The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, August 24, 2019

"'Til the World Turns Upside Down": Hamilton in 2019

When I first heard the score to Hamilton, I bought it, and would listen to it on my drives to and from Albany. And then....the world was turned upside down politically in ways which have been inimical to my own ideals, and Hamilton's brand of idealism seemed inadequate to the times.

I was wrong.

I am fresh from seeing the show at Proctors in Schenectady, and, as A. Burr and A. Ham could both say, "it blew us all away."

Watching the superb cast--from leads to the ensemble--enact the story, the play's form of idealism seemed just what we need in 2019. There are no easy solutions for the problem posed in Hamilton. Alexander's own harrowing childhood renders him unable to say no to sexual temptation, such is his need to connect. Burr's own similar, though more cushioned past, leaves him a morally empty opportunist, yet one who thinks he can remain friends those he has betrayed. The Revolution's brutality is underscored by the fragility of Washington's army, and the desperation with which he wages war, on the verge of collapse.

Hamilton's own affair with Maria Reynolds, and his effort to salvage his reputation as a public servant by confessing that sin in public reduce him to a laughing stock, cost him Eliza's love (for a time), and, indirectly, lead to his eldest son's death. Other friends die (Laurens), fail him (Washington retires, showing us how to say good-bye, and peacefully transition power, but leaving Hamilton at the mercy of his enemies), or are abandoned by Alexander himself (Lafayette).

So, no. This is not an epic of easy optimism. It is, to use a term I learned from Herman Wouk, idealism dafka--despite expectations, ironically, or paradoxically. It's a portrayal, with wonderful music, lyrics, choreography, and story--of idealism in the face of the odds. In the face of loss, in the face of the possibility of loss so devastating as to be called simply "the unimaginable."

It's a reminder that America is an ideal that has never been fulfilled, but that is nonetheless vital. The mixed race cast, with people of color playing the Founding Fathers, the confluence of rap, jazz, with traditional American musical theater forms reinforce that this story is all of ours. And, as Hamilton and Lafayette remind us: "Immigrants. We get the job done."

Langston Hughes said it beautifully, but Lin-Manuel Miranda is a helluva lot more fun.


But how is it, o Anglocat, as a play?

The answer is simple: excellent. Now, the production I saw was a matinee, with two of the leads--Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Hamilton--portrayed by standbys. If not for the slip setting this out in the program, I would never have guessed.
Tré Frazier
brought a strong presence, a powerful voice, and a honed intelligence to the part of Alexander, and Stephanie Jae Park brought a range from fragility to steel to Eliza. Stephanie Umoh was a standout as the strong, witty, flirtatious, but fiercely loyal Angelica Schuyler, as was Peter Matthew Smith, by turns foppish, menacing, lubricious (his delivery of "my sweet, submissive subject" is only marginally less creepy than the 50 Shades series), and petulant as King George.

I can't improve on the Albany Times-Union's praise for "Josh Tower as a complex, sympathetic Aaron Burr; Paul Oakley Stovall playing an imposing George Washington; Bryson Bruce, foppishly flamboyant in different ways as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson; and Jon Viktor Corpuz as the antislavery activist John Laurens and Hamilton's eldest son, Philip, whose death by duel predated his father's similar fate by three years."

The Ensemble is almost always in motion, the dancers playing parts (Redcoats and rebels, audiences to street oratory and presidential cabinet meetings (Epic rap battles!); they give the scenes a depth and complexity that textures the experience--we are watching symbolic living history, not a diorama.

How is Hamilton in 2019?



rick allen said...

Happy to read your take. It may be a while before any touring company gets anywhere near New Mexico, however, and I've had to be content with the soundtrack CD.

But yes, for a popular, entertaining musical it's surprisingly adept at showing the good that can come from an seemingly naive political idealism, even in a cut-throat world.

My slightly more detailed take on the thing, when it was new to me almost three years ago, can be found here:

It's rather remarkable, I think, that it appeared almost right before such a smash-up of American ideals.

Anglocat said...

I quite enjoyed your take, Rick, on both the musical and the book. I particularly like your pointing out that the real opponents were Jefferson and Hamilton, and their shifting levels of esteem. Both deeply flawed, it seems to me that Hamilton’s life demonstrated the potential of a society whose class structure was still relatively loose, while Jefferson’s writings created an ethos to support that more level society.

One thing absent from the soundtrack—Hamilton is, throughout the play, slowly but inexorably menaced by one of the dancers; when I looked up her billing in the program, it was, simply, “The Bullet.”