Apologies to the late, great Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution is being televised. And, better than that, you can dance and sing to it.
Maybe it’s more like D.H. Lawrence’s poem, Let’s Have a Revolution for Fun.
Over the July 4 weekend Disney+ (the revolution is on Disney? Shut your mouse!) offered up the live-capture of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning, wildly popular musical Hamilton. Miranda’s rap/rock version of the life of the author of most of The Federalist Papers hit the screen just as we Americans were celebrating our 244th birthday.
I had already seen the show on Broadway (though not with the original cast) and heard my former history-teacher wife sing it nearly nonstop since the soundtrack hit her CD player. I checked it out twice this weekend and it remains one fun – and occasionally educational – ride.
Somehow the American Revolution has proven a bounty for musical theater – 1776 anyone? – but who would have thought a show about one of American history’s dullest – in the school history books at any rate – founders would turn into an all-singing, all-dancing tour de force? Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington all seem like more likely candidates, but two of them are mere sidemen to our titular character.
Hamilton speaks to the current tensions in this country following the death of George Floyd, that’s obvious. But because of Hamilton – the man – and his key importance in setting the U.S. on a fiscal course that separated us from the pack of other former British colonies, it speaks to our current economic situation as well.
More on that in the second act of this column.
Back to the stage! The Disney production features the original Broadway cast and was filmed in the summer of 2016 at The Richard Rodgers Theatre in front of a raucous crowd. RadicalMedia recorded two performances of Hamilton and asked actors on their days off to come back and do close-ups.
The show won 11 Tony Awards, including best new musical, best book and best score. The cast album has been a blockbuster and the show has toured to packed houses. But only in this filmed version is the original cast once again married with Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography and Howell Binkley’s lighting design. These were all the seeds of world-conquering greatness.
Thomas Kail, who helmed the successful Grease: Live on Fox and won a Tony for directing Hamilton, directed the filmed version. Kail’s camera captures actors’ intimate faces during key moments in a way impossible for theatergoers and incorporates audience reaction to create an electric filmed version.
The musical charts the rise and fall of statesman Alexander Hamilton and stresses his orphan, immigrant roots — “Immigrants. We get the job done!” is one line that gets huge applause — as well as his almost Greek tragedy of a fall, fed by ambition and a love for the ladies. Yes, our founding fathers were – despite what you read in U.S. history – all too human.
Born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, a British slave colony that existed to provide sugar, in 1755, Hamilton was illegitimate and an immigrant. In other words, he had two strikes against him at a time when one strike usually meant you were out. His mother died when Alexander was 11. He was adopted by a merchant, who sent the obviously bright 17-year-old to the states for an education. This was in 1773 – so you can see what’s on the horizon.
Hamilton was always verbose, so he jumps into the American Revolution with both feet and – most importantly – his mind and his pen.
He’s ready to speak, write and act.
He becomes Gen. George Washington’s aide-de-camp and performs heroic service as an artillery captain.
After the revolution, Washington names Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury where he saves the nation’s finances. See and listen to the great song in Hamilton, “The Room Where it Happened,” as he demonstrates how to compromise to pay off the nation’s debts to help it stand on its own. And say “hello” to the idea of Washington, D.C. as the nation’s capital.
It’s a reclaiming of America’s founding story by a multicultural cast using modern music, language and themes. Based on a biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow and developed during the presidency of the first black president, the show was optimistic and ambitious, tweaking Broadway traditions but respecting them, too. What other show would pit two Founding Fathers in a rap battle over whether to aid France? If only meetings around a conference table were this entertaining in real life.
It’s genius on all fronts, not just Miranda’s. Check out the choreography of the villain of the piece, Aaron Burr, for instance. He always walks in the straight line in the play, representing his rather pedestrian thoughts, while Hamilton is constantly moving, seeing problems from multiple angles. And there’s the staging – the stage is constantly moving. You can watch the show several times – I have – and see something new each time. Good job all.
Hamilton’s ideas, as well as Hamilton’s anathema to slavery – an outgrowth of his early life in Nevis – all get a reading in the musical.
What is less discussed about Hamilton – I think it gets a line in the musical – is Hamilton’s broad vision for America, particularly his Report on Manufacturers, which he presented to Congress in 1791.
Hamilton’s vision for the economic foundation of the United States included not just the federal assumption of state debts and the creation of a Bank of the United States, but also support for the new nation’s emerging industries.
The first two were accepted (not easily, but eventually) by Congress. The third part, the aforementioned Report on the Subject of Manufacturers, was given to Congress in December 1791.
Basically, the plan uses a series of tariffs designed to protect American industry from foreign competition, government bounties and subsidies, and internal improvements and transportation. It’s not too far off from ideas put forward by plenty of administrations, the current one included.
With this plan, Hamilton hoped to cut more ties with Britain by establishing an American industry that could hold its own and keep King George from singing, “You’ll be back. Soon you’ll see. You’ll remember that you belong to me.” And then later, George sings: “And when push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!”
It’s hard not to see this as an outgrowth of Hamilton’s own revolutionary thoughts about freedom – meaning as applied to all men, not just white, male property owners. These ideas, of course, set political leaders in the South off, particularly Thomas Jefferson. With its free labor, the South held economic power over the North at the time. If the North began to develop industry, etc., well, all bets were off.
The Report on Manufacture takes its cue from Adam Smith but goes beyond that. Hamilton wanted to nurture American industry, advance science and technology, and attract skilled immigrants.
If it all sounds remarkably modern, it is. Look no further than at Fort Worth’s recent Economic Development Strategic Plan to see an example.
Jefferson and the Virginians successfully fought against the plan to help maintain their economic and political power. The story gets a bit complicated then, which is probably why the musical doesn’t try to tackle these economic theories any more than it does. Somehow, the very patrician Virginians were able to paint the lowly-born Hamilton as leaning toward monarchy. It must have been the CNN vs. Fox News of the day.
But worry less about that. Turn on Disney+ and check out Hamilton and wonder why history couldn’t be this exciting in school. The songs being sung in this musical have their roots in deep divisions – and revolutionary ideas that remain as relevant as the 10 p.m. news.
This story includes information from the Associated Press