Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ben Carp Reviews Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton"

I have been waiting for this musical ever since I saw (via You Tube) Lin-Manuel Miranda in this performance at The White House:



"Hamilton" is now playing at the Public Theater until May 3. Good luck landing a ticket.  All the shows appear to be sold out.  It is coming to Broadway in July.

So for now I am going to have to experience the show vicariously through Brooklyn College historian Ben Carp's review at Common-Place.  Here is a taste:


The historian’s craft is on full display here.  In “The Room Where It Happens,” James Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson hash out the famous 1790 compromise to locate the capital on the Potomac but have the federal government assume state debts.  Yet as Aaron Burr (in his role as sometime narrator) tells us, we don’t actually know what went down, because no one else was in the room.  Later, Eliza Hamilton burns her letters rather than leave for posterity her opinions about Hamilton’s adultery.  She even sings about leaving the narrative.  Books, letters, and printed pamphlets recur as props, and they are constantly in motion: the characters read news of Laurens’s death, Hamilton’s attack on Adams, and his sordid confessions about Maria Reynolds.  Families try to love one another across distances.  As a historian I’m used to flipping through archival materials, so this dynamism was something of a treat.  On the front of the Playbill, the tagline reads, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” and in a number toward the end, the actors confront the idea that history isn’t static—storytellers might vary, and the differences among them actually matter. Audiences will thrill to Miranda’s interpretation, but they are still offered the idea that different interpretations are possible, and that the historical record leaves gaps for the imagination to fill.  If you’re like David Brooks (who saw the same performance I did), you may fall in love with Hamilton all over again (and is it just me, or does “The Hamilton Experience” remind you of “The Girlfriend Experience”?), but the show leaves room for many other reactions.

Race plays an interesting role in the show.  Ben Brantley found it “appropriate that the ultimate dead white men of American history should be portrayed here by men who are not white.”  In an interview, Leslie Odom, Jr. (who plays Aaron Burr), said, “In the first two minutes of this show, Lin steps forward and introduces himself as Alexander Hamilton, and Chris [Jackson] steps forward and says he’s George Washington, and you never question it again.” And while it’s true that the performances are unquestionably fitting, they also raise interesting questions.  In the show, the only white cast members (as far as I could tell) were either ensemble players (one of whom played the Loyalist minister Samuel Seabury) or Bryan D’Arcy James, who plays King George III to hilarious effect.  (“When push comes to shove / I will kill your friends and family / To remind you of my love.”)  In other words, on stage the whites represent monarchical authority, while the revolutionaries (men and women) are played by people of African, Latino/a, and Asian descent.  This show is, then, about revolutions past and future (and Miranda did acknowledge in the New Yorker that Michael Brown and Eric Garner were on his mind when the cast sang, “Rise up!”)...

...On the subway ride home, I saw a group clutching a Playbill from the show and discussing excitedly whether certain events in it were accurate.  I smiled.  It’s a good thing Hamilton is moving to Broadway for a longer run.  More audiences for this show could well mean a broader audience for other good histories, too.

Respect.