If Hamilton can exist, anything is possible. Or at least, more things are possible – positive things, I should stress – than the status quo would suggest.
Let me get this straight: a hip-hop musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, who 99 percent of the population (I’m guessing) know only as the guy on the ten-dollar bill, in which people of color are cast as historical figures? A complex story about the fitful birth of the United States government, with an often-unlikeable hero? And you’re telling me it will gross $30 million in pre-sold tickets before it opens on Broadway, and it’ll win the Pulitzer? Sixteen Tony nominations, eleven wins? And the kids will love it? Right.
We recently watched the filmed version of this phenomenon – maybe you’ve heard of it – on Disney+, on a monitor our son, Jack, hooked up to a laptop so we could tap into our substandard WiFi. Our current lifestyle situation mixes down-at-the-heels Victorian-era architecture, duct-taped cutting-edge visual tech mixed with lo-fi (by modern standards) sound, and sharpened appetites for transcendent story.
We never saw Hamilton onstage. At $300 for the cheap seats, it was reasonably deemed way, way too expensive for us, and that expense always stuck in my craw, even as friends saw it and raved. The option of driving three hours to the Richard Rodgers Theatre and taking our chances with the lottery was absurd, too. So we figured we’d just wait until the prices came down, even if it took years. We’d done that with other long-running musicals, like Les Mis and Wicked.
I wish we hadn’t waited. I wish we’d splurged. I try not to think of things we did splurge on.
Amazingly, when Hamilton went stratospheric in 2016, Jack, then a senior at Onteora High, was playing the songs quite a lot at home. Most with dizzyingly dense, rapid-fire rapped lyrics. If memory serves, the last time a musical soundtrack gained popularity with folks who hadn’t seen the production was … Hair? But even then, Hair had radio support. Hamilton songs were not being played on local radio, which kids generally don’t listen to, anyway. They were just fervently passed from hard drive to hard drive, phone to phone. Word-of-mouth, millennial-style. In 2017, when I was teaching second graders music at Woodstock Day School, a seven-year-old got up in front of the class and performed the text-heavy (it’s all text-heavy) opening number “Alexander Hamilton,” to everyone’s astonishment. I should’ve known then: Get your ass to Broadway while you can.
Anyway, the Disney+ production is the best filmed version of a musical I’ve ever seen, or likely will see. Filming staged productions is almost never good. But this is quite exhilarating. All the hype was true.
Would my reaction be so intense if we were not in pandemic times? I can’t say. I almost wept watching the mesmerizing performers – not a weak link in the bunch – take the material to the lip of the stage and deliver with chill-bump-inducing gusto. You can hear the audience losing it time and again. As both a performer and an avid fan of live entertainment, I know what that’s like – the feel of collective joy – and to hear and see it, as opposed to experiencing it, cracked me open.
That cracking-open happens almost daily. The longing it unleashes for unfettered times – for theater, for live music, for traveling, for handshakes and hugs – can sometimes take me down, but I kept it together, which I don’t usually do. I usually let the grief flow.
I was struck, however, by the quality of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s extremely unlikely, unprecedented endeavor about a man who repeatedly beat dire odds and succeeded way beyond expectations. It succeeds even in exile, even in the low-rent glow of our shitty tech here in Phoenicia.
Watching, recalling, my sense of what is possible expanded, if only for a few precious moments.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.