JULY 18, 2016
THERE’S A SCENE in the musical Hamilton (a show now playing on Broadway, perhaps you’ve heard of it) where the titular character is hunched over his desk, doing one of the things he does best: writing. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” his nemesis Aaron Burr asks the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury over a calypso rhythm as swift and sinuous as the flow of Alexander Hamilton’s ink. Of course — and this is a spoiler alert only if you failed eighth grade history — the victim of America’s most infamous political feud was indeed writing against a tragic deadline. I doubt he suspected it would be Vice President Burr’s bullet that would finally rob him of his language and his life, but having repeatedly survived harrowing circumstances (poverty, disease, hurricane, war) in his youth, this “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,” as Lin-Manuel Miranda puts it in Hamilton, did write with a sense of urgency, and even desperation, akin to possession. The bastard was prolific, especially considering the fact that he was also busy being a war hero, attending the Constitutional Convention, founding the US Treasury and Coast Guard, creating the New York Post, practicing law, making eight babies, and even keeping a little something-something on the side. Pamphlets, speeches, letters, poems, legal arguments, and a sizable chunk of the landmark Federalist Papers: The Works of Alexander Hamilton, edited by Henry Cabot Lodge in 1904, fill a shelf in 12 hardcover volumes that are strangely out of print, considering the sudden interest in this long underappreciated founding father, an interest almost single-handedly spurred by Miranda’s musical masterpiece.
There are many themes in Hamilton that make it a timely and important work — the pivotal role of the outsider in American culture, the conflict between family and work, the sin of hubris, commitment, betrayal, the power of legacy and the legacy of power — but the motif that is perhaps most overlooked and most central is the work and the worth of writing. Miranda has not merely proven himself a virtuoso of verse; he has offered a testament to the transformational potential and solipsistic limits of literature. Hamilton is a play about the role of the written word in the birth of a nation and the death of a hero.
Alexander Hamilton’s verbosity either intimidates or inspires, depending on your own logophilia (and who could be better equipped to follow in his prolific footsteps than an historian and a hip-hop playwright). The words spilled on page and stage in the past decade about “A. Ham” present their own daunting precedent for the beleaguered reviewer. At more than 800 pages, Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography is a doorstopper of a historical resuscitation. Hamilton: The Revolution, the companion volume to the show, written by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, is almost identical in girth and height, though thankfully weighs in several ounces lighter and is filled with photos by Frank W. Ockenfels III and Joan Marcus. Let’s put it this way: they’re a beige-colored bitch to travel with.
I could have packed the ebooks instead. But swiping through Miranda and McCarter’s book, which they have dubbed the “Hamiltome,” on a small screen betrays the coffee-table allure of its matte photos, rough-cut pages, and handsome layout of libretto and author’s notes. And my copy of Chernow’s biography, loaned to me by my father, is precious, as it contains the following inscription from my stepmother, Judy:
“To John Hamilton McDonnell
— Son of Mary Gladys Hamilton
— Father of Brett Hamilton McDonnell
and Evelyn McDonnell –
Cole Hamilton Shankle
(Was Alexander related?)”
You see, I have a unique double investment in Hamilton mania. I’ve lived a half-century believing my family origin myth: that we are somehow related to the great Alexander. It is what my father, John Hamilton McDonnell, told myself and my brother, Brett Hamilton McDonnell. It is what his mother, Gladys Hamilton, told him. Beyond that, we don’t know what fact or fiction this story is based on, as Grandmama died when my father was a boy, and he lost all contact with any Hamilton relatives thereafter. The hallowed memory of his lost mother and her alleged ancestry loomed large enough over our family that when I had my own son 13 years ago, I named him Cole Hamilton.
“C. Ham” and I owe Miranda and Chernow a huge debt of gratitude. Prior to this year I worried that I had saddled my son with a rather spectacularly uncool middle name. Believe me, until Miranda staged his musical revolution, telling people, “My son was named after Alexander Hamilton” drew alternately blank stares, puzzled expressions, or sour faces. (On the other hand, the Cole Porter hat-tip draws nods and smiles.) If our putative patriarch was known at all, it was for a conservative, capitalist republicanism that didn’t fly well in our progressive circles. Dude was so afraid of the masses that he made a six-hour (!!) speech at the Constitutional Convention that included a call for a monarchy. (This is one of the inconvenient truths left out of Hamilton.) When my family and I first heard almost a decade ago that the maker of In the Heights was working on a play about our underappreciated supposed ancestor, we were equal parts intrigued and incredulous. Who would want to see that, we wondered.
