Hamilton, which opened on Broadway last summer, and has been sold-out ever since, offers a spirited remedy to the current milieu of bigotry, nativism, classism and nascent apathy. The musical revolves around the title character’s role in the American Revolution, and features a gallery of standouts that, until recently, have been virtually frozen in time: George Washington, with his wooden teeth; Thomas Jefferson, the slaveholding poet of democracy; Aaron Burr, pistol aimed at Hamilton’s heart.
Hamilton takes these frozen images and throws them into boiling water, bringing them to life as if they’d been cryogenically preserved for the present moment. Our founding fathers, with their passions, flaws, and stubborn streaks are set free to argue, fight, and, mostly extraordinarily, create a new country by amputating a set of colonies from their progenitor, Great Britain.
Placing Hamilton at its center, the musical pulls America’s narrative back to where it began, a place where anybody, from anywhere, can make themselves into anyone they want to be, except, as we’re repeatedly reminded, slaves. As sung by Burr,
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
The musical’s characters dance, prance, and brawl to the tune of their petty rivalries and hungry striving for wealth, position, and power. These are not saints at work, but men, with all their messy personalities and fundamental flaws, not different, at least in this respect, from Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders. But the context, and its acceleration through history, is all about creating something much larger than any individual. The debates don’t focus on how much money can be made from dominating social media, or investing in real estate, but rather circles around state versus national primacy, and the role central banking should have in a new nation’s anatomy. It turns out that chaotic conversations about the Constitution are far more intriguing than those about creating cash.
Hamilton’s King George, with his clipped, fantastically delivered funny lines, offers the authoritarian alternative to freedom. While not altogether seductive, his treatment of the colonies as children does have a kind of daddy allure. And his presence in the musical subtly reminds us of the profound impact the British Empire had, and continues to have, on the world. With English the planet’s dominant language, at least for now, and Australia, Canada, and the United States spawns of the British seed, the sun still hasn’t yet set on the empire.
Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom was in the expensive seats at the performance I saw. Also in attendance was The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Tituss Burgess, who my wife hugged. It seemed fitting that a potential future governor of California, who looks, at least, as if he could have mixed it up with our nation’s founders, and a large gay gifted Black man should be on hand to witness Hamilton’s tale unfold. These gentlemen embody what the musical is about: how ambition, persistence and talent, in unequal measures, can break free of human folly and prejudice to produce, at the right time and the right place, something entirely, powerfully, new.