Wednesday, June 15, 2016

As If Hamilton Needed More Raves

At last!  Here's a musical that's literate, passionate, wise, and funny.

I've only heard the full cast recording once, and only Act One straight through, but every single minute had me smiling at clever turns of phrase, perceiving new facets to characters, and marveling at how creator Lin-Manuel Miranda compressed history without lopping off parts that don't fit neatly.

Miranda's vocabulary, both musical and verbal, is contemporary without cute anachronisms.* He gives us resonance to contemporary politics without sloganeering.  He gives us songs ecstatic and / or tender when dealing with romance and parenthood, without goopy, generalized sentiment.  And did I mention that it's funny?

In the act one finale, as Hamilton moves on to the work of making a new nation, Miranda layers all the characters' themes together in ways that take on new resonance. We hear rivals, buddies, and loved ones sing refrains from different songs:  "Wait for it...  You're running out of time... You're never satisfied... Look around. Isn't this enough? ...History has its eyes on you."

We also hear "I am not throwing away my shot," which Miranda uses at least three ways.  It first meant, Hamilton would not throw away his shot at success.  Later, he makes soldiers throw away bullets when a misfire would alert the sleeping enemy.  In his fatal duel with Burr, Hamilton, will aim away from his longtime friend, as a gentleman was expected to do.


I've seen photos and bits of video; the color and movement must add so much.  But propulsive forward movement and contrasting shades in characters and their moral choices are all there in the music and lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Next: Act Two.

Miranda takes three threads to their conclusions: how does Hamilton set up America's future prosperity and stability, what motivates Burr to kill Hamilton, and how will the romantic tension resolve between Hamilton, his wife Elizabeth, and her sister Angelica?  Hamilton's affair with a married woman brings a big emotional blow up and pathos.  When Jefferson says, "Can we get back to politics?" it's comic relief.   In pithy rhymed dialogue, Hamilton fights the "Democratic Republicans" through the first partisan battles of our history.  Miranda makes Burr sympathetic, even while we can see that Hamilton is right; the final duel has all the more emotional power for all the preparations we've had for the moment, including two previous duels. 

Reprises are nothing new, but here Miranda planted ideas early for the ways he can transform them in the end.   There's a motif of counting to ten that Miranda uses for different effects in act two. There's a theme of Hamilton's writing and working as if he has no "time," tied with a growing concern for his legacy in act two.   Eliza Schuyler Hamilton's telling young Alexander in the first act to "look around" at how far they've come turns into a theme for reconciliation.  "Rise up" originally referred to Hamilton's ambitions; the phrase returns with emotional resonance at the fatal duel.

This score is endlessly interesting, and so are the historical characters.  So, here's my rave, as if Hamilton needed it.

*Okay: one allusion to a model of the modern major-general is 100 years ahead of Gilbert and Sullivan, but it fits Washington so well; and one song "rewinds," but it's a meta-theatrical technique, and the word itself might as well be 18th century, for all that today's teens know of it.

1 comment:

Buck said...

For months my sons and I have been listening to Hamilton and in the back of my mind, I've been wondering "what does Smoot think of it?" recalling fondly my own introduction to the Hamilton/Jefferson conflict and the joy of intricate lyrics (and so much more) in Broadway shows, all with your help years ago, so I'm glad to finally see your review.