HAMILTON

I got a surprise opportunity to go see Hamilton last weekend — friend of mine got lucky with the ticket lottery, so there we were on the FRONT ROW, literally looking up the actors’ noses and screaming our heads off in squeeful delight. It was fully as amazing as everyone says. So amazing, in fact, that I needed a few days to process it, because otherwise the only thing I could’ve managed to say about it would’ve been AAAAAAAMYGODWHATISTHISIT’SSOHOLYSHITASDFJKL;WHAAARGARBL, which really wouldn’t have been any use to anyone.

There are an astronomical number’s worth of analyses and reviews of this musical already, and I’m not going to rehash most of what they’ve covered. Just to simple this up: go see it as soon as you can. If you can’t afford it and/or if you can’t wait the months it will take to get a seat via the regular route, try the lottery. If you can afford it and can wait that long, the creators of this masterpiece deserve every dime, as well as your patience. If you’re not in NYC, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to live in a city that the tour will go to. Whether you can see it or not, though, buy the soundtrack, though I do think it lacks a little something without the visuals and stage effects. Only a little something; you’ll still get a lot of the awesomeness by sound alone.

Anyway, here’s why I’m devoting blog space to talking about this history-based musical: because it is actually fantasy as fuck. (And yes, in my head “fantasy as fuck” has the same connotations as “metal as fuck.” Because it does.) Lemme ‘splain:

Fantasy is usually evil dragons and blond elves and wizards and whatnot because those are derived from the myths that most fantasy writers choose to explore: old northern European folklore, flavored by a whole lot of revisionism and bastardization. In my particular case fantasy is bloodthirsty goddesses and magic-wielding priests because those are the myths I choose to explore — ancient epics, generally, but really anything that the genre is largely ignoring. (So much good stuff is being left on the ground by my fellow writers and fantasy fans.) I also play around with epics and myths concocted out of whole cloth, just because. But that’s the core of fantasy: myth, celebrated and sometimes, interrogated.

And the heroes of fantasy are generally larger-than-life figures. Fallible, because otherwise they’d be boring, but not really ordinary, because who the hell wants to read about Joebob Jones and his Cubicle Farm of Doom? (…Huh. Okay, I could make that work.) In the end, one of the mythic purposes that fantasy heroes serve is the power fantasy — the chance to imagine ourselves as the movers and shakers of a world, whether as the lucky Farmboy With A Destiny or as Rosie the Riveter. Someone who ends up wielding the power to Do Things, basically, by physical, magical, or spiritual strength alone.

So. In its modern incarnation, America is a country made of myths. Those of us who grew up here have absorbed all the same canon: the American Dream, Columbus discovering what he thought was India, Manifest Destiny, John Smith and Pocohontas’ epic romance, Paul Revere’s ride, etc. But you wanna talk revisionism and bastardization? Chile please; most of the stuff we learned as kids in school is riddled with absolute, high and ripe bullshit, if it isn’t bullshit all the way down. (The American Dream was really only ever possible for certain sets of people, Columbus didn’t “discover” a damn thing, Manifest Destiny justified greed and war crimes on an epic scale, Pocohontas married a completely different John and then died of disease at the ripe old age of 22, and no, Paul Revere didn’t shout “The British are coming!”) This nation’s history is as fanciful as unicorns — though not as wholesome, since a good bit of the bullshit was designed to serve a propagandic purpose: the aggrandizement of certain demographics, certain classes, and certain events or systems that were actually of very questionable morality. We’ve started reexamining this propaganda in the past few decades, which is good… but a lot of people are still true believers of the bullshit, which gives it power. Magical power, even.

