The thrill and the joy of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton” cannot really be overstated. I had been waiting, basically since it opened, to see it. New York wasn’t possible nor was Chicago, but, once it landed in Toronto, I was not throwing away my shot. Tickets were bought, hotel rooms arranged and an outfit worthy of the occasion selected. And then: Covid hit. Yet, thanks to the wonder of Disney+ I was really not throwing away my shot as I ended up watching “Hamilton” in my mothers house, in a comfy chair; wearing shorts and a pyjama t-shirt, double fisting free cocktails and feasting on charcuterie all while having a front row seat and the ability to rewind should there have been anything I missed. Needless to say, it was awesome, and, also unlikely, I will ever buy a ticket to go to the actual theatre again.
It wasn’t just the setting, the snacks or the seating though that made the “Hamilton” experience exceptional. Those things gilded the lily for sure, but, it was the experience of “Hamilton” itself that was magic and lived, incredibly, up to all of its hype as things rarely, if ever, do. It should be stated upfront that while “Hamilton” was nearly universally praised it was also, fairly and rightly, criticized as ignoring altogether Alexander Hamilton’s role in slave trading and Native American genocide and those are, obviously, not small things and, again, obviously, rightful criticisms. While Lin-Manuel Miranda tackles Hamilton’s shortcomings through his character flaws including loquaciousness and arrogance, as well as his extramarital affair, there were glaring omissions that are better encompassed in Ron Chernow’s book on which the musical was based.
While the revision of history through its omission is problematic, Miranda’s ability to divine the future through the lens of the past, thereby revising both, is pure and unadulterated magic. There is no other word for a play and a playwright who manage to foresee a future while portraying the past and this is where “Hamilton” gets so, so, so much right. The cast is full of black and brown bodies inhabiting a landscape that, in 1776, belonged almost exclusively to white men. It tells the story of these white men through rap, hip hop, reggae and R&B; forms and styles appropriated now being reclaimed by those who created them. And, it’s not that these forms and styles can’t be shared, on the contrary, as white bodies inhabit the landscape of “Hamilton” too. What those white bodies don’t do in this play though is dominate or subjugate.
Moreover, it is the women of “Hamilton”, the Schuyler sisters: Anjelica, Peggy and the future Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, Eliza, who claim centre stage. In fact, spoiler alert: Eliza lives to tell her own story, as much, and perhaps even more, than her husband Alexander’s. It was she who lived long enough to work to establish the Washington monument, move toward abolishing slavery, enshrine her husbands legacy and open an orphanage in New York City. It is astounding to see women as more than figments of others imaginations and, instead, having rich, full and complex lives all their own.
While Eliza lived, Alexander did not having been killed by a man as ambitious, as driven, as arrogant, loquacious and domineering as himself: Aaron Burr. Toxic masculinity man; it’ll get you every time. In all seriousness though (which toxic masculinity, toxic anything really, most certainly is), these men were portrayed as thoughtful, idealistic, scholarly and, like the play itself, flawed. Yet, in an incredibly refreshing turn, it was their flaws that, yes, broke them, but, also, that fuelled the engines of profound and lasting change. It was their belief in their ability to create a world not yet imagined that drove them and that drove America to become more than previously imagined.
Isn’t that what always fuels change? Dark as much as light. Insanity as much as soberness. Recklessness as much as deliberation. It is always in the middle, at the tensest point between opposites, where growth and change can most fully happen. Burr’s caution in the face of Hamilton’s relentless tirelessness. Lafayette and Laurens’ willingness to die on the altar of change versus Seabury’s allegiance to the status quo. We always need everything and we always need everyone; sometimes and especially those who annoy us and push our buttons the most. These men, and women, as written by Miranda, were driven by creativity to create and creation is messy. As Hamilton says, “every action’s an act of creation” and these were people willing and determined to create at all costs.
The creation of a new world is often a disaster; full of bloodshed, war, harm and the potential for destruction of self and others. It can be devastating and yet there is no other way to do it. Hamilton knew it then and Miranda knows it now. Black Lives Matter and every single protester know it too. As Laurens sings in “Hamilton”, it is those forced to live on their knees who, ultimately, rise up and we are witnessing such a rising right now. If the protesters didn’t understand that some sacrifices are worthy of risk, they would not be marching in a global pandemic. They would not risk their health or their lives. Heather Heyer and Summer Taylor would not have left their homes to, ultimately, make the ultimate sacrifice, without knowing the possibility of grave risk. No revolutionary should have to risk their lives, but, no revolution has ever come without often painful sacrifice.
True revolutionaries make a decision that it is worth sacrificing and fighting for a future that will be better for those that will follow because, on earth as it was in “Hamilton” they know that “tomorrow there will be more of us”. And who is the “more of us” who will rise up? It’s men, and women, like Hamilton and his crew: immigrants, poor, sons of whores; sons without fathers who become founding fathers. Because, as they astutely note in Hamilton, “immigrants get the job done”. Take that Stephen Miller. No great nation or great society was ever built by sameness. It was created by difference and forged by strife; the only ways to ever arrive at a more perfect union.
Hamilton did not create a perfect world or a perfect economic system but he created one that was better than what had been there before. Miranda through his play also did not create a perfect world but he created a world more perfect and representative than the one which came before it. If either of these men, Hamilton or Miranda, had been cancelled by the culture at large, the change they envisioned could not have happened. A world more just, equal and fair would be nothing more than a pipe dream.
We cannot cancel people or things when they are not perfect. It is thoughtless and careless and will never get us to where we need and want to go. The only way we can ever get where we need and want to go is through resistance and revolution. Lin-Manuel has said, “History is entirely created by the person who tells the story”. Well, he told a story that will one day be relegated to the history books and, while that story may be imperfect, it was more perfect than its origin story. It is more perfect because it divines, through the lens of the eighteenth century, the world of the twenty-first. It revises history as it embodies and represents the world that revolutionaries — imperfect and flawed as they may have been — envisioned and were willing to work and fight and strive for. Hamilton is referred to as “An American Musical” and that is accurate as it is a very American story. It would also have been accurate to call it “Hamilton: A Human Story” as it is like humanity itself. It is messy, flawed, striving, imperfect and, in the end, beautiful, amazing, wondrous, perfect in its imperfectness and just absolutely stunning in its gloriousness.