I fought Hamilton and Hamilton won (but it’s still got some yucky tropes)

December 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

 

Hipster disdain is just no good. I hate it. Be sincere, damn it all! Don’t reject something out of hand just ’cause it made a lot of people happy! Blerrrghhhh!

But I was hella skeptical about Hamilton.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose star now shines at a zillion lux not just over Broadway but the entire Internet, was a guy I knew very little about. I remembered trying and failing to get into In the Heights, which felt soggy with exposition and uninteresting archetypes. I watched my various social media feeds explode about Hamilton soon after its soundtrack release and figured I’d give it a shot (sigh) but I wasn’t feeling it. The first few tracks left me with a couple impressions that added up to meh:

  1. “Dang, this sure does sound like rap for people who don’t like/don’t listen to rap much.” (I was reminded of Forbidden Broadway’s send-up of In the Heights, which ended on the lines “so bring up the house lights! / the public unites / to do shows about Latinos for whites! / no fight, no bite / it’s West Side Story Lite!” )
  2. “Why’ve people gotta star in stuff they write? Miranda’s nasal delivery is driving me up a waaaaaaall”
  3. “It’s odd that Tumblr’s fawning so much over this despite the only two female characters of note both being in love with the hero, & having that as their chief motivator/personality trait. Like, don’t we usually at least clear our throats pointedly about that?”
  4. “This is OK but I hope it doesn’t become the next Steven Universe, where everyone hails it as the progressive saving grace of All Media Ever for the next age of humankind”

A friend and Hamilton fan suggested that there was a dearth of serious critique of Hamilton out there, and I initially leaped at the chance to fill a gap. I did feel like “not caring much about/for Hamilton” was a tiny minority for which I’d be happy to speak. Golly gosh! I thought. An opportunity to complain about something and feel useful doing it! Hooray! I can’t wait!

Thankfully, something happened to deter me from this course, and that was “gradually coming to like about 3/4 of the soundtrack enough that I now own it and listen to songs from it most days in the week.”

OK, oops. Now I’m the trash of the thing. And here’s, as far as I can figure, what sold me in the end:

  1. It’s just good. Some songs are better than others (“My Shot” is overrated, shhhh) but it’s just stupendously clever, god damn it; its breadth is knockout-tremendous and its depth a pleasant surprise. When the rap’s on, it’s on (see: “Cabinet Battle #1,” “Washington On Your Side,” “We Know”), and Miranda shows off in several other genres before he’s through. The infectious pop of “Helpless,” the Broadway-classic I Want Song “The Room Where It Happens,” “Non-Stop” the gleeful motif pile-up in the vein of “One Day More!” with modern momentum and full proof that more Greek choruses need to punctuate protagonist’s speeches with “Awwwwww!” Not to mention “Wait for It,” which is, like…poignant as hell and a total earworm…aaah…
  2. There’s not a weak link in the original cast. A lot of times with musicals you have that experience where you want to wait for/look up some other revival recording because you like this one except for that One Guy who plays This Main Character and you can’t stand it and–but I like everybody! What great voices! What great acting! Yeah! “I’m so mad, I love these people,” I found myself grumbling as I could feel my rant-filled post disintegrating before it began.
  3. It doesn’t sound like anything else in its dusty medium for rich people, thank Christ, and hopefully it’ll spawn some more bold experimentation. Musical theater and theater in general need–I was going to say more stuff like this, but both have a lot of wonderfully daring work, it’s just not making anywhere near the amount of money Hamilton is raking in. Hoping there’ll be a “if you liked Hamilton, you’ll love buying a ticket to this other thing that’s not another goddamn revival of the same four shows that’ve been running since dinosaurs roamed the earth” effect.
  4. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a really endearingly enthusiastic person. That wouldn’t be enough, except the man seems like he’s got enough energy to keep ten people up for forty-eight hours! How! He feels like a walking talisman against hipster disdain. Listening to him talk about his work, listening to him perform it–he’s crazy-talented enough that he could have an ego the size of Jupiter but instead he channels all the positive reception back into his Huge Happy Sincerity Balloon, giving an unrepentant damn all over the place and leaving a trail of contagious excitement behind him like glitter confetti.

I wouldn’t say I get a lot of pathos out of Hamilton, but I have genuine affection for it and its cast and creators. I have fun listening to it, and I hope to see it on stage someday.

