I’ve spent most of my life deep-diving through various subjects. There are few ways now to blow me away. I won’t say “I’ve seen it all before” but I’ve at least pondered it, rolled most of it around in my head, felt the intellectual consistency of most things.
I spent Saturday night being blown away.
My wonderful actor friend Jennifer Austin invited me to accompany her to Hamilton – An American Musical. I’m not by nature a “musical guy” – Hamilton marks my first-ever Broadway show. While the creativity of musicals interested me I felt no calling to or skill in music and so didn’t follow the field much. But Jen saw Hamilton previously. She linked me to a video of the writer/composer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda performing one of the tracks at the White House and her passion for the show quickly infected me and I was thrilled when she invited me along.
So for the first time in twenty years or so I found myself in New York City – not a small thing, I should mention, since I’m significantly crowd-averse. Dealing with both depression and anxiety often lead me to prefer curling up at home and the anxiety in particular likes to flare up in crowds and off my home turf. But the various bits I’d seen about the show were enough to convince me to make the trek.
As stated above, Hamilton marks my first-ever Broadway experience. I don’t know the right terminology for various things I’m about to talk about, but even if I did I’m not sure I’d be able to find the right words to express it all. So bear with me.
Hamilton – An American Musical is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work inspired by Ron Chernow’s book. With painstaking accuracy it follows founding father Alexander Hamilton from his arrival in the Americas all the way through and after his death. And it’s an incredible, sophisticated, well-engineered, clever, heart-rending and laugh-triggering work of genius. Quickly-paced, Hamilton leaves no unused moments in the narrative flow and yet manages at several points to double-back on itself in incredibly creative ways, strengthening dramatic moments by highlighting earlier foundational ones without any sort of storyline disruption. The times when storytelling edges towards nonlinear are few but percussive – designed and carried out to multiply emotional and cognitive impact.
I’m entirely new to musicals but storytelling is an old, old love of mine. And I spent the first half of Hamilton three rows back, jaw dropped in awe and wonder. Second half repeatedly holding back tears. Hamilton utilized a great mechanism by which each emotional part was followed up not necessarily by tension-breaking humor but often by an expression of inner strength that fortified the character involved – and me. The show intended, then, not to break you but pull you deeper into each moment. No cheap temporary thrills or sads but organic and personal, each a load-bearing narrative thread helping hold together the entire woven story.
The end arrives on a note of extreme emotion and strength, the rising up of a female character and her conscious and consensual contribution, indeed what ended up being the genesis of the story that we have now, as she sublimates powerfully deep and compounded grief into action. Very natural but very purposeful efforts were taken to ensure the many female roles were at least as complex and developed as the male ones, something still rare in storytelling and so all the more appreciated.
Nothing was simple about Hamilton and yet it stood on so many moments of simplicity. Particular smiles and gestures, familiar drives and weaknesses, the nearness and distance of characters, even just the presence of a box to stand on. A stage that rotated in two directions sending characters in their own revolutions (or counter-revolutions). The ubiquity of pen and paper, the impact of each piece of paper, each list and note and correspondence, driven home. Not repetitious or overdone but simply owned. The strength of the endnote depends on this voluminous scribery in fact, highlights it and humanizes the players as it also contributes to the individuation of Eliza.
I was amazed by the immensity of the production as well. The ability to provide such thorough atmosphere without overbearing spectacle. And the sheer amount of coordination between and concentration of each actor to maintain that – the temporal, spatial and communal cohesion to keep the surface tension of reality from bursting the bubble of theater.
After the show my friend Jen treated me to another joy – “stage dooring.” After shows many cast members will appear at a certain door outside the theater to sign autographs, take pictures and engage with fans. I had no idea this was even a thing and the experience of it added to the impact of the entire night for me. We stood outside the door of a Broadway theater and waited through intermittent downpours talking excitedly about the show. Steam rose from a wet crowded street and our bodies and we tried not to drip on people on either side of us from the umbrella. And then suddenly were shaking hands and exchanging a few words with many of the principal parties of the show – including Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Jon Rua, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr. and the man himself – Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Incredible on stage, this cast was also so wonderful person-to-person. Down-to-earth in the best of ways and so genuine, I am exceedingly grateful that they were my first “stage door” experience. Each of them took time to just sort of be with and honor the presence of the fans lined up to meet them. I didn’t see anyone hurrying nor anyone trying to tug themselves away even in the pouring rain.
I’m not sure what other medium this kind of thing happens in and wonder if the unique nature of live theater contributes to the phenomenon. In any case, the Hamilton cast members we interacted with took time not just to interact but to acknowledge us and it was a totally thrilling experience.
For a history geek like me, Hamilton – An American Musical was already a likely winner. Great writing upped the ante further. Add the skill and cohesion of a fantastic cast and their wonderful nature in a few personal moments and I am sold for all time.