It’s said that when Handel finished “The Hallelujah Chorus,” the skies opened up and he heard the Heavenly Chorus singing it note for note.
Even as my faith in organized religion has waned over the years, I have never had any problem believing that story.
And so I have to think that the skies opened up again when Lin-Manuel Miranda finished Hamilton.
I can’t quite imagine the Heavenly Chorus, who, from my childhood years of church, are white, staid, androgynous figures, singing four-part harmony effortlessly but also without much emotion, rapping and singing about bastards, whores, the Federalist Papers and the like. But if we take into account that maybe, just maybe, the images of what that group look like from our European-defined Christianity are not categorically correct, there should be incredible singers from all parts of the world, from cultures that don’t stand stock-still and devoid of joy while uttering the greatest music, most of which has never been heard by human ears.
Because to sing, to rap, to watch, to listen to Hamilton and not be nearly crushed by the sheer genius of the content and its creator is to be, quite frankly, dead or very nearly there.
I have purposely never listened to the whole album or tried to watch clips from the musical because I always hoped to see it live, so I had few expectations going in to watch Hamilton on the 4th of July. Of course I had heard all the hype. I knew the opening lines because…well because I don’t live under a rock, but also because I have watched Lin-Manuel Miranda perform it on various talk shows over the years. I have seen some documentaries about him and his inspiration behind the creation, but, for all intents and purposes, I didn’t have any real idea what was ahead of me when we sat down to watch on this steamy Saturday afternoon, a day of extreme temperature and humidity just like it would have been for those men in Philadelphia in 1776.
I may as well have never even heard of it for all that I didn’t know. I got to experience it as a brand new piece of art despite it being more than 5-years old. And what a gift that was.
So I’m not going to tell you what happens–first of all, anyone with even a cursory education in American history knows Hamilton’s outcome. But the artistic journey that Miranda takes the audience on between leaving the Caribbean and that fateful dawn is more complex, more adrenaline-pumped than the most sophisticated of roller coasters.
His ability to infuse a jolt of humor in the darkness, a jab at modern-day conservative politics (which in truth look very much like the Founding Fathers’-day politics), a feminist turn inside this wholly misogynistic era, a humanity and dimensionality to these figures forever immortalized in John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence (coincidentally, looking very much like they have the same emotional depth as said Heavenly Choir) is what is so astonishing.
I was riveted, and I openly wept through much of it.
And then, let’s talk about the casting. The brilliant casting.
Let’s see Black men play George Washington and Thomas Jefferson–two of the most complicated figures in our history. Particularly now, given our renewed interest in holding men of the past accountable for their actions as they relate to African and other minority people.
You know what I have to say to those who aren’t comfortable seeing Black men play characters we know to be white?
Get over it. Get over yourself.
At its most basic, please tell me the last time you were in a gathering of people and you all suddenly burst into song and dance, each knowing the choreography and all the lyrics intimately.
Oh, that’s never happened to you?
But you have no problem watching it on stage during a musical?
That’s because we all do something called “suspending our disbelief” during musicals. In those worlds, it makes perfect sense that whole restaurants of people will sing and dance together. It’s totally believable that a couple can meet and fall in mad, passionate love in the time span of one duet.
That’s the audience’s part of the contract to live theatre–we suspend our disbelief and don’t question the validity of time or circumstance or environment or whole stages of people dancing perfectly together. We just go along for the ride.
So, at the very least, suspend your disbelief at the casting of this show. Miranda knows American history at least as well as we do; in fact, he likely knows it better because he has actually read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. He’s wasn’t confused when he wrote these oh-so-white-men characters for men of color to play.
He is making a statement.
He was casting America as it could be. As it should be. As it actually is: a cacophony of color and gender and religion and culture. And no one is purely good or purely bad. These characters are complex and flawed; hypocritical and brilliant. Fortunate and unlucky and worthy of success and destined to fail…just like all of us.
I have now seen Hamilton, and the original cast to boot; shockingly, I don’t even mind that I saw it on television instead of in person because it was so brilliantly filmed. From this point forward, I will never again be able to say that I haven’t seen Hamilton, and that is truly one of the great artistic gifts of my life.
If you haven’t watched it yet, do yourself a favor. Forget that, in actuality, these men wore powdered wigs and wool in July. Let go of the notion that they were perfectly postured and proper in all they said and did…we certainly know they weren’t. Allow yourself to enter this alternative-reality where brave, ambitious and broken men and women of all colors and cultures pursued the same life, liberty and happiness that we all strive for today.
And then go about ensuring that that world becomes our reality.
And that is why the arts matter.