My girlfriend and I went to see “Hamilton” last night at the magnificent Richard Rodgers Theater on West 46th Street.
For me it was a moving, even exalting experience, even though I disagree profoundly with the show’s portrayal of Alexander Hamilton. I was in tears for about half the show’s three-hour running time—not during the love scenes, although these were tenderly scripted and performed (bringing everybody in the house back to Broadway). No, my tears flowed when Hamilton and his posse were announcing their insane ambition, to carve a “mighty empire” out of people like themselves, nobodies from nowhere who made their way to New York.
We had first-row mezzanine seats (her online skills), perfect for watching a musical. Except it wasn’t a musical. The only departure from the rhythmic and lyrical conventions of hip-hop was the moment when George Washington’s “Farewell Address” is recited by what seemed the entire cast, including the outgoing president himself. This show is almost an opera—there’s no exposition or dialogue without music, or at least the rhyming that gives speech rhythm and makes it musical. Or maybe it’s a ballet—you can always see sinuous, sometimes athletic movement that performs and punctuates the words themselves.
Who cares? It’s another great American mash-up of received traditions—transformation by repetition, the essential attitude of hip-hop and before it the blues, is enacted on this stage as a celebration of the American Revolution and the politics it enabled.
But that’s why watching this show moved me to tears. I suppose it’s no surprise that second-generation immigrants are devout believers in the American Dream, and that they locate its source in the Revolution. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the book, the music, and the lyrics—he also plays Hamilton!—is exactly that, the son of a penurious if not penniless man who fled Puerto Rico for New York City. Miranda says that when he read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, the man who invented this post-colonial itinerary, he was reminded of his father.
Why do they believe? Why do I? And, for that matter, why would African-Americans? These are questions I’ve been grappling with lately as I ‘ve tried to defend Ta-Nehesi Coates—who thinks the American Dream is a joke—against his critics.
All the major roles in this show are played by people of color. This is not the cute kind of change in complexion you expect from a regional theater that’s restaging, say, “Romeo & Juliet,” as a racialized drama. No, we’re on Prospero’s contested terrain now, where Caliban was both chorus and prophet.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison are played by black men, who are, in real life, descendants of the slaves these founding fathers owned as chattel property. Washington is a compact, charismatic DJ in the second act; Jefferson is a dandy and a rapper, equipped with apprpriate cane; Madison is the large but quiet follower. How can this arrangement work, except as a truly “alienating effect” as per Brecht, or a “theater of cruelty” as per Artaud, reminding us either way of the absurdity embedded in the Declaration of Independence?
It works, I think, because, as hip-hop culture itself demonstrates, the possibility of projection and identification across lines of race (or class or gender)—what the arts have always given us, if we were in a position to receive the gift—has become necessary to our survival as a nation and people, and this necessity is a function of new notions of equality.
Rappers and hip-hop artists from New York City reinvented this country in the 1980s and 1990s, as they watched their neighborhoods decay and burn. Their new notions of liberty and equality, stirred by and embodied in identity politics, these are the raw materials of Miranda’s musical revaluation of the Revolution. His ideas about what that moment means are more important than any historian’s, mine included.
So what are those ideas? To begin with, Liberty and Equality can’t exist apart from each other. The freedom to “take my shot,” as Hamilton puts it, requires your freedom to do the same. None of us can become what we want unless all of us are equally equipped with the same rights. Equality is the enabling condition of Liberty. And Liberty is pointless in the absence of Equality, unless you want to be all alone with your crown jewels, like the hilarious King George III on this stage.
Then here’s the crowd-pleasing line: “Immigrants get the job done.” The audience last night was somewhat suburban, mostly middle-class, mostly white, and they roared. Miranda portrays Hamilton as an orphan, an immigrant, a castaway who shouldered his way into the highest circles of power, and everybody identified. Why not? That’s the miracle of this country, or this city—we all come from somewhere else, but this is where we stand, what we believe in.
Of course we move on, unless we arrive in New York. And of course we know better than to think that hard work will get us what we want. But we remember the promise, and we act on it.
And then there’s the strange idea, which is foreign to left-wing thinking of our time, that the Revolution is not just a great event in the history of freedom, of Liberty and Equality, but an abiding presence in every way we think about ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies, and our futures. It’s not a distant past in the Richard Rodgers Theater on 46th. It’s right there in front of you.
I don’t mean Miranda brings this past alive. As far as he’s concerned, it was never dead.