At one point late in the musical “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s title character stands center stage, utterly broken. Tragedy, brought on by his hubris and weakness, has overwhelmed him. He is stripped of his vanity, of his pride, of his strength. The moment, the song, is the most poignant and human in the entire 11-time Tony Awards-winning show.
Here it is (with regrets for the video markings):
There are moments that the words don’t reach
There’s a grace too powerful to name
We push away what we can never understand
We push away the unimaginable
That scene is devastatingly beautiful. Gets me every time. Every time.
Before we dive too much further into this: Of course, I’m behind. I’m always behind. “Hamilton” became a sensation in 2015, for god’s sake, a hip-hop Broadway musical with the audacity to cast people of color as America’s founding fathers. It centers on Alexander Hamilton, “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,” right-hand man to George Washington, first Secretary of the Treasury, a man who probably hacked off more of his contemporaries than he persuaded and who has been known, throughout history, more for his manner of death than his manner of living.
Like many millions of non-New Yorkers, back in 2015 I knew little about “Hamilton” except that it was the latest sensation on Broadway. But I like musicals, so when the movie version of the musical — it’s a film of a live Broadway performance — premiered on Disney+ last summer, I hoodwinked Mary Jo into sitting down with me. I meant to write about it then. As I said; I’m behind. I’ll blame it on 2020.
“The story of America then, told by America now,” Miranda says on his webpage. That’s a nice catchline, for sure, something to hang on a poster, but at the risk of contradicting the guy who wrote the music and lyrics and starred in the original show, “Hamilton” is “the story of America” only tangentially. Like all good stories, like the best, Miranda’s “Hamilton” — based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography — isn’t so easily categorized.
Yes, “Hamilton” tells the tale of the birth of a nation, of the first shaky steps in a democracy, of seizing opportunity in reaching for a more perfect union, and it does it so, so well. But the meat of the story is the relationship between Miranda’s Hamilton and his wife, Eliza (played heavenly, as seen in the video above, by Phillipa Soo), and how a collision of love and vanity, among other sins, can be disastrous.
It’s a love story, a love triangle. But it’s also about family and friendship, the magic of the written word, our place in history, and the forces that can threaten all that. Things like ambition, lust, greed, vanity, pride, jealousy. To name a few.
“Hamilton” is, simply, art in its purest, most thrilling form. It enriches us. It enables us to recognize our humanity, in its flawed forms, and to embrace it. The show is a creative force. It inspires.
It’s absolutely fantastic, shake-your-head, jump-to-your-feet entertainment, too.
How do you write a book that, just for an example of a recent read, takes you from your La-Z-Boy to a walled garden in Dublin, mystifies, excites, and wows with prose while still managing to reveal something that’s relatable to you? How can a song recorded decades ago still make you laugh at its preternatural coolness? How can someone pull off a comedy about Nazi Germany that also is moving and hopeful?
I’m constantly amazed by great artists, and Miranda slips easily, confidently into that company. His genius starts with that audacity: a play based on the history of a forgotten founding father; not just a play, but a musical; with hip-hop; and Black performers as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Madison; a man of Puerto Rican descent (Miranda) playing the ill-fated lead; a play with comedy, coolness, drama, and heartbreak.
Who would think it? Who would dream of it? What guts.
Miranda has the infinite talent (and guts) to take those crazy ideas, write the words and the music around them — funny, honest, exact lyrics, with music that includes not just hip-hop but catchy Broadway showtunes, R&B, and many other genres — and tell an unforgettable, deeply meaningful story. Not only of Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton’s America (and that of the villain of the piece, Aaron Burr), but of the loves of Hamilton’s life, and his losses.
In the show, as the country takes some of its first steps, the music is strong and daring (“My Shot“). As Hamilton meets the Schuyler sisters, including his wife-to-be Eliza, the story grows playful and hopeful (“Helpless“). In a brilliantly conceived companion song to “Helpless,” Miranda introduces tension (“Satisfied“) to the human side of the story.
The performances, the songs, are uplifting. Christopher Jackson is pure strength as Washington, Daveed Diggs charmingly roguish as Jefferson, and Renée Elise Goldsberry pitch perfect as Eliza’s older sister, Angelica. Leslie Odom Jr. won a Tony playing Burr, and Jonathan Groff in a short turn as King George (“You’ll Be Back“) is hilarious.
The music is everything you’d want from a musical. The lyrics are expertly written. From “That Would Be Enough,” in which Eliza pleads with Hamilton to stay home from the battlefield for the sake of his unborn son:
We don’t need a legacy
We don’t need money
If I could grant you peace of mind
If you could let me inside your heart
Oh, let me be a part of the narrative
In the story they will write someday
Let this moment be the first chapter
Where you decide to stay
And I could be enough
And we could be enough
That would be enough
Interestingly, for a musical, Miranda may be the least talented performer onstage. When he raps — it’s really more sing-song poetry than what you might think of as commercial hip-hop — Miranda is plenty on (as he should be; he wrote it). But comparatively, especially to the fantastically voiced Goldsberry, Soo, and Jackson, Miranda is no Broadway singer. He knows the songs, though (again; he ought to), and allows his grasp of the material and his talent as an actor to sell them (as in “It’s Quiet Uptown,” above). His lack of a true singing voice somehow makes his performance more real.
Musicals, as I’ve said before here, are not for everybody. I’m not really sure why that is. How some people can jump mindlessly into movies about space, or a man in an iron flying suit, or a kid who dresses like a spider, yet refuse to engage in a show where actors sing their parts is a mystery, a shame. You either go into art with an open mind or you miss out.
Certainly, not every musical accomplishes what “Hamilton” does. Few dare even aim that high. But in a year in which we sorely needed to forget, to excape, “Hamilton” allowed that, for a few hours. In a year filled with ugliness and sadness, “Hamilton” shows that humans still have the ability to create great beauty. That’s enough for me.