The second reason I approached the Hamiltome with both great interest and trepidation was because when he announced the plans for the book last summer, Miranda said that it was inspired by the companion volume for Rent: “When I fall in love with a musical, I want to know everything about it. I remember Rent changing my life on my 17th birthday and being so grateful for the Rent book, which so beautifully brought the story behind Jonathan Larson’s musical to life.” Having written that book, with the help of my dear friend Katherine Silberger (now Stewart), Miranda’s praise left me feeling flattered, honored, burdened with responsibility, and a little miffed.
Rewind: 20 years ago Village Voice theater editor Ross Wetzsteon asked me to write a story about a musical that had just opened around the corner. The show’s writer, Jonathan Larson, had dropped dead of an aortic aneurysm on the eve of its first preview; never getting to read the rave reviews that hit the papers several days later. I remember seeing Rent for the first time at New York Theatre Workshop. When Daphne Rubin-Vega offered the dance pop invitation to light her candle, like a young Bette Midler by way of Madonna, I was seduced. Over the next month, I followed the show as it made its way to Broadway. I was embedded, in a sense, in this formative community of young actors and a creative team who felt like they had been handed a sacred mission, to make Larson’s dream come true in his stead. In those early days, they performed with a commitment that made Rent — which I believe would have succeeded on its own terms, even without real life getting more like fiction each day — an unstoppable force. I gained a trust and intimacy with them, perhaps because I was a peer, an actual East Village artist, the music editor of the newspaper with the Village embedded in its name, my own existence validated in Larson’s creation and their enactment. Like Larson, I was raised on Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, shows that merged the contemporary sounds heard on the radio with theater tradition. Rent was the first show in decades to rock that merger in a way that was not, as I wrote at the time, a sell-out but a celebration.
A few months later, when Kate Giel, an editor at Melcher Media, called, said they were producing a book about Rent, and asked if I would like to write the history that would accompany the libretto and photos, I immediately signed on.
In a sense I had an easier task than Jeremy McCarter, the former magazine writer who worked at the Public Theater while Hamilton was incubating there and who pens the narrative of the show’s creation in the Hamiltome. Given the tragic timing of Larson’s death, the fact that he literally gave his heart to the show, the story of Rent was almost as powerful as the story in Rent — so over-the-top dramatic that if it had been fiction, my editor would have made me rewrite it. I did feel, at times, like a channel for something bigger than me, like the words were writing themselves. We wrote the story as an oral history, to honor and capture the way in which Rent was the collaborative result of a body of people, whose spine had been yanked out. I brought in Kathy to help turn the book around under an incredibly tight deadline of just a few months. Together we interviewed the cast and creative team; Jonathan’s bewildered, grieving, and honored family; the producers (including Jeffrey Seller, who went on to produce In the Heights and Hamilton); and the playwright’s friends, who were the shell-shocked real-life inspiration for the East Village artists struggling in the shadows of AIDS and gentrification in Larson’s fable.
Everything happened so fast with Rent: one day Jonathan was at rehearsals, being interviewed by a New York Times reporter; the next he was dead, alone in his apartment, with the tea kettle on; three months later, he won a Pulitzer and the show opened at the Nederlander on Broadway. A few months after that I was sitting on the Nederlander stage hidden amid the scenery as the play unfolded around me; I was in an office filled with Jonathan’s notebooks and drafts, the first person to retrace the process of Rent’s creation; I was listening to his many demo tapes, hearing the progression of this show over seven years, as Jonathan wrote and rewrote and rewrote, like he was running out of time. Wading through the remains of another writer’s work life, I was inspired and humbled by the notes and the strikethroughs, the parts excised (“kill your babies”) and the birth of immortal lyrics. I still chuckle when I think of the note scrawled on one piece of paper, a riff on New York’s then senator and a classic Gershwin lyric: “You say D’Amato, I say D’Amato; let’s call the whole thing off.”
I see the influence of Rent, the musical and the book, threaded throughout Hamilton, the musical and the book. Miranda raises a glass to freedom in “The Story of Tonight,” just as Larson toasted “La Vie Bohème.” Hamilton and his buddies banter about their purpose in “One Last Time” just as Mark and Roger do repeatedly in Rent. And when Miranda’s hero wonders who will live and die and tell his story, he’s looking for what Larson called “Glory”: one song, one note in the eyes of the world, of history.
