There’s a reason a show like “Hamilton” has earned every bit of hype that has followed its opening in 2015 and which has now finally come to Madison.
It’s not just the way virtuoso composer Lin-Manuel Miranda weaves history, passion, romance and heartbreak into a series of relentlessly catchy beats and lyrical tongue-twisters. It’s not just the lively retelling of one of the most compelling Founding Fathers’ biographies.
It’s the way it reaches deep into your chest, grabs your heart and makes you ask yourself how you might live your life differently if you knew, like Alexander Hamilton and George Washington do in this musical, that history has its eyes on you.
At least that’s what it is for me.
I (finally) had a chance to see the show during the touring production’s stint here at the Overture Center for the Arts. Having listened to the music and familiarized myself with the story, I wasn’t sure how it would all measure up (despite everyone’s assurances that it absolutely, always does).
See, as a musical theater nerd, I have an informal policy of not listening to the Broadway cast recording for a show until I see it performed onstage — a policy I broke for “Hamilton” a few years ago. To be specific, I was compelled, for some reason, to listen to the “Hamilton” soundtrack on Nov. 8, 2016, as I drove to and from the election party I covered as a reporter that night.
So much has happened since then.
It’s like Miranda wrote the musical we needed — years before we knew it.
It’s a story of revolution and governing, of leadership and hubris, of passion and love, of betrayal and forgiveness. It’s a story about legacies.
Miranda told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015 that the show contains his “feelings about what this country is and can be.” That’s true, in the best and worst ways — from the show’s frequent reminders that this country was built and made stronger by immigrants, to Aaron Burr’s cynical advice to “talk less, smile more — don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
“What I can tell you is that works of art are the only silver bullet we have against racism and sexism and hatred,” Miranda said. “Art engenders empathy in a way that politics doesn't, and in a way that nothing else really does. Art creates change in people's hearts. But it happens slowly.”
In the same interview, Miranda noted that our country’s political fights today are not so different from the ones we had in our nation’s infancy — for example, the balance of states’ rights vs. national power and the push-and-pull between domestic affairs and foreign involvement.
I thought a lot about that while I watched Saturday night’s performance.
The show carries such a sense of urgency, of necessity — of knowledge that the country’s very survival hinges on the choices being made by the people we are watching onstage. Will the U.S. interfere in foreign wars? How will the country manage its money? How will its top leaders be chosen? Will it allow some citizens to be treated worse than others? How will the nation build and sustain a framework that allows it to survive and perhaps even thrive?
I couldn’t stop wondering, as I watched, if these monumental figures in history knew how much was on the line as they navigated this uncharted territory. Of course they were aware to a degree, but did they really know how much of the future of our nation was contingent on their actions?
How do we ever know when we are at a crucial moment in history? Did the Union soldiers know? Did the Allied powers know? Did civil rights and women’s rights and LGBTQ rights activists know?
Do we know now?
We are a nation divided. We cannot agree on basic facts, let alone consider validity in others’ opinions. Racism, misogyny and hatred have found an ally and an enabler in the White House. Anger reigns supreme in so much that we do.
The “new normal” is anything but. But “Hamilton” reminds us that we’ve faced fraught times before — when the soul of our nation was on the line, when vitriol and violence regularly triumphed over reason and respect.
“We will have periods of anger, and we will have periods of bloodshed, but hopefully we'll take more steps forward than we take back,” Miranda said in the 2015 interview.
I still believe that we can take more steps forward — if we act with the knowledge that history has its eyes on us.
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