I loved seeing Hamilton at Kennedy Center a week ago. It is still on my mind. The show, of course, has enjoyed enormous success and saying that it was great, that the music was great, that the lyrics were powerful, the choreography outstanding or the staging ingenious would not add anything new. The critics have said it all.
I want to express what the show meant to me.
Kennedy Center is an impressive venue, and every time I go there I feel goose bumps on my skin. The place is majestic in its simplicity. I like the proximity of the river and the sweeping views from the top. And I like the respect for the arts that one feels walking through the halls, and the spirit of John Kennedy keeping watch. Dressed for the occasion, I had dinner before the show with my wife and our friends at the elegant Roof Terrace Restaurant. When the show started I was in the right mood.
You have to understand a few things. I grew up in Communist Romania, and in my youth I mistrusted performances inspired from the country’s so-called ‘glorious past.’ Invoking patriotism seemed dubious and the constant repetition of patriotic themes in the arts was immensely tedious. In high school history class we were taught remarkably little about the United States. I remember learning that in the 15th century Columbus had discovered land he thought was India but turned out to be an entire continent, eventually named America after somebody else; that the local population, including Winnetou, was decimated by the white man, and that the Revolutionary War against the English was inspired by or had inspired the French Revolution of about the same time. We did learn that the Americans landed in Normandy during World War Two, and were first to set foot on the Moon.
After immigrating to the United States, I began familiarizing myself with this country’s history but not in great detail. Lines quoted from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the National Anthem slowly got organically imprinted on my mind. Everyday life, family and work took over and learning history was not a priority. A tiny step in the right direction was studying for the citizenship test, although, to be honest, all that implied was memorizing a pamphlet of about 30 pages that enabled me to respond with confidence to questions like “Who is the president of the United States?” or “What is the name of the George Washington Bridge?” I watched the TV mini-series John Adams with Paul Giamatti in the lead role.
‘To enjoy the show, you need to read about Hamilton,’ a friend of ours told us. I followed her advice, and then some. I watched Hamilton’s America, a documentary with Lin–Manuel Miranda on PBS. I listened to the music again and again. And we read. My wife, who is diligent, read Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, all 800 pages of it. I chose a much thinner volume called Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis and read about half of it. Luckily, mine started with the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in Weehawken, New Jersey.
I am not a lover of musicals, and the idea that I would have to watch this drama revealing itself to me through songs concerned me. I appreciate Hollywood productions like Fiddler on the Roof or The Sound of Music because I have heard the songs so many times. Therefore, listening to the music in advance helped and knowledge of the historical facts from reading the books helped me even more to follow the story.
As I was watching the show, I grasped one thing. A work of genius is not poignant only because the story, the lyrics and the tunes are unique and memorable, but because they are relevant to the distinct point in history in which the work is produced. And if anything, beyond being brilliant, Hamilton is entirely relevant today. It is contemporary. The music is in the beloved modern style of rap and hip-hop. The cast is multiracial. The stage design is full of symbolism. The choreography is energizing. And while the underlining ideas are over two hundred years old, they speak of the problems of today. This is the genius of Hamilton and the genius of Lin-Manuel, who chose Hamilton as his hero.
To illustrate, let me quote two excerpts selected from the book by Chernow.
“The more I see, the more I find reason for those who love this country to weep over its blindness,” Hamilton is quoted on page 206. The author adds: He [Hamilton] recoiled at the cowardice and selfishness he saw rampant in the New York legislature. “The inquiry constantly is what will please, not what will benefit the people,” he told Morris. “In such a government there can be nothing but temporary expedient, fickleness and folly.” Increasingly Hamilton despaired of pure democracy, of politicians simply catering to the popular will, and favored educated leaders who would enlighten the people and exercise their own judgment.
Think about our blindness, political divide, and Congress today. Think about the disdain for educated people and the intellectual elites.
Page 407: After establishing the Coast Guard, he [Hamilton] reminded skippers to “always keep in mind that their countrymen are free men and as such are impatient with everything that bears the least mark of a domineering spirit. [You] will therefore refrain…from whatever has the semblance of haughtiness, rudeness or insult.” So masterly was Hamilton’s directive about boarding foreign vessels that it was still being applied in during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Refraining from rudeness and insults? Have you checked today’s tweets?
Far from being simply a historical play, Hamilton is a clear reflection on the world in which we live, an open window on today’s divisiveness, anger at the ‘other,’ and fractured political discourse.
For a better world, will we ever get our shot?
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