Sometimes, I worry that Miranda took Rent too much to heart. Especially in the photo layouts, the Rent book and the Hamiltome look like cousins; their book was packaged by Melcher Media as well. The story of Rent seems to have resonated with Lin-Manuel on a deep, psychological level. He makes the link explicit in “The Story of Tonight,” one of many songs about the power of narrative; not only does the title reference the Rent tune “Out Tonight,” but Miranda name-checks another Larson title when he sings, “I may not live to see our glory.” Repeatedly in the Hamiltome, he admits to an obsession with mortality, to a Hamlet-like fascination with Thanatos that almost comes across as a death wish. It is clearly one of the reasons he chose the protagonist he did; during the American Revolution, Hamilton told people that he hoped to prove his worth by dying in battle, and often acted appropriately recklessly. In the notes for “My Shot,” when Hamilton raps, “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory,” the playwright notes that the line is “the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written.” Sometimes, Miranda, like his protagonist, confuses death as the cause of glory, rather than glory having made the death notable — an understandable confusion for a Renthead. (“Glory” is also a chapter title in Chernow’s book.)
I am immensely grateful for my Rent experience; it was an honor and a privilege to be the first person to sit among Jonathan’s papers; to be, to paraphrase Hamilton, the person to live to tell his story. But I would have preferred to have had Larson around as a co-writer, explaining his creative process in his own words, rather than trying to understand him through the marks he left behind.
Thankfully, Miranda is very much alive. He’s a charming and witty commentator in the Hamilton book, writing in the personal, avuncular style known well by his 550,000 followers on Twitter. His footnotes — which run in the margins next to the songs — along with Jeremy McCarter’s assured narration offer depth and context to a show brimming over with ideas and poetry. The book is structured differently from our Rent history: we broke our narrative into two sections — a first and second act — with the libretto in the middle. Profiles of creatives provided the epilogue. Hamilton: The Revolution weaves the text and songs together, with the various key players introduced along the way. Our oral history threaded together a Rashomon chorus of voices (carefully edited and arranged by the authors). McCarter and Miranda tell the story of Hamilton themselves, with quotes interspersed.
The Hamiltome doesn’t merely provide more grist for Hamilton mania (for my fellow maniacs, the gems include an excised rap battle about slavery). It offers insights into the influences on and processes of the act of creation, how a “top-notch brain” (as Miranda’s protagonist brags) funnels an impressive repertoire of street knowledge, pop culture, and great books into 150 minutes of hooks, beats, melodies, and riffs. Miranda details the show’s numerous allusions to rap songs, show tunes, and American history. The choices are clever and rich: Jonathan Groff’s show-stopping turn as King George singing “You’ll Be Back” is patterned after the rock of the 1960s British invasion. The rap/R&B duets of the 1990s inspired the irrepressibly catchy “Helpless,” with Phillipa Soo as the Ashanti-esque singer and Miranda as the Ja Rule roughneck MC. “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” steals its subtitle from a classic history by Christopher Hill and a Revolution-era drinking song. (The phrase is also an apt description for Miranda’s upending of racial casting in the theater.) A close reading of the lyrics reveals that Miranda is a master of the art of the internal rhyme, piling assonances on top of each other like dizzying dares, accelerating the action. Few besides the mercury-tongued Daveed Diggs could pull off Jefferson’s verse in “Washington on Your Side”:
I’m in the cabinet I am complicit in
Watching him grabbin’ at power and kiss it,
If Washington isn’t gon’ listen
To disciplined dissidents, this is the difference.
This kid is out!
Miranda writes with a rhythmic flow that reflects the Nuyorican’s deep knowledge of musical forms, from salsa to soca to dancehall to jazz. He is the Shakespeare of soul. The show — which Cole Hamilton and I have seen once and whose cast album we listen to obsessively — is a major achievement, probably the major artistic achievement of our era.
Oh, it isn’t perfect —
Sorry, that was me trying to think of what’s wrong with Hamilton. Seriously, I wish I could unleash a critical backlash against this juggernaut. It would be a lot easier to pitch a story about how Hamilton is the great hoax of Broadway, than another appreciation of the guy who has already won a MacArthur genius grant (like he needed that) and a Pulitzer, and whose second play was nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tonys and won 11. Here’s all the critic in me has got:
- It pains me to admit this given my alleged lineage, but Miranda has penned a bit of a hagiography. Over and over again, he depicts Hamilton as a man of the people because of his Creole bastard background, without discussing how deeply the founder of the banking system distrusted the populace. Yes, Alexander championed outsiders: the immigrant, the slave, the anti-aristocrat. But he was deeply afraid of populism, demagoguery, and direct democracy, and all about federal power and a strong fiduciary. He was the anti-Bernie and the anti-Trump.
