NPF: HAMILTON

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 23rd, 2016 by Ed

More than a year into its rise as a Cultural Phenomenon, I knew almost nothing about "Hamilton." I do not like musicals in general – there's nothing wrong with them, I'm simply not the intended audience for it given the things I like – so not only did I not make an effort to see it but I remained almost totally ignorant of it. I knew it involved rap and Aaron Burr and a guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda who received a Macarthur Grant despite the fact that he already earned like a billion dollars off the musical. Other than that, I was a blank slate when an old friend texted me that an extra ticket was available for a group outing among her friends. Though somewhat worried about the ticket cost (I'd heard rumors, dark rumors) I accepted. It didn't seem likely to hurt me to put on some decent looking clothes and hang out with other adults for a while on a Sunday.

I would not necessarily recommend that anyone run out and pay the borderline crazy prices being sought for second hand tickets, but I will say that I have a very, very hard time believing that anyone who saw this performance could fail to enjoy it. I looked hard for reasons not to like it, and I found none. There are some minor nits to pick with the production, like the fact that the cartoon Pepe le Pew French accent makes Lafayette totally unintelligible, and with the accuracy of the way that some people are portrayed. Thomas Jefferson's role, as many critics have noted, is particularly odd but I also understand that this is a musical, intended to entertain, and that some character would have to serve as the comic relief and secondary antagonist. The spirit of the events retold here is accurate, and obviously the writer was not trying to reproduce conversations verbatim (it turns out the people involved did very little rapping in 1800). Overall, I strongly suspect that a viewer who could not enjoy a live performance of this musical is not capable of enjoying much of anything.

This is so Ed, but I have to be honest about something: I liked it slightly less when, later that evening, I did a little reading about Mr. Miranda. There's nothing deficient about his character or his motives. He obviously created something that strikes a chord with audiences right now and deserves to be rewarded handsomely for it. What disappointed me slightly – remember, I consume no theater or musicals at all – was that he was already successful when he wrote this. As it had been told to me, I was under the impression that this was a crazy idea carried out by an eccentric genius, a man devoted entirely to an idea so insane that one can only admire the fact that he stuck it through to completion. "It's going to be about Alexander Hamilton, but lots of rapping" is not a description that would produce many encouraging responses.

However, Miranda had already starred in a play called In the Heights and had been nominated for a Tony Award for his performance. Even I know that means he was already well established in the world of Broadway, enough so that he could take a relatively crazy idea and receive full benefit of doubt. No matter how bad the idea looked on paper, you can imagine the money people saying "Well, what the hell. His last one was a hit" and putting it on anyway. I'm not sure why, but that diminished it for me just a bit. It didn't change the performance, obviously, but it took a little bit of the shine off the backstory. I guess I liked the idea of some guy living dollar to dollar sitting in his apartment scribbling out a script and telling himself, "You'll see! It will be a hit, I'm telling you! Just you watch and see!" Everyone likes a good Starving Artist Makes It story, I guess.

Lastly, I think one of the reasons many people do not like musicals is that it's hard to do a musical really well, and the difference between a musical done really well and one that is mediocre or worse is stark. There are only a small number of performers with enough talent to really pull something as conceptually weird as Hamilton off. I'm sure this will eventually spawn several touring versions, which may or may not be just as good, but I'm glad I saw it with the A+ cast while I had the chance. I think it would be hard to pull off with anything less than the best performers.

So for the first and last time that's my take on a musical. Ten stars, would see again, call the babysitter, fun for the whole family.