Monday, November 23, 2015

Currently Listening 11.23.15


Pop quiz: how much do you know about Alexander Hamilton? Because I know entirely too much.

For those of you who haven't been in an American history class lately, I'll give you the rundown. Good old Alexander was one of our founding fathers. He’s best remembered as the first Secretary of the Treasury, creator of the United States federal bank, and author of the majority of the Federalist Papers. He’s the guy on the ten dollar bill and he founded the New York Post. Also of note is his rather dramatic death at the hands of Aaron Burr in a duel. 

Jesus, Alex, relax, he shot you in the ribs, not the face. (Please note that dude in the back like "Oh SHIT.")

Honestly, until very recently, that was always the story I remembered best, the duel. I mean, hey, it’s dramatic. Most of the founding fathers lived to ripe old ages, while Hamilton didn’t even hit 50. Despite this, he left reams and reams of writing behind, so his mark on history is very much felt.

Oh, and there’s a mildly popular musical about him on Broadway right now. Mildly. I’m kidding. The damn show’s sold out until next year and tickets are getting scalped for hundreds of dollars. I'm considering selling a kidney for tickets at this point. Hamilton is a hit unlike anything Broadway’s seen in years, and I’m here to tell you all about it.

Hamilton is the brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda, previously known for writing the script and music for In the Heights and Bring It On the Musical (shoutout to Chante on that one). Similarly, he did all the writing for Hamilton and stars in it every night to boot. The project started off small, as a series of lyrics called "The Hamilton Mixtapes" inspired by Ron Chernow's Hamilton biography. Seriously, Lin-Manuel Miranda read a biography of a founding father and just decided he was so cool he deserved a musical. So he did it. The man’s a powerhouse. Hamilton marries early colonial American history to hip-hop music and musical theater with a cast almost completely comprised of people of color; Miranda is Puerto-Rican, actors portraying Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and others are black and Hispanic, and Miranda explains this as a deliberate choice: “Our cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional.” Effectively, he’s reclaiming these stories we forget from history class, because these people are so inaccessible to modern Americans. Miranda’s lyrics make debates about national debt edge-of-your-seat showstoppers, and I am not exaggerating. 

Miranda finds a narrative far apart from the other founders within his eponymous subject. Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant from the West Indies born out of wedlock; ethnically, he was Scottish and French, but to many of his contemporaries, he was a total outsider since he wasn't a natural-born citizen, unworthy of his place among them. The second President John Adams called him a “creole bastard” in public, just to give a bit of scope to the odds Hamilton found himself up against. When the President's talking bad about you, it's pretty hard to have a government job. Everything Hamilton got, he earned through his own frantic efforts. He’s the hero of the musical, but his flaws are fleshed out as much as his strengths; the portrayal is honest and overwhelmingly human. Pretty good interpretation for a man who's been nothing but a name in a textbook to most people until now.

Also, the songs are fantastic. One of Miranda's greatest strengths is his mastery of the repeated motif. All the major characters have lines, either spoken words or melodies, that recur constantly in the course of the narrative. This attention to detail creates a cyclical narrative that builds on itself and allows for both throwbacks and foreshadowing. It's so good. I’ve spent so much time babbling about the musical because I really can’t choose which selections I should link to. This Currently Listening is more Currently Lecturing by now, so on we go.

Well, I guess we can start with that debate about national debt I mentioned before. Have you ever wanted to hear Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton have a rap battle emceed by George Washington, complete with hollering from the sidelines? Because that’s “Cabinet Battle #1.” Highlights? At one point Jefferson accuses Hamilton of corruption and tells him “If the shoe fits, wear it.” Hamilton’s response? “Hey, turn around, bend over, I’ll show you where my shoe fits.”

Yeah, they didn’t really get along. Hamilton didn't really get along with that many people, honestly. 

Speaking of Jefferson, now that you’ve heard him rap, do you want to hear him doing trap music now? “The Reynolds Pamphlet” will deliver that for you. First, more historical context: Hamilton has the dubious distinction of being involved in the first publicized sex scandal in American history. Good job, Alex. Hamilton was blackmailed by his mistress’s husband to buy their silence, essentially, but seven years after the affair ended, Hamilton’s contemporaries grew to suspect him of corruption. To prove he wasn’t stealing funds from the government, he instead confessed to the affair. Via a published essay! So everyone in the country could read it! Obviously, this did little to spare his reputation. “Have you ever seen somebody ruin their own life?” his political rivals gleefully ask toward the end of the song.

Miranda also references the Notorious B.I.G. in “Ten Duel Commandments,” a play on “Ten Crack Commandments.” The song’s motifs recur in two notable duels in the narrative; obviously in Hamilton and Burr’s duel, but the melody also appears the duel that kills Hamilton’s eldest son, Philip.

I hate to do this to you, but it's time to get sad, because Hamilton’s strength isn’t just in its plays on genre and its references, but its ability to convey such genuine emotion, particularly profound grief.  First, listen to “Dear Theodosia,” in which both Burr and Hamilton lovingly sing in counterpoint about their children and the future they want for their kids in the newly-formed United States. Then, listen to “It’s Quiet Uptown,” a song about the Hamilton family struggling to recover from Philip’s death, as well as Alexander’s struggle to repair his marriage after the disastrous Reynolds affair. If you don’t get at least a little bit choked up, you might be a robot. Just saying.

Back to Aaron Burr; remember him, Hamilton’s killer? In the musical, he’s Hamilton’s foil due to their key differences of ideology. Burr keeps his opinions close to the chest, changing his views to accrue popularity and advance himself politically. Hamilton never stops telling anyone who’ll listen his opinions; he's blessed (and cursed) with intense conviction. Burr thinks Hamilton is reckless and hotheaded. Hamilton thinks Burr is amoral and spineless, never willing to risk his neck to take a stand. As Hamilton advances more and more in life, Burr grows more and more envious of his success. This builds to the foregone deadly conclusion. 

In the musical, their motifs crop up incessantly. Burr is willing to “wait for it” - bide his time until the moment is right. Hamilton insists on “not throwin’ away my shot” - he’ll grab any opportunity he sees. Their rivalry, and Burr’s ambitions, are perfectly captured in one of my favorite songs in the entire show, “The Room Where It Happens.” Burr has grievances with closed-door politics, but not because he finds them corrupt: “What do you want, Burr? What do you want, Burr? If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?” “I want to be in the room where it happens!” Not for any reason, just to have the power. Not to do anything with that power, just to have it. He’s the de facto antagonist, but he’s as human as Hamilton is.

In the end, at their duel, everything goes the worst way possible for two reasons. Burr, terrified of dying at Hamilton's hands, doesn't fulfill his philosophy of waiting; he acts brashly and shoots first. Hamilton, wishing to live honorably instead of killing Burr over their lifetime of disputes, shoots at the sky - he throws his shot away, and his prudence is what leaves him vulnerable to Burr's fatal bullet. They defy their motifs and pay the ultimate price.

Lin-Manuel, I trusted you. How could do you this to my heart?!

I’ll leave off with one last fact: Hamilton is actually, seriously historically accurate aside from minor timeline shuffling for better plot advancement. Some of the lyrics are direct quotes from letters and primary sources from the era. Yeah. Seriously. Lin-Manuel has receipts. If you feel inclined to listen to the entire musical, it’s on YouTube, and in playlist form too, for your convenience! and if you’re interested in all the references, every song is extensively annotated and sourced here.

And that, friends, is why I know entirely too much about Alexander Hamilton.

And you learned something today. You're welcome.

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