Okay, so I’m five years late to the party. I put off watching Hamilton because it blew up, it became this huge thing, and I figured it was so big, it had to be some lowest common denominator action happening, something that was mindless and appealed to all. Big spectacle, catchy music, no substance. So I didn’t get involved. Didn’t listen to the soundtrack (inasmuch as I could avoid it), didn’t watch video clips of it.
Well, we finally watched it this past week. It’s on Disney Plus. Big Mouse. Big House. Much Exposure. I couldn’t put it off any longer. We watched it.
And at first watch? It’s exactly as expected. Big, catchy numbers. Wonderful choreography and storytelling. A thoroughly enjoyable musical theatre experience. Substance? More than expected. (It’s a historical dramatization, after all.) But then we listened to the soundtrack again on a long drive, and it got under my skin. If music has an infectious quality, this was that, exactly. My wife started reading articles, then ordered a book on Hamilton. I found myself searching for podcasts on American history (I always need more material for my morning runs).
But the more I thought about the story from a literary perspective, the more I felt hollow. See, from the theatrical perspective, the show is absolutely lights out. A rap musical? A stage full of performers at the top of their game? Multicultural cast appropriating a bunch of crusty old white dudes? Yes. This is the jam. Turn your brain off and drink it in. But from the perspective of actual story?
Because we like arcs. And we like themes. And we like characters that grow and mature and overcome their faults and save the world.
And Hamilton? Well, here’s where the spoilers set in. There’s none of that.
He starts as this brash, talk-too-much unstoppable force and … well, he’s that way for his whole life, never really gets that in check. It gets him killed.
He has all this incredible potential — a mind like none other, the wit to put his ideas into words and to convince people, but he blows up his political career (and in fact his whole life) because he can’t keep it in his pants. He’s a superman brought down, not by the nefarious dealings of foes who conspire against him, but by perfectly ordinary means: his own failure to master his impulses.
Even his death. He dies “throwing away his shot” — that is, wasting his opportunity to fire upon his opponent in a duel, believing that his opponent will also do the honorable thing as well. But he overestimates his opponent’s good will and takes a bullet in the chest. Of course, that’s tragic — until you remember the same thing happened to his son years before. The son had a duel, came to the father for advice, Hamilton advised him to do the honorable thing and throw away his shot … and his son gets killed by a less-than-honorable opponent. He learns nothing!
So he has this incredible life, creates (apparently out of whole cloth) the economic structure of a new nation, and dies because he can’t keep his mouth shut and trusts to the better nature of a man he believes to be a scoundrel.
I suppose it fits the mold of a Greek Tragedy more than anything else, but even in a Greek Tragedy the hero has that moment of recognition, where he realizes he was wrong all along. Hamilton doesn’t get that. He stays who he is until the last.
And while in real life that may be something worth boasting about, in a story, it’s unsatisfying.
So I find myself going round and round with this. What do I take away from this story, when the main character is so frustrating, and his end so abrupt and needless?
But that’s the answer. The play is very concerned with Hamilton operating like he’s on a timer: he writes “like he’s running out of time”, he can’t wait to assume command in battle and prove himself; heck, the closing number for the first act is titled “Non-Stop”. What stands out in the story, for me, is the fact that none of us knows how much time we have, that the timer is counting down for all of us. That death waits for all of us. And like Burr, the villain of the play, most of us seem to be waiting for something. Hamilton may do a lot of things, but waiting is not one of them.
We don’t know what history will say about us. We don’t get to decide who will tell our stories. All we can do is make the most of the time we get.
That’s the core message of Hamilton, I think.
As frustrated as I am with the rest of it, I can be moved by that.