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.