I had intended for this to go up in the waning days of last year but found myself wanting to spend my vacation away from my computer rather than in front of it. So here we are, with some final thoughts on the other side of the new year.
A final post, one last time, on Hamilton: An American Musical.
In a lot of ways, this year has been the year of Hamilton for me. On some level it allowed some respite from the real world, while opening the floodgates on an already complex conversation about art, diversity, and our American past.
In 2016 I have been privileged to see the show on Broadway and like so many others devoured the Hamilton Mixtape, finished the Hamilton: The Revolution (henceforth the Hamiltome, the book about the making of the musical – with annotations!), and watched Hamilton’s America – the incredible PBS documentary that put the musical in its historical context.
And of course, that translated into blog posts of their own, first a conversation with Linda Hansen-Raj about the musical’s intersections with Star Wars on FANgirl and a piece for SavingPlaces that includes an interview with Alex Horwitz the director of Hamilton’s America. Both pieces provide a sense of the different ways in which the musical influenced and inspired me throughout the year.
Linda: While I was sitting in the theater watching Hamilton, I was immediately reminded of Star Wars. The connections were immediate for me: ANH was released in 1977, a year after the bicentennial. Both stories feature disenfranchised farm (Luke) /plantation (Hamilton) boys, looking to elevate their mundane lives, looking for adventure, who stumble into a time of social upheaval, make wise allies (Obi Wan / George Washington) and hold their own vision to become heroes of a war.
It’s hard not to imagine that the American Revolutionary War, where our scrappy, untrained and poorly funded forces beat the country that ruled most of the world influenced elements of A New Hope and Star Wars in general, beyond just the similarity of archetypes.
Plus, I find both stories profoundly transporting.
Priya: I’m not sure I actually made a conscious connection between Hamilton and Star Wars. There are elements of a Shakespearean tragedy and the Hero’s Journey in the story, and the Revolution definitely fits the bill for going up against a big empire. But I actually see the threads of Star Wars in the people, yes it was primarily landed gentry, but there were heroes made from the lower classes who fought on principle and to quote the play “to rise up.”
Linda: You’re absolutely right. Part of the power of both stories is that they are archetypal stories and very much follow the hero’s journey.
Priya: Another note on Star Wars. When I watched the Hamildoc I realized that maybe Hamilton is more akin to Anakin (the man rather than the monster). He starts out wide-eyed and nervous (think his monologue at the tavern during my shot, below) and is propelled forward partially by the moment but also by a force of will and a want to do more, to be beyond his circumstances. You can really see in the second half how Hamilton’s hubris and arrogance really spiral out of control, and much like Anakin he does lose his life tragically (but without the whole rising from the dead as an evil Sith Lord part).
What I loved about the documentary was how it revealed the connection of old places to creativity. All through the film Lin-Manuel Miranda and various members of the original cast visited National Parks and other historic sites and experienced what preservationists already know—that these spaces provide personal, powerful, and inspirational connections to the past.
The documentary, like the musical, stands at the center of conversation regarding the early years of the republic and, as the new National Museum of African American History and Culture says, the paradox of liberty. As a historian I appreciated that through interviews and site visits, the film addressed what many see as missing from the Broadway show—a direct conversation of the role of slavery in early America. There is a moment at the end of the film where Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, visited Mount Vernon’s slave quarters. It is both incredibly honest and poignant.
Seeing Hamilton in person was a revelation and despite knowing the songs already, the pacing, the choreography, and visual effects created a spectacle that was moving, and breathlessly engaging. It was possible to be fully present and still miss details – it was that rich.
There is a statement in the Hamiltome by Oskar Eustis, director of the Public Theatre in New York “Lin does exactly what Shakespeare does. He takes the language of the people, and heightens it by making it verse. It both enobles the language and the people saying the language. That’s precisely what Shakespeare did in all of his work. Particularly in his history plays. He tells the foundational myths of this country. By doing that, he makes the country the possession of everybody” (Hamilton: The Revolution, 103).
It’s unsurprising that this statement, out of all the others about Miranda’s creativity, made the most sense to me. Today, Shakespeare feels out of reach for so many, much like the history of our Founding Fathers which so often consists of the philosophical ideas of a privileged few. But like Shakespeare, who brought stories of love, adventure, and monarchy to the people, Hamilton continues to feel out a narrative that is now much more within reach.
One final note. My favorite thing about the show is that it was inherently collaborative. The Hamiltome illustrates how while Lin-Manuel Miranda was the heart and soul of the show, it took many, many individuals to bring it to life. And even beyond that Lin-Manuel Miranda invited other creators and writers into his world – to be inspired – to make meaningful music on their own terms.
The Hamilton Mixtape, apparently the first of at least two, further extends the Hamilton universe making connections between the message of the past and the lessons for the future. The original compositions (especially Immigrants) pull the musical into the present providing commentary on some of the biggest challenges that we as a society are facing.
And that perhaps is what I am most thankful for Hamilton for bringing into my life. The conversation, the sense of collaboration, and inspiration. All elements important to creating a better world.