For my birthday my roommate gave me a ticket to see Hamilton. He did so reluctantly knowing my aversion to musical theater. To me they’re always the same: downtrodden minorities overcoming impossible obstacles to rise and get revenge.
That plot can be a relief to life’s woes when administered in the tiniest of doses. On Broadway the syringe is filled with one the size of the Pacific.
All I knew about the Hamilton musical was that it was done in rap or hip-hop or house–I’m not conversant in all of the nuance. I agree with Keith Richard’s take on the genre(s). He was inclined to like them but found the 4/4 beat monotonous. “Vary the meter for Christ’s sake.”
In my lifetime earth-shattering musical productions have come along about once every decade. When I was a teen it was the flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, Hair. The 1970’s saw A Chorus Line with What I Did for Love. Wah-wah-wah.
In the 80’s there was the queer triumph La Cage aux Folles (see title above.) It was followed by Rent ten years later. Sadly I know no tunes or lines from that one. Suffice it to say it’s only a rehash of La Boheme.
So the recent buzz of Hamilton being another phenomenon did little for me. Until I read it was based on the Chernow biography I read lo those many years ago. My interest was peaked. How in the hell did they get something juicy out of that piece of dry toast?
Somehow they did. From the opening admonishment by a queeny King George’s voice warning about cell phone usage, it sucked me in. The beat, the body movements, the constant barrage of couplets, a lazy susan stage transporting actors from one scene to the next and the diversity of the cast combined to make something I never thought I’d see in the legitimate theater. (In the illegitimate theater, yes.)
The color coding of the actors was a little baffling. Why were some white historical figures played by non-whites while others were not? Could it be, gasp, because that person was best qualified for the role? Realism in an art form founded on disbelief is vastly overrated.
As a kid I joined record clubs to take advantage of the 10 LPs for a dollar. I always included at least one musical soundtrack. I thought if it was important in Manhattan it had to be important to the world.
The summer I bought the soundtrack to My Fair Lady it took Uncle Fritz’s annual visit to put things in perspective. His version of On the Street Where You Live included a verse that began, “People stop and stare, in their underwear.” Oh! The towering feeling.
I didn’t think Hamilton had any memorable tunes. Until I went to bed that night. That’s when I realized “The Room Where It Happens” had been on a constant loop in my head since I left the theater.
And I’m not good at remembering lines after performances. Although Alexander’s son Phillip made an impression. As a teen young Philip shows he’s a playa with the pick-up line, “I’m a trust fund baby, trust me”
After graduating from college Lil’ Phil has even more game. He tells a couple girls he likes their frocks. “When I get back we’ll strip to our socks.” He then does the honorable thing by getting himself killed in a duel. You gotta love that wacky 18th Century lifestyle.
The most astonishing moment occurred when there was a passing reference to General Lee “shitting the bed at the Battle of Monmouth.” Immediately I could think of only two other people in the world who would even know what that meant, Ron Chernow and my friend Peter in Paunat, France. Anyone who can link a reference as obscure as that to a street culture where the words “Battle of Monmouth” will probably never be heard, let alone understood, deserves all the Tony’s they can get.
The one minor disappointment was the death scene where the angels seemed to alight with Alex and rest him in the bosom of the holy father. I understand that when you’re selling $150 Broadway tickets to tourists from Iowa there needs to be at least one gratuitous, schmaltzy scene to validate the experience for them. The rest of the play is so innovative and modern, however, it would have been interesting to see how they could have handled this in a different way.
Joking about death is never easy to do, though Jim Jordan did a pretty good job of it in our play 1968. Which brings me to a concluding thought: if I’ve seen the future of theater, it has striking resemblances to what Jim and I tried to do 30 years ago.