- To help make Hamilton the hero, the playwright over-villainizes his political opponents Jefferson and Madison. The latter did, after all, write the best part of the Constitution IMHO: the Bill of Rights.
- Miranda alludes to the legend that Hamilton may have been part black, even though Chernow refutes that lineage as apocryphal. On the other hand, Miranda straight-washes Hamilton, making no reference to the fact that he wrote pretty over-the-top sentimental letters to men including his friend John Laurens. This artistic choice puzzles me: not that Hamilton needs any more fans, but wouldn’t a little queering of the narrative help the show appeal even more to the usual show-tune crowd? Just saying.
- Artistically my only serious critique of Hamilton is the finale. It goes on too long, belaboring its rather sentimental point. As a feminist, I appreciate the way Miranda writes Eliza Hamilton into the narrative. I walked away from the show feeling proud not just in the reclamation of my great great great something or other Alexander, but also of this incredible matriarch. But Miranda tacks too much of a happy ending onto a story about a murder. When the chorus sings liltingly “the orphanage,” the cynic in me has to suppress a guffaw. As Wetzsteon used to tell me, if you can’t figure out how to end a story, it probably means you tied it together a couple paragraphs ago. Go back and cut.
That’s all I’ve got. Great show. Go see it. Oh haha, that’s right, it’s sold out forever and a day. Well, as they say, wait for it.
PENCIL TO THE TEMPLE
One day, Miranda was taking the subway to a party in Williamsburg. He was listening to several bars of music he had written, when, as he writes in the Hamilton book, “the entire chorus came in one ridiculous rush.” Like any good artist, he was prepared for the lightning strike of inspiration, in his case, by carrying two gadgets. He sang the words to what became “Wait for It” into his iPod as he listened to the loop on his iPhone. “I don’t know how to describe the feeling,” he writes. “It did not exist one moment and then there it was, coursing through my head: ‘Death doesn’t discriminate …’”
Lin-Manuel Miranda is a dope rapper and a sensitive actor. But I admire him most as a writer, as someone who’s always composing, even — maybe especially — on the subway. (In the greatest city in the world, trains become studios, offices, and muses.) Hamilton is the fruition of not just a radically imaginative inspiration — I mean seriously, who thinks of writing a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton?! — but of a dedication to making every single word work, every line sing. Like Hamilton, Miranda possesses a gift and a passion; this is a man who, on the day of the Tonys, when I’m sure the golden boy was more than a little busy, somehow found the time to sit down and write a sonnet that addressed, with searing elegance and tearful compassion, the horror of that morning’s massacre in Orlando, referencing the American revolution and quoting, on repeat, President Obama’s slow jam on Jimmy Fallon from earlier that week (“love is love is love is love”).
When Alexander Hamilton was a 17-year-old foundling, a hurricane crushed his hometown of St. Croix. He wrote a letter about it, that the local newspaper published. It was so compelling, a group of businessman raised funds to send him to New York for an education. Over and over, Hamilton’s characters sing about the way stories make history, about “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” This reflection on the power of the master narrative provides the play’s overarching structure. (Rent is similarly framed by the metatextual device of Mark’s filmmaking.) Throughout, Miranda depicts how his protagonist’s way with words is his lifeline and his tragic flaw. Hamilton opens with a chorus of characters telling Alexander’s backstory. In “Alexander Hamilton,” James Madison describes the self-starter’s writing process thus: “Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain.” George Washington advises his young colonel that “History Has Its Eyes on You.” In “Non-Stop,” the hesitant Burr marvel at his rival’s productivity. In “Hurricane,” the scandal-beleagured politician enumerates the ways in which his quill has rescued him time and again. “I wrote my way out,” Miranda says through Hamilton’s mouth. But the song becomes a cautionary tale of ego run amok: the philandering politician’s effort to save his ass by admitting an extramarital affair in the Reynolds Pamphlet backfires horribly. Hamilton loses his chance to ever become president and almost loses his devoted Eliza. Symbolically, she burns his letters to her, singing, “I’m erasing myself from the narrative.” The show ends with her change of heart, as the widow becomes the one to live to tell his story: “I put myself back in the narrative.” The act of writing — language itself — is the hero of Hamilton, a hero that stumbles over its tragic flaw of excess pride but lives to save the day.
