Phew. I finished it with a week or so to spare before I see the show in Chicago. It’s a tremendous biography. Though I didn’t exactly feel the hip-hop songs jumping off the page the way Mr. Miranda did, he is right when he says that the founding of our country is a remarkable story. And, sad to say, with all of the justified concern about the decline of civility in the political process, well, we didn’t invent that either.
Though it checks in at over 700 pages, Chernow’s book is remarkably streamlined. I can only think of a few times when it bogged down, namely when Chernow was being meticulous about detailing Hamilton’s meticulousness.
It’s not original to say that historical figures become frozen in time. I knew some of Hamilton’s work with the Department of Treasury, but nothing of his role in the American Revolution and his connection with George Washington.
Writing about historical figures, especially ones as admired as Washington, has to be a challenge. There’s also the issue of historical context. That which we criticize now may have been viewed differently then, however wrongly we may think those views were. For the most part, Chernow handles these moments well. The few exceptions will make you grit your teeth and, I hope, continue reading. He gets more assertive as the book progresses.
Biographers have to be a kind of psychologist – explaining choices and behaviors with reference to their subject’s past. And Hamilton’s upbringing provides plenty of fuel for the fire, but such amateur psychoanalysis irks me. It’s outside of Chernow’s field. Why not just lay the cards out and let us draw our own conclusions?
I also take issue with Chernow’s treatment of Jefferson. Just as Rick Atkinson seemed intent on making Winston Churchill a buffoon in his WW2 trilogy, Chernow makes Jefferson the villain of this piece. I’m not saying Jefferson didn’t have faults. I defer to Chernow on that score. I’m equally certain that he was not the one-dimensional person Chernow presents here.
There is a fair amount of criticism here. But I really enjoyed the book. Chernow’s prose is streamlined and he tells a good story. I learned a lot, especially about Eliza Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Most importantly, I have a new appreciation for Alexander Hamilton himself and his role in the founding of our country.
Review of show (11-6-16, Chicago)
Sometimes, things don’t live up to their hype. No worries here. This is an amazing show. The music is tightly constructed and powerful. The plots, both political and personal, are rendered well. The performance made the arc of the story clearer – Hamilton’s initial timidity becomes his consuming assertiveness. Burr’s friendly mentorship gives way to his selfish opportunism. Imagine being criticized, as he was, for campaigning openly. I hadn’t realized from just listening to the soundtrack (over and over and over again) that Burr serves as a kind of narrator. That makes his role, here played by Joshua Henry, central to the success of the show, and Henry was most certainly up to the task. Miranda also deserves a high five for the roles he assigns to the women in Hamilton’s life. They are both aware of the limitations society places on them and bursting at the seams to break out of them. The last image of the play – which I won’t spoil – was inspiring.
I don’t really have the vocabulary to talk about choreography, but think back on the first time you heard that there was going to be a musical about Alexander Hamilton. As much as I wondered what the songs would be like, I also wondered about the dancing. What sort of dance goes along with the story of the American Revolution? But Andy Blankenbuehler makes it work.
The cast was exceptionally strong. Eliza Hamilton (Ari Afsar) was tightly coiled, complex and convincing. Alexander Gemignani was wonderful as King George. Chris De’Sean Lee (LaFayette / Jefferson) and Wallace Smith (Hercules Mulligan / James Madison) were absolute scene stealers. Hamilton himself (Joseph Morales) was solid, but labored under my perception of Miranda’s performance.
I want to talk about casting. When I first heard that Miranda was casting his show with entirely non-white actors, it didn’t concern me much. I wasn’t surprised when very little came of the controversy over the casting call. Put it this way. If Miranda told me that I wasn’t the right person to play me, I’d step aside. I thought, initially, that his motive was to give opportunities to those had not traditionally been offered such opportunities.
Over time, I wanted there to be more to it. Who among us has not wanted to, for example, cast Romeo and Juliet in a way that illuminates its meaning (Palestinians as Capulets; Israelis as Montagues, for example)? What the production suggests is that the casting reflects that no one, at that time, was truly an American. Everyone came from somewhere else. And the constant reminders of the circumstances and locations of Hamilton’s birth could not help – two days before the election – remind of the immigration debate today. When Jefferson, Burr and Madison out on a West Indian accent in order to insult him, I admit I winced.
But I still wonder if there’s more. In both New York and Chicago, I believe, Hamilton is played by a lighter-skinned actors and his antagonists are dark-skinned. Coincidence or deliberate? In the production I saw, the actress (Samantha Marie Ware) playing the little mentioned Schuyler sister, Peggy, also becomes Maria Reynolds, who has (spoiler alert) an affair with Hamilton. What’s Miranda up to with these contrasts?
And I wanted Miranda’s commitment to non-white casting to be reflected in the audience. No such luck, at least on the afternoon that we saw it.
The show is tremendous and important. My father’s test of a great musical is – Do you walk out humming the tunes? I most certainly did and am looking forward to the mixtape version as well — Hamilton mixtape. And I am looking forward to the opportunity to see it again. And again. And again.