This magic is what Hamilton captures. For example, George Washington is introduced with pro-wrestling-style fanfare (“Here he comes… the moment you’ve been waiting for…”), and played by an actor who I think was the tallest guy on the set. Relatively forgotten people who were nevertheless important to the war effort, like Hercules Mulligan, get their own heroic riffs (around 1:47). And, of course, the show is all about Alexander Hamilton, a nearly forgotten Founding Father who turns out to have been sort of the living embodiment of American Exceptionalism. But subtly, relentlessly, the play also reminds us that these larger-than-life figures are deeply flawed. Thomas Jefferson, who raped his slave Sally Hemmings from roughly the age of 14 onward, and whose own enslaved half-black children occasionally ran away from him, is portrayed as a genteel asshole mostly because that’s what he was to Alexander Hamilton. But the show also hangs a lampshade on Sally, via one brief but conspicuous mention and a dark-skinned black female dancer answering to the name. (The real Sally was apparently very light-skinned; there’s a reason the show veered from history here.) We’re shown how if certain key players had survived the war, and if some of the surviving celebrated figures had literally been able to keep their dicks in their pants and their ideals in their hearts, slavery and a host of other social ills might have been eliminated or at least truncated at this country’s inception. A few key refrains get repeated blatantly throughout the show: Immigrants are awesome. We’ll never be free until we have true equality. When we work together and trust each other, we’re unstoppable. The message is clear: our failure to remember these quintessentially American themes is the main reason so many things have gone wrong with America today. We started with good ideas, big ones, and only our own selfishness and limited imaginations prevent those ideas from becoming reality.

And because nearly the whole cast consists of people of color — I think the guy who plays King George might be the only exception, but I don’t know his race — every line of the show becomes a subtle interrogation of all of the history. The guy who created the show is from an old-school Nuyorican family, which Jefferson likely would’ve despised. Jefferson himself is played by a half-black, half-Jewish actor channeling Purple Rain-era Prince, which surely has the real man — infamously anti-“miscegenation” even as he fathered multiracial children — rolling earthquakes in his grave. I don’t know the race of the actor who plays George Washington, but he’s visibly something that would get the side-eye from slavery advocates or American NDN-haters in those days… of whom Washington was infamously both. And the whole production is a fusion of so many art forms borne directly of advances toward equality — old school rap battles, social consciousness hip hop, slam poetry, dancehall, klezmer, and I think I even caught some video game soundtrack beats — that songs devoted to historical bigots end up posthumously slapping them in the face with the evidence of how wrong they were.

This is what fantasy is for, in my not-so-humble opinion. This is the power of myth — of believing in, of identifying with, of evolving past. By celebrating and interrogating the myths of early America, Hamilton ends up creating something that those old school textbooks tried but failed to do: creating an historical heroic fantasy that we can all identify with. The textbooks just did it wrong; not only did they fuck up the facts, they tried too hard to exclude some and exalt others. Hamilton doesn’t chump out like that. And the result is magic.

22 Responses »

  1. Relevant to your interests, then? Scroll down to where they ask him about his favorite book.

    http://www.pickwyck.com/blog/daveed-diggs-is-making-history

  2. YES.

    And this is why Hamilton is on my Hugo ballot.

  3. There is a school of thought (to which I subscribe) that all musicals shade into the fantasy genre because by and large most people don’t sing all the time.

    Some, however, are way more fantasy than others, and I’d certainly agree that Hamilton is.

  4. What a terrific post! My friends know how obsessed I’ve been with this show. Had great seats for the day it was canceled due to the blizzard! Wound up paying extortion prices and saw it last week (a week ago today, in fact). I’ve committed every word of the cast album to memory but I was STILL unprepared for what I saw and experienced in the theater. Daveed Diggs, who plays Jefferson was such a scene stealer and I found myself thinking, well, TJ was too much of a poser to actually strut but underneath that outer facade, he did in every way imaginable. America’s myth making was on full display: from how hard it was to get those in “the land of the free and home of the brave” to actually fight. As much history as I’ve read, I had never heard of John Laurens. And while he was a pretty much lone voice advocating for emancipation at that point, his existence gives lie to the idea that we can’t judge historical figures (Washington, Jefferson) by today’s standards. Powerful stuff.

