s final moments, exudes kindness. As she laments the loss of her husband, her founding New York’s first private orphanage feels less like the recounting of fact, and more like a promise of events yet to pass. And thus, through the real Elizabeth Schuyler, through the actress portraying her, and through all the actors in the production, his legacy continues, as do the legacies of all the men and women of this era, whether they were in suits or in chains.

Javier Munoz, Miranda’s alternate, is now tasked with playing Alexander full-time. I’m sure he’ll knock it out of the park (I’m told he’s just as great, as he essentially co-created the role), but he has a challenge akin to DeNiro filling in for Brando in The Godfather, an instantly iconic presence. It’s certainly not impossible – DeNiro’s performance was just as acclaimed – but to comprehend the size of the shoes in question, imagine if Brando wrote and scored the film too. Hamilton’s identity is inexorably linked to Miranda, and while I can’t wait to watch Munoz play the part, there’s always going to be this looming presence over the production after its creator moves on... Then again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. For like Eliza and Angelica securing Hamilton’s legacy, like Miranda re-telling his tale and leaving it in the hands of others, like women and people of colour reclaiming their rightful place in history, and like the show being played out by a woman of mixed Chinese descent, the most important part of the story seems to be who tells it, and who they pass it on to.

Miranda leaving Hamilton is by no means the end. If anything, it’s the beginning of what is sure to be a long life – at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, on stages elsewhere, and in the annals of modern culture. The accolades it garnered are mere byproducts of its artistic achievement, and as much as we’ll all miss Miranda in the role (whether or not we got to see him), it’s the first step to the show outliving him. For as much as this story is about the founding of America, it has by its very nature transcended its premise. It’s a treatise on political procedure and its passionate entanglements, one that’s as relevant during the 2016 election as it was during 1800. It’s a reflection of America’s recent political history, asking questions of idealism vs. practicality in the face of war and invasion, and most strikingly it’s a post-colonial story set in the early days of global colonialism. It’s the kind of American tale that, despite its subjects being long dead, many in the world can still relate to. I’m not American, but this may as well be the story of my grandparents, thrust into a new nation after shaking off British chains in '47. Or the story of post-apartheid South Africa in the ‘90s. Or any country that gained its freedom in the 20th century. Or any country still on that path. Some may feel the story’s effects more directly, as all across the globe, issues of immigration and refugeeism plague entire nations, and at the center of these issues are people in search of new homes, and better tomorrows. On a purely personal level, the show reflects my own New York immigrant story, but the fact remains: Hamilton is an echo of the past that feels relevant because the world is, has been, and will continue to be in a state of progress.

The story resonates because history repeats itself. Sans context, that sounds like a dour misfortune (given our collective propensity for error), but history’s repetition is also the biggest gift we give ourselves. It’s the idea that even though our struggles are far from over, we’ve done it all before, and we’ll do it again. The only thing that’s different is who takes center stage. It’s a role in constant flux, changing as the spotlight moves from race to gender to sexuality (and beyond). So while Lin-Manuel Miranda leaves the production, he also leaves behind his contribution to history: a mirror to history itself. A centuries-old struggle for independence transformed through a culture born out of struggle, embodied by those who would’ve been denied their place in the story back then, be it on stage or in actual Congress. Yet now, two hundred and forty years later, an African American President is able to sing its praises.

The recent Tony performance of “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” comes at a strange time in American history. While guns and the ensuing Second Amendment are a part of its creation myth, America is also at a violent crossroads, a nexus between its identity and the lives of its people. While the show’s first act re-tells that same creation story, its second uses the main characters’ firearms as extensions of their moral decay. The performance came just hours after the Orlando shooting, a massacre and hate crime that locked the nation in a state of near-constant debate. Therefore, the cast decided to get rid of their muskets for the evening, symbolically disarming themselves as they took America into the future.

The show came into being as names like Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin became hashtags. Given the circumstances plaguing black America, upon whose backs the nation was built, Hamilton seems to “imagine death so much it feels more like a memory” as if he were reflecting on the current state of things, wondering as people of colour often do when death will come for him at the hands of the state. Should he run from it, or simply yield? Just days ago, Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile were gunned down by police, one having resisted and one having complied to the letter, almost as if Hamilton’s question of “If I see it coming, do I run or do I let it be?” no longer applies. For people under white supremacy’s thumb, the system is a gridlock – and so the show’s call to arms, asking brothers, sisters and those on their knees to “Rise up” feels more relevant than ever. More than anything, the show believes in 2016’s struggle, as much as it does 1776’s.

In a way, the premise is a testament to both how far we’ve come, and how far we’re yet go. As I mentioned earlier, I watched the original cast perform on December 9th. We were just three weeks past the Paris attacks, and amidst a spike in xenophobia towards immigrants and refugees (on both sides of the Atlantic). Having been on the receiving end of racially-coded Islamophobia, caution is a prerequisite even in the most liberal parts of New York; my own racist run-in with the NYPD happened one subway stop from Richard Rodgers. December 7th was also the day Donald Trump announced he’d ban Muslims from entering the U.S., and on December 8th, support for him grew. With all that in mind, I sat down to watch Hamilton amongst an older, mostly white audience, in a city where I’d been called a terrorist on more than one occasion…

But when Lin-Manuel Miranda and Daveed Diggs sang “Immigrants. We get the job done,” the applause didn’t just feel like a roaring approval of art. It was a defiant re-enforcement of the direction of history, one punctuated by the founding of an immigrant nation. And as a wave of elation washed over me, so did a rare feeling of hope and security. For the first time in as long as I can remember, it felt like America was on my side, and the side of people like me. And here, to etch it in stone, were performers from every background imaginable, reminding us of the true nature of the American Dream.

For a brief moment, the world turned upside down.