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The Ten-Dollar Founding Father, A Muscial

Or, thoughts on The Hamilton Mixtape by Lin-Manuel Miranda

I’ll be direct: Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius, as a musician, a writer, and possibly as an historian, too.  Grand words, no? Admittedly, I tend toward hyperbole – but indulge me and watch the video above, and tell me if it doesn’t ring true.

I’ll wait.

I know, right?

That’s an early sample of Miranda’s ongoing project to depict Alexander Hamilton’s life musically, in what he calls the Hamilton Mixtape. Now imagine a hour-long performance of songs of that bent, with that level of lyrical and musical skill, realized with an entire cast and chorus, band and all, on the stage at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, with Columbus Circle and Central Park serving as the backdrop. Courtesy of an amazing Christmas gift, I had the pleasure of seeing exactly that last week – on Hamilton’s birthday, natch – and it was awesome.

For me, the whole show followed the emotional arc set by that clip.  While slyly acknowledging the ridiculousness of rapping about the American Revolution, the virtuosity of the composition cleared a space for sincerity, and then realistically evoked the earnest emotion that (a certain view of) Hamilton’s life holds.

I know only enough about musical theatre to be conscious of how ignorant I am of its subtleties. So I won’t go into details about that end of things here – for that you can see the NYT review, or this detailed write-up for more and better commentary than I can offer.

Suffice to say that I agree with those ecstatic reviewers.

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The central conceit of the show is that Hamilton’s life – and perhaps that of other founding fathers, like Aaron Burr – fits both the mythos and themes of hip-hop. And surprisingly, this works. Hamilton, as Miranda points out in his introduction,  made his mark through words, and conflict over words. Re-imagined as a tragic poet-statesman, his life fits the arc of a Biggie Smalls or Tupac Shakur.

The Mixtape was based on Ron Chernow’s desk-busting biography, and hews very, very close to the material – to the point that the witty rap battles near the end of the show depict disputes in Washington’s cabinet over the assumption of states’ debt, and Citizen Genêt. (Miranda acknowledged Chernow in the audience). If it weren’t for the real accomplishments of the rest of the show, I’d say that this was its crowning strength; it sure as hell isn’t anything I’ve ever seen pulled off before, much less set to music.*

The historical inspirations for Mixtape make it impossible to consider without bringing up Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The Mixtape is not, and may never be, a full-blown musical with sets and costumes and the like; right now it seems to be more of a live-performance concept album. And while I doubt that this pair of shows together herald a new era of historical musical theatre – as the Times reviewer suggests – the comparison is a useful one.

Bloody Bloody was a hell of a good time, but erred on the side of preachiness, especially in the last act, where the tragedy of Indian removal took center stage – a move which I can understand from the perspective of wanting to tell a whole story, but one which screwed up the chronology, and, more seriously took the action away from the characters. Harrumphing historians will surely practice their trade with Mixtape, too, though with even less justification, as Miranda has taken pains to make the primary source bases for his characterization clear. Hamilton’s human story is intertwined with his policies, and so the problems with narrative weight that Bloody Bloody stumbled into aren’t present.

But judgments of Hamilton, like those concerning Jackson, are shorthand for too much historiographical investment to cause any practitioner to be moved too far by the Mixtape version. Personally, I see less of a hero in him than Miranda or Chernow – but then, outside of the Mixtape he exists for me mainly as a bureaucrat, author of treatises on central government finance. It’s hard to sympathize with a guy who wrote such reports, much less to empathize with him as a fellow struggling New York transplant. But Miranda succeeded in getting me to forget the impressions of the Serial Set, and try out some others – at least for a while.

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Which is something, actually. My preferences for historical entertainment (such as it is) tend to skew mightily toward those productions which play faster & looser with the details, for comic effect –  the Amazing Screw-On Head, 1776, or that cartoon about George Washington’s, uh, prowess.

Costume dramas, which work hard to provide a detailed setting, often fail to get the core emotional experience about a lived historical reality, instead grafting modern-day sensibilities on to past events – and leave me cold. I’d argue that most “good” historical movies have this flaw (Glory, for example). Closer to my taste are the Dakotan agonies of Deadwood profane-civilizers or the on-the-jugular analogies of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, but with these self-seriousness is part of the suspension of disbelief.

Part of the brilliance of Mixtape, I think, lies in how it successfully has it both ways. It is unabashedly comic – what Broadway show couldn’t be, these days? Singing is silly. – but also evokes the real stakes Hamilton faced, without falling head-over-heels into a pre-formatted Hollywood narrative arc. For that, if nothing else, I hope it eventually gets into some kind of form where more people can see it.

Plus, the sight of George III lamenting America’s lost love while wearing a Burger King crown is too good to pass up.

(The clip here doesn’t do it justice, but it’ll get you the visual at least: http://broadwayworld.com/videoplay.php?colid=328956)

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* I like the Keynes & Hayek rap battles (round 1, round 2), but for all their slickness they aren’t good history, or anywhere near as clever (or, frankly, anywhere near as good policy).

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