  5. OK it took me an hour to realize what I was trying to say — I actually opened this window, tried typing words, ended up writing OMGYESIAGREE over and over and closed it because I felt I wasn’t contributing — but I think I finally have it.

    I *do* completely agree with this post, I love Hamilton (looking forward to seeing it!!) and this post makes me feel like there is a restorative power to fantasy. The fantasy genre I mostly know (to my chagrin) is white male fantasy, retelling myths in a way most favorable to white men. But there is all this fantasy that does not center white men, but instead tells myths in a way that includes other people. Hamilton fits squarely in that space (as does 100K Kingdoms, I must add). This kind of fantasy doesn’t change history retroactively, but it allows us to see other mythical pasts. I think that this sort of diversification of mythical pasts is just as powerful as learning about the histories of not-white-males.

  6. Right on.

    Also, George III is indeed, explicitly and adivsedly, the only white member of the main cast: I believe it was in the casting call as such, and they’ve mentioned it in interviews.

  7. This sounds awesome, thank you for educating me on just what Hamilton is.

    Another creator of subversive media liked it too: http://www.vulture.com/2015/11/mel-brooks-hamilton-is-the-second-best-musical.html

  8. After reading this, it reminds me of how I see the TV show SLEEPY HOLLOW (esp. the 1st season) as a similar interrogation of American Mythology through the eyes of those who would have been on the margins of the Revolution.

    It’s very much running (sometimes problematically) through fantasy/supernatural troupes to get there, though, which makes it very different than HAMILTON in some key ways, obviously. But I think there’s something there…

  9. Hi Ben!

    I figured, and also figured that his casting made a statement, too, but I try not to make assumptions about people based on appearance alone. Thanks for confirming tho!

  10. I envy your having seen it, and I love your analysis.

    Really ought to try that lottery…

  11. We were possibly at the same performance. :) I don’t live near New York but a work trip brought me close enough that I could make it happen-100% worth it.

    But the reason I’m commenting is because I really like the way this post opens up thinking about what the fantasy genre is. It really made me sit back and think about my assumptions about the genre, and I really appreciate it.

    It also makes me think of this speech from Terry Pratchett, which isn’t saying the exact same thing but is maybe in the same family of thought: http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/pressdesk/press.php?release=pres_terspeach.htm

    “Far more beguiling than the idea that evil can be destroyed by throwing a piece of expensive jewellery into a volcano is the possibility that evil can be defused by talking. The fantasy of justice is more interesting that the fantasy of fairies, and more truly fantastic.”

    Anyway, thanks for sharing these thoughts.

  12. Part of the problem is that there’s been so-much myth-making that it’s hard to celebrate the actual accomplishments that the mainstream-history people made. Columbus did make a pretty awesome ocean journey. It wasn’t as awesome as the voyages Polynesians made to Hawaii, but it was still pretty cool. Paul Revere helped organize terrorists–sorry, revolutionaries–who took over an entire colony. If we are honest, maybe we can have space for everyone.

  13. I confess it: I am Hamilton Trash. I tried so hard not to become obsessed, BUT I AM AND I MAKE NO APOLOGIES.

    I do believe the only way I’ll see it live is if it goes to London and National Theatre Live videos it and a ‘live’ telecast will be shown where I can get to it.

  14. Hi JK Just came across you on my writing drift – and I’m trying to complete a novel about 50k in, so desperately seeking other masochists who like spending half their lives in a dark room alone, listening to mice chewing in the wee small hours and the neighbours fighting and bottles breaking. I now have to Google Hamilton (your fault!) so another excuse to stop the typing. It’s cold here in UK… just saying hello really :) Ric

  15. Been a long time fan of your books and your blog, but am kind of shy when it comes to posting, so this is my first time. I’m not trying to delegitimate your enjoyment of the musical, or anyone else’s, but the only reason I felt the need to post is to bring up something of a counter-point.