Examining Hamilton from the perspective of the storyteller reveals just how radical the show is. Miranda revives a form of historiography that fell out of favor, especially among progressives, several decades ago: history based on Great Men. Explaining the past through the eyes and deeds of the famous and powerful reinforces the monoculture of rich white guys — the kind of figures Chernow has made his stock in trade (his other subjects include J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller). But Miranda flips this script by emphasizing Hamilton’s poor, Caribbean, immigrant background, using nonwhite musical forms, and (with the help of director Tommy Kail) casting people of color. Thus, he merges the Great Men tradition with its nemesis in the culture wars: social history, or the past told through the perspective of the regular folks who made and lived it. So the story of a Great Man — admittedly, one whose reputation needed some dusting off, but who Americans still see every time they handle a $10 bill (thanks for saving that one, Lin-Manuel) — becomes the story of that most overlooked historical figure of all, a woman. The world turns upside down. (Chernow also frames his biography with Eliza.)
As a writer and a woman, I find this all inspiring — and ironic. For as, specifically, the writer who told the story of the play that helped ignite Miranda’s obsession with glory, I feel myself, and Kathy, sometimes get written out of the narrative, and not by our choice. Lin-Manuel cites the Rent book often, including in a New York Times article about his favorite books; he’s even tweeted a picture of his son with it. But when I showed the Times article to my son, Cole kindly pointed out that ours was the only book whose authors Miranda did not cite. I know the Rent book was a collaborative effort of a creative team — a cabinet, if you will — including photographers, editors, and designers, and that its heart and soul is Larson’s libretto, but I also know that Kathy and I worked exhaustingly — non-stop, you might say — to conduct the interviews, edit them, and write the text that brought it all together. Just once I wish that Miranda would, to quote another great writer of our time, “say my name, say my name.” Kathy and I aren’t the only women to get left in Rent’s (gold) dust; dramaturge Lynn Thomson sued the producers and Larson’s estate for additional credit and royalties; Sarah Schulman wrote a book about her belief that Larson stole his characters from her novel People in Trouble; and Daphne Rubin-Vega got left out of the Rent movie despite being one of the stars of the play. Hamilton has made history by helping ensure that the Tonys were impressively racially diverse this year, but women are still disenfranchised in the theater — and completely absent in Hamilton’s creative “cabinet.” The decision to have not just race-blind but gender-blind casting in future productions of the show is a great step forward.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
On Christmas Eve, as my family celebrated a Hamilton-themed holiday, my brother decided to essay some quick online genealogy, based on documents unearthed by our stepmom. She had found a family tree going back to the mid-19th century in Dad’s papers; turns out we had a great grandfather with the Pygmalion powerhouse name of Lincoln Washington Hamilton. Flipping through various websites on his iPhone, Brett Hamilton went back further, all the way to the early 19th century — in Kentucky, far from Alexander’s West Indies roots. Maybe, there was some connection to Alexander’s deadbeat dad James, but direct lineage? Probably not. It seems our family legend was another classically American fable of imagined glory and wannabe roots. Ah well, Hamilton didn’t put much stock in bloodlines, anyway.
Nonetheless, in March, when Cole and I sat in the second row of the Richard Rodgers Theatre and watched Miranda stride to center stage and pronounce, “My name is Alexander Hamilton” to thunderous applause, the feeling was surreal. That performance changed my son’s life. Finally, after years of repeated exposure, he connected to a piece of musical theater — to a work of art — as I once had with West Side Story and Rent, and my mother had with South Pacific and The King and I. He felt it all: the identification, the suspense, the catharsis, the applause. He hasn’t stopped singing it since.
Cole Hamilton refuses to let the family myth die — he’s not throwing away his shot. The more he burrows into Hamilton, the deeper its namesake — his namesake — strikes a chord. The dogged dedication to an idea, the furious writing, the facility with money: Cole sees those as his Hamilton traits. My son finds in Miranda’s words what we all find in great art: truths that resonate with our own experience, that help us explain ourselves to each other. The show’s mind-blowing success may have inadvertently robbed him of the legend of his legacy, but that’s a small price to pay for having the coolest middle name of 2016.