Some Disorganized Thoughts on Hamilton: The Musical

I'm going to be trying to make more of an effort to journal about narrative experiences, particularly those which are fleeting. However I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to write Well, a pressure which makes it far less likely that I'll write at all?

So here are some basically stream-of-consciousness thoughts about going to see Hamilton at yesterday's matinee, which you can take a look at if you're curious but which may be borderline unreadable to anyone who isn't me.

A few notes beforehand:
- We sat way over on the far right of the mezzanine, but we were in the FIRST ROW, which was excellent.
- I bought these tickets way back in September. We could have gone to an earlier show, but this was the first show I could find with the kind of seats I wanted.
- I should have bought tickets like....jeez, summer of 2015, when I already knew the musical was coming out and was already excited about it because I'd watched Miranda's White House performance dozens and dozens of times, and I have a bunch of theater friends who were like "Alison you should buy tickets." I'm a moron, I don't know. I DON'T KNOW!
- But what the fuck ever it was a great! The entire original cast was there, aside from King George, who's been replaced a couple of times. I feel enormously privileged to have been able to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pulitzer-winning MacAuthor "Genius," perform the role with which he has minted a new generation of Theater Nerds and transformed the American conversation about race and our own history.
- I spent basically the last third of the play crying.
- I very nearly shouted "CONGRATS ON THE MOTHERFUCKING PULITZER" during the curtain call but felt it would ruin the atmosphere

Here are my as-they-come-to-mind thoughts on Hamilton, which I am probably not going to proofread at all, apologies:

For starters, a thing I was genuinely really worried about was, "Have I ruined this experience for myself by having such a close familiarity with the original cast recording? Am I just going to sit there and be annoyed at the ways in which the live performance of this material will inevitably not only differ from the recording, but in places be less crisp and crystalline-perfect just because of the super dense NATURE of the material itself and also the fact that these are humans who have been doing this every day for months and months and months and must be fucking exhausted, particularly the principles who spend so much of every performance on stage? Particularly poor Miranda who's like, not only doing this fucking musical but rocketing all over the country like a maniac during every free second of time."

I was worried that I would have a version of my complicated experience with Disney musical soundtracks back in the day -- I would buy them the minute they came out, and by the time I actually SAW the movies I'd often have memorized every single song as well as the included segments of the score. And I was the kind of kid who elaborately choreographed how I thought those musical numbers would look in my head, who built an alternate version of the movie as I listened. And of course, when I DID see the movie, whatever was on screen was never anything like what I'd imagined, and while I usually came around in the end, on the first viewing I'd feel a sort of keen disappointment. Because what I had imagined was SO MUCH BETTER (I thought to myself when I was 12-16.) Would I feel like that about this musical? My imaginings for it were far less high-fidelity than the Disney Choreography of middle school but obviously I'd thought about it a LITTLE. I'm a writer and a cartoonist, I can't help it -- that's just how I process things.

So yes, you know -- in the end, there was a little of that! I found myself thinking "man, the delivery of that line was way snappier in the recording" or "aw, I'm disappointed that this song is basically just one person standing alone on the stage." So there were small ways that the performance departed from my expectations, established by repeated OCR listening, and I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I spent every single second completely immersed and mesmerized without any metatextual pondering about how I'd Shaped My Experience.


Overall, man. MAN!!! In the end, Hamilton is a Musical, not a concept album; Hamilton was designed to be watched and listened to at once. A really great comic is one where the visuals carry as much of the story as the word balloons and captions, and Hamilton's staging and choreography and sets and lighting all layer further meaning onto the already-dense lyric. I had a little niggle of this feeling right away, and it grew and grew as the performance continued, until it crescendoed in the final duel with Burr.

And that duel, btw, is where my expectations and the reality of the performance were most at odds in a way that most enhanced the experience. Because I had expected a soliloquy, basically -- a moment where Hamilton steps outside of time and speaks to us, the audience. This was one of the few places where I'd expected a person standing alone, inactive, inwardly focused. I did not expect it to be, in some ways, an echo of "Satisfied" - a flitting through scattered moments of his history, people stepping in and out of the light, scenes sketched and relived and then gone again.

It's not that seeing Hamilton on stage gives you a ton of Brand New information you'd never have even guessed at otherwise, and more that it deepens and textures the relationships between the characters, clarifies the thematic through-lines. You're aware of people being physically present in a given scene, even if they're silent or only have a couple of lines; you can see how the ensemble -- the chorus -- is this vibrant and fluid thing which shifts between the literal and the abstract, which in one scene plays a crowd on the street, in another are uniformed soldiers, in another are both a bullet traveling through space and the physical manifestation of regret and anticipatory grief, one woman tracing the bullet's path while the other players pile up around her like a barricade, trying to stop the result of a decision that's already been made.

You can SEE how ever-present Madison is in the second act, even though Jefferson is doing most of the talking. You get a much better sense that while Lafayette is the exciting fandom favorite, it's the role of Jefferson where Diggs really shines, where his energy is bursting out of him. You see the complete upset of Hamilton's life manifested not only in the lyric of Hurricane, but in the ensemble physically tumbling his office around him in slow motion, before coalescing back into a claustrophobic half-human desk on which he can write the document that will detonate his marriage. You see that in the chaotic aftermath of the Reynold's Pamphlet's publication, George Washington walks silently across the stage and meet's Hamilton's eyes, disappointed but not surprised. You watch as Eliza is swept along by other people's decisions; you watch her, alone on the stage for the first time, as she edits herself out of the narrative of history; and then you watch as the show's final number physically makes room for her, the cast all parting and stepping aside, as she describes how she leapt into history again of her own accord. You really FEEL how Burr and Hamilton are constantly moving in and out of each other's lives, as you watch them part and reconnect on the stage again and again.

