Why “Hamilton” is the Best Show Ever


Well, as predicted, Hamilton was nominated for a gazillion Tonys yesterday, and I would say “well deserved” except I never follow the Tonys, I know nothing of the other nominees, and I have not seen Hamilton live. But the announcement does give me an occasion to gather together stray thoughts I’ve been germinating about the show for a couple of weeks. I haven’t done so yet because a) I haven’t seen the real thing in a theatre. I’ve only done like millions of people around the world have done, and how I did with many shows as a teenager — played the cast album and watched videos of individual numbers on television); and 2) I didn’t listen to the album until rather recently, and I’m so behind the curve in this case that I feared my gushing would only embarrass both of us. It is particularly embarrassing because my praise for it is as immoderate as everyone else’s, and this too puts me behind the curve. I am not accustomed to agreeing with everyone else. After all, everyone else seemed to love Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and I walked out of that show after ten minutes. It was rubbish, and the sycophantic audience at the Public combined the worst qualities of Restoration bubble-heads mixed with the mob at the Roman coliseum (yes, I review audiences along with productions). Finding myself in agreement with the sickening masses of humanity disorients me and makes me want to bury that knowledge in a deep hole. However, my love is much better than your love — at least I can have that consolation.

Why did I drag my heels? Perhaps on some level I had some reluctance because I was director of public relations at the New-York Historical Society during the planning stages of the exhibition Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America (even attended some meetings with Ron Chernow, author of the book that inspired the musical). But I left, with some mutual acrimony. I can assure you that the guys who bankrolled that exhibition came to the topic of this important Founding Father with a very different philosophy from Lin-Manuel Miranda. I knew his take was different, but I still had a bad taste in my mouth. And on top of that I was fearful that I would once again have the alienating feeling that I was at odds with the taste of the masses. I needn’t have worried.

Since I was a teenager I have periodically penned little rants and manifestos and essays and blogs about how things (theatre, plays, musicals) ought to be, for I am, as the man says “never satisfied”. Hamilton is so great an accomplishment, and so aligned with what I have been seeking from the theatre my entire life, that I no longer have any complaints. Granted, I am not satisfied with most everything else, including my own exertions. But for the rest of my life, I will be able to say, I have been satisfied — so much more than satisfied — by this. I have a personal mental checklist…and every box was checked. And normally almost none of them are. An American theme. Check! A historical theme. Check! An American history theme. Check, check, check!!! An American history theme that represents the outsider and talks about our problematic history with issues of class and difference!!!! Check!!! A quasi-Shakespearean tragic hero!!!! Check check!! Populist in both spirit and aesthetic while NOT dumbing down to the audience or pandering to the lowest common denominator!!! Quintillion checks!!!! Poetical genius in the literary sense!!!! Formal brilliance!!!! Quintillion checks to the 10th power!!!! Contemporary music that talks to our own culture and reaches past the normal self-imposed musical theatre ghetto that has made most live theatre culturally irrelevant for the past 75 years! Quintillion checks to the the quintillionth power!!!!! Created by an individual as opposed to a committee! (Unmeasurable!!!) An individual who is essentially a rock star as a performer, comparable in his way to Elvis (Unmeasurable to the gazillionth power).

The Mad Marchioness put it best — Lin-Manuel Miranda is like the George M. Cohan of our time. But in some ways, he’s even better. Cohan wrote indelible, timeless popular songs, and was a terrific stage star. But as a playwright he never wrought anything as complex or as masterful as Hamilton. You can go back to it and back to it and take away something different every time, and you need to because it’s so dense you won’t catch everything. There are references to everything from the musical theatre canon (Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1776) to Grandmaster Flash and Gil Scott Heron. Jefferson’s got a number that’s informed by the character’s scientific education. King George has the whitest pop song in the score (I thought it sounded a little Beatle-y when I first heard it).  And the entire apparatus is steeped in America’s founding documents and lore and a deep understanding of our history’s capricious and sometimes cruel pendulum swings. And yet all of that formal virtuosity would avail nothing if it weren’t so emotionally meaningful, plucking every heartstring from humor to tears to to lust to righteous indignation.

Is Miranda the Second Coming of Jesus? Well, I suppose only his next show will be able to tell whether he will hold this exalted status for the rest of his life. But you know what? As far as I’m concerned, he never has to do anything else as long as he lives. He never does.

ADDENDUM: Caught the Disney streaming telecast on July 3, 2020, and my enthusiasm is redoubled a thousandfold and I can now add praise for Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography and every single performer in the show.  

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