After my sister and niece saw the play Hamilton, they gushed with praise. My nephew asked an excellent question: “What happens in that theatre?”
All I knew about Hamilton was that it was based on Ron Chernow’s book, that most of the cast were black actors and actresses and that the music was rap. A musical based on a Chernow biography with actors that look nothing like the real-life characters they portrayed in a rap musical all sounded like a questionable combination at best. Additionally, several people wondered if I would have problems with its historical accuracy. So, with some reticence, I saw Hamilton in London recently. The answer to my nephew’s question is “I am not entirely sure what happens in that theatre, but it is amazing.”
To deal with the preliminaries, using diverse actors and actresses is not yet another strained effort by the entertainment industry to show how inclusive it is, but instead is part of the essence of the play. Race is one small part of the import of the show. And the rap music (which isn’t usually my thing) goes from odd to enchanting by about the third line. Rap is really used as the bridge between some incredibly original and engrossing songs. Rap tells the story, the songs reveal the characters.
In terms of history, while I might quibble with a few discrete pieces, Hamilton is a well-informed documentary. I was a little distraught about its treatment of Thomas Jefferson (the actor who played Jefferson was short while Jefferson was quite tall for his day and the actor who played James Madison could have been an NFL linebacker while Madison was all of 5’ 4”). That, however, was not the point. The point was that Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were debating the critical issues of the late 18th century, irrespective of what they looked like. And that debate was not recast to fit our modern notions of acceptability, it was about the issues that they actually debated. For example, monetary policy for the new country is debated (or rapped about) in surprisingly faithful terms. Imagine being entertained by an argument about monetary policy that pays homage to the importance of monetary policy. Yes, I know, hard to imagine.
While it is easy to get multiple messages from Hamilton,I was most taken with the fact that, in the end, the play is 1) a primer on the passage of the United States Constitution and 2) gives George Washington the adoration that is his due. I am often asked who I think our greatest President was and I always respond with “Easy. It’s George Washington. There never would have been a second President if he had not been humble enough to recognize the need to step aside after two terms. He also believed it was vital to hear competing points of view to make sound decisions. So, he put Jefferson and Hamilton in his cabinet and had them fight it out, to their frustration, but to his (and the country’s) benefit.” This is a large part of the genius of Hamilton. There are several scenes where Jefferson and Hamilton debate and maneuver while Washington thoughtfully listens. It may not sound gripping, but, it is. When Washington’s character sings “Teach Them to Say Goodbye,” I wept.
The star of the show, however, is the Constitution. There is little effort made to “dumb it down” or make it something other than what it was and is. At the time of its passage, it was controversial and not particularly popular. But it was the compromise that was needed to bring disparate states together that gave them some hope of survival. The play conveys this but also gives a preview of how the brilliance of the document would come to define us as a nation. In a remarkably subtle fashion, you realize long after you have forgotten that the actors and actresses are mostly people of color and are telling the early history of the United States through rap music that, without the Constitution, those actors and actresses would not be able to tell the story they are telling.
It is all the fashion today to discount our founders because many of them were slaveholders, an indisputably horrible practice. Nonetheless, it was common throughout the world at that time. But the Constitution that those same founders crafted was also the beginning of the end of slavery and most of those founders (including Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison) knew it. The Civil War was a tragedy of human loss, the causes of which can also be debated. But, among its causes, it resulted from the tension created by a Constitution that ultimately could not coexist with human bondage.
What happens in that theatre is a tribute to what is exceptional about our past with little gloss or distortion, just accessibility. Hamilton is a history lesson about our shared values. No liberals, no conservatives. Just a celebration of why they exist.