I knew there was a big moment that's missing from the OCR, where Hamilton gets news of Laurens' death; and I knew ROUGHLY when that moment occurred. But it wasn't until I saw it integrated into the show that I realized how pivotal a moment it is; how that is the point where Hamilton shifts to the mindset of racing against his own mortality, of writing like he's running out of time. Laurens' death is framed as a pointless tragedy -- he dreamed of freeing slaves and forming a battalion of black soldiers and that that dream died with him. It's at this point that Hamilton slips into an obsession with his legacy, with building legislation and institutions which will outlast him, of finishing the work that he feels only he can do.

Anyone who is remotely paying attention knows about the double-casting -- knows that Lafayette and Mulligan become Jefferson and Madison, that Laurens becomes Phillip -- and I...technically knew this as well. Particularly with Diggs, who looms so large. But I hadn't really THOUGHT about it much. But as the lights came up for intermission, I sat there looking at the stage and thought about nearly how all of the people who were at Hamilton's side during the first act would be set against him in the second, or else alienated from him through his own actions. I thought about how Hamilton in Act 2 is not only mostly alone as he struggles to do the work he's decided is more important that basically anything else, he's also in direct opposition with characters played by the cast members who were his closest friends in Act 1. And know, watching it on the stage, it really struck me how Hamilton is, in part, a story about a man who systematically isolates himself from People, in the service of his Work. I realized that I had -- like many other folks -- listened to the OCR and thrilled to lines about writing like you're running out of time, and seen a reflection of my own urgency to create and to leave my mark on the world. And I realized that ultimately, Hamilton the musical actually has a LOT to say about work-life balance -- about how, in abandoning the human context for our work, we diminish ourselves.

Other bits and pieces:

- There are places where the performance of a song is very, VERY quiet, particularly at the beginning. Burn was one that stands out in my mind, but more than one of Burr's performances had that same quality -- a theater full of people holding their breath.

- My friend, Clio, told me that Diggs basically spends most of his time on stage running around like a madman and she was CORRECT. At one point, as Lafayette, he jumps off of a table and clear across the stage.

- During The Reynold's Pamphlet, Jefferson is gleefully running around the stage scattering copies and handing them to passersby. At the end up the number, he hands one down to the conductor of the orchestra.

- Watching the show clarifies Burr as both a counterpoint to Hamilton and as a narrator reflecting on events that he was a part of.

- Satisfied is one of my favorite parts of the OCR and watching it on stage....seriously Fucked Me Up. Much of the choreography is as you might expect -- Angelica leading us back through the events of Helpless, reframed from her perspective. But it also really highlights how she isn't just commenting on these events, she's CHOREOGRAPHING them, effortlessly moving Hamilton through a complex social and political situation to the result which she prefers for herself and for her sister.

- The part where Phillip challenges That Guy to a duel takes place at a theater, complete with a play-within-a-play and a small "audience" on the stage. And would have been an even funnier moment if I hadn't known what would follow.

- Jackson is just such...PERFECT casting for George Washington. He has just the right charisma and charm, that presence which fills a room, but he also exudes a sort of hard-earned wisdom, a genuine affection for an frustration with Hamilton, an exhausted sense of duty coexisting with good humor. I loved him immediately. I believed he was a man who could have been the functional King of America if he hadn't stepped down from the presidency voluntarily.

- Which meant that One Last Time, which I've always enjoyed, became a kind of sucker-punch to the gut. It's staged such that, as Hamilton's recitation blends into Washington's, the two men slowly swap places between the front and back of the stage. And as I applauded after the song was finished, all I could think about was how, when Jackson sings this number during his final performance, it's going to DESTROY everyone in the theater.

- I know I said something to this effect earlier, but it really did strike me how Hamilton is a show about Relationships, not just a few exceptional people doing their thing in parallel. In the background of every scene where more than a handful of people are on stage, those relationships continue -- Jefferson checking in on Madison when he's had a coughing fit, Hamilton's friends egging him on as he gets ready to refute the Farmer, Angelica dancing with Washington at the ball where her sister and Hamilton first meet, Burr trying to keep Hamilton from completely alienating a jury, Eliza and Angelica trying to convince Hamilton to take a fucking break for a couple of fucking weeks.

- Odom, Jackson, Soo and Goldsberry are in a class all their own. They've been at this for just as long as everyone else on the cast, but you'd never know it listening to them -- they open their mouths and it's like we're sitting there opening night. The fill the entire room.

- Miranda is obviously getting tired -- you can hear it in his voice. But I don't know. In a way, that sort of enhanced the whole experience for me. Because Hamilton himself? Must have been fucking EXHAUSTED.

- One of the biggest differences between the OCR and the live performance, actually, was Miranda himself. His delivery of large sections of lyric, particular the more painful ones, was very very different. On the OCR he's always so smooth and charming; on stage, he disintegrated with grief, he rasped quiet whispers of desperation.

- I cried and I cried and I cried. I cried so much that I fucked up my glasses with dried tears and had to scrabble in my purse for my lens cloth. I cried so hard I had to pause at one of the box seats, midway down the stairs to the street, and look at the empty stage and absorb it into me and compose myself a little.


If they don't produce SOME kind of video production of this which people can watch -- people who aren't able to see this cast, who can't attend these performances -- I'll be a little furious. I don't think the lucky and the rich should be the only people who're able to watch this for themselves.

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