    As an anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, and anti-capitalist I really, really, really do not think that the founding myths of America should be embraced, even if they are fantasy. The reason they are repeated as myths, after all, function as a very pernicious ideology, particularly to reinforce the idea that there was such a thing as the American Dream that mattered and that it still matters. I’m of the opinion that it does not, and that if the world is to live then America as such (and all similar imperialist states) need to die as such.

    I think the fact that the musical glorifies the mythology of the American Revolution is a problem because this really was, as Gerald Horne has recently done a good job of pointing out, a counter-revolution of colonizers and slavers. Even compare it to the French Revolution and it falls far short: in fact, conservative historians tend to glorify the American Revolution while going on and on about the Terrors of the French Revolution when progressive historians tend to celebrate the latter… And in the French Revolution you get the sequence of Toussaint Louverture’s revolution, which was recognized in Paris at the time as part of the French Revolution, which goes far and beyond the settler rebellion in the US that was about the most limited kind of liberty. Point being, and I’m just putting it out there for reflection, I think that it might be worth considering the mythologization of a project that was anti-human from is very origins, even in its so-called “revolution”?

    To be honest, I do love the music of Hamilton despite the subject matter. I just think that this kind of musical, because it’s a big hip-hop musical, shouldn’t be about a revolution that was directed by slave-owners (even if Hamilton wasn’t, the American Revolution was really about slave owners seceding to remain slave-owners and then immediately launch a war of extermination on the Indigenous nations in their westward push, defying the Treaty of Paris, but this was always Washington’s intent), but maybe about Frederick Douglas or, better yet, Harriet Tubman.

    Sorry, not trying to be controversial, and again not trying to downplay your enjoyment, but simply think that this is important enough to warrant discussion.

  16. Meg, I wouldn’t say it’s hard to celebrate accomplishments such as Columbus’; we’ve spent literal centuries aggrandizing those accomplishments. He’s got a holiday named after him, along with a lot of other stuff. The problem is that all this time we’ve talked only about the glory, and none of the tarnish. I think now, with a complete conversation on the table, we do have space for everyone, where we didn’t before.

  17. TM,

    There are a lot of problems with what you’re suggesting here which I think are rooted in a shallow understanding of both history and narrative.

    First, you’re suggesting that the American Revolution was nothing but “slave owners seceding to remain slave-owners,” and that’s simply not true. That was certainly one of the key pushes behind the war, I agree, but — as Hamilton correctly acknowledges — a lot of people participated in that war for a lot of reasons, and it does those people a gross disservice to impose this kind of reductionist view on their courage and the risks they took. Quite a few people were fighting for the ideal of a slavery-free nation, and even one in which women had full suffrage. That this ideal was quashed by the capitalists after the war doesn’t negate the fact that this is what a whole lot of people, including women and people of color, fought and died for. You’re erasing them to suggest otherwise.

    And you’re erasing them further by suggesting that the music of today’s black struggle can only be relevant to certain black struggles of the past, like ending slavery. Black people fought and died for that ideal in the colonial era too; you seem to be implying that those struggles were meaningless because they weren’t successful until much later. The abolition of slavery in the US was not the work of a handful of individuals, or a single generation; it took centuries, and a lot of setbacks. This is a part of the struggle that our society rarely acknowledges — but Hamilton does.

    Here’s what else Hamilton does: it frames the same people as heroes that hip hop does. Washington is admired, sure, though he was also a slave-owner. But the rest of the heroic framing is saved for the immigrants, the Irishmen (remember, the Irish weren’t really considered white in those days), the abolitionists, the women. Where much-lauded historical figures appear, the show subtly pokes holes in them; Jefferson is framed as a flamboyant jerk being used by Madison, for example. There’s a lot of deconstruction and reframing. It’s just subtle. And much of it, including the casting, is visual.

    So I would urge you to reserve judgment ’til you’ve had a chance to see it. Listening to the music alone doesn’t get across the subversiveness of the play as a whole, IMO.