But I wouldn’t be here just to gush (enough people with more cred than me have done that already). I have to at least hash out my lingering “meh” feelings. Because there are a few, and they’re not about structure, or performance, or form, or even (mostly) content–some historical liberties were taken, but who cares? I don’t know? It’s the Founding Fathers? I kind of ran out of darns to give about the Revolutionary War after I passed AP US History? Is that bad? Uh, anyway. There’ve been a couple posts circulating Tumblr warning against the presumed dangers of romanticizing these historical figures too much–forgetting that no matter how hot Daveed Diggs is Thomas Jefferson was still a massive tool, that even though the musical’s Washington seems like you want to give him a World’s Best Dad mug he owned slaves, that All Your Faves are Problematic–

–except I don’t think the warning’s called for. Fandom gets stupid, but Hamilton fandom is fueling its fic with Wikipedia and obsessive perusal of the biography that inspired Miranda to write Hamilton; digging up the deets on just how Terrible many of these people were and figuring that makes their irreverent fanwork both educational and guilt-free. Go for it, Hamilton trash!

What makes me sigh about Hamilton‘s booming success is that it represents an army of devoted fans of a…a kind of story I wish we could move on from for a while. It is the story of the Reckless Brilliant Man Too Smart For His Own Good and his Devoted and Beleaguered Love Interest(s).

It is original to see it applied to a Founding Father, I think. We usually find these figures pretty sexy, and without these casting acrobatics and an updated score nobody was gazing on portraits of stuffy-looking dudes in wigs like “oh yeeeeeahhhh.” But the tale’s familiar. Miranda pushes the underdog angle pretty hard (we’re never allowed to forget that Hamilton is an immigrant bastard orphan son of a whore), but that serves as prologue to Hamilton’s ascension, a “started from the bottom now we here” kind of thing, at which point he’s earned the rap-star-swagger and struts about the stage as the ensemble exclaims about how smart and charismatic he is. When he makes mistakes, he makes Tragic Man Mistakes like overconfidence and workaholic hours and infidelity. He gets lambasted for his Sophoclean hubris sometimes, but in a pretty admiring tone. Man…the man is non-stop! 

It’s odd to criticize the plot of something based on the life of a real person. It’s odder still to call something out on being a piping hot tray of Gender Roles when it takes place in a time when women couldn’t own property or vote. Angelica and Eliza have some of the best songs in the show (“Helpless,” “Satisfied,” “Burn”) and have a healthy share of the spotlight–but they’re almost completely removed from the action and political drama that drives most of the show. Women fall in love happily or sadly, get married, have babies, feel thwarted by their lovers. Men write, fight, argue, win elections, lose elections, found America. They also are the only ones that rap most of the time–save Angelica’s standout verse in “Satisfied” which is all about how she fell in love with Hamilton in the span of three minutes. I love “Satisfied,” but it falls apart if you don’t believe that two women can fall irrevocably in love with the same man instantly. I love “Burn,” but “I’m erasing myself from the narrative” would pack a lot more of a punch if it’d felt like the narrative would have been drastically different without her. I love “The Schuyler Sisters,” but Peggy gets forgotten immediately, as does Angelica’s one mention of sexism: “…all men are created equal / and when I meet Thomas Jefferson / I’ma compel him to include women in the sequel!”

Here’s Eliza begging first her husband and then her son to stay alive, singing background descant to male leads; here’s Angelica blazing with star power only to get one solo song and (as far as the show is concerned) spend her life pining for Hamilton from a distance. Here’s Maria Reynolds, ominous music announcing her entrance, seducing Hamilton away from his virtuous wife. Here’s Eliza again, ending the show with one of its dullest numbers, reciting her accomplishments in a repetitive melody like a list-form afterthought while male characters thank her for telling their story and Angelica, while mentioned, never sings a word. It’s nice that they include her here, but it feels like a sentimental expository footnote.

Is there a way to tell this story without falling into women-waiting-at-the-window-or-the-widow’s-walk tropes? Maybe not. Even probably not. It’s well-told and compelling as it is, not to mention a whole lot of fun, and it does have some terrific songs for women–musically–and it matters that Miranda did that on purpose, and has said as much. Just maybe, let’s have the next big Broadway hit have a diverse cast and women with lives/roles that don’t revolve around men? That would be enough (for now).

 

 

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