A few months ago, it finally sank in that I was more likely to come up with a winning Powerball ticket than score affordable tickets to see “Hamilton,” the Broadway blockbuster about the one founding father who did NOT serve as U.S. president.
Why tickets to a play about the staunch Federalist who was recognized for his basic whiz-kid brilliance by the time he was 14, who masterminded the U.S. stock market, monetary system and Coast Guard, and who gave our nation its first public-figure sex scandal cost about the same as a one-way flight to Sydney, Australia, I can’t explain. But it seems the only way you can see the Tony-winning play is by buying on the resale market (read: official version of scalped). Sure you can see it sometime before the country celebrates its sestercentennial, but at what cost?
Realizing the impossibility, I did the next best thing. I played the soundtrack until it was firmly and deeply lodged between my ears, and I began reading Ron Chernow’s behemoth biography, “Alexander Hamilton.” Running 1,534 pages on my iPad (818 pages in hardcover), the book offers a thorough examination of Alexander Hamilton’s life, success, and failings, placing him in history as a man thoroughly of his time and place. As of now, I’m on page 632 and quietly rejoicing that the last 314 pages of the book are acknowledgement, notes, related articles and the like.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s been fascinating material—well except for the long toil over the Federalist papers, but I’ll forgive the author that. I’m not sure how you make writing and editing 51 articles on the defense of the U.S Constitution sound thrilling, no matter how crucial they are to understanding this country’s foundational document. The way Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author and star of “Hamilton,” the musical tells it, he was heading to a vacation after his success with “In the Heights,” his first Tony-winning wonder, and picked up Chernow’s book in the airport bookstore. I consider myself a pretty hearty reader, but clearly Miranda has one up on me when it comes to what he thinks of as a light beach read.
At any rate, this is the stuff you didn’t learn in high school, and really, not even in college, either. All most of us remember about Alexander Hamilton, the man whose engraving graces our $10 bill, is that his rival, Aaron Burr, killed him in 1804 in Weehawken, N.J. (a spot I skirt daily on my commute into the city).
Which, of course, doesn’t begin to explain why a musical about a “ten-dollar founding father without a father/who got a lot farther by working a lot harder/by being a self-starter” has become a phenomenon.
What amazes me about Hamilton, the man (as opposed to the musical), is what a dynamo he was. He was driven and on a mission to create a nation. Once the Americans tossed the tea in the sea and sent England on its way, Hamilton was hell-bent to unite the disparate, quarrelsome and petulant colonies into these United States. He knew that one currency, a national bank, monetary policy and the ability to interpret the constitution broadly were critical. If anyone emerges as the villain in the story, it is not so much Aaron Burr, but rather Thomas Jefferson, who fears in a strong federal government the tyranny of a government much like the one the colonies sought to escape. Jefferson had in mind some agrarian society, where agriculture sustained an idyllic republic. Unfortunately, this bucolic world was one fueled by the institution of slavery and the subjugation of a race. Somehow the author of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” was a little tone deaf when he wrote those words.
But I digress. What fascinates me about a play (yeah, the one I have yet to see) is the multi-racial casting and the combination of music styles. You’ve got King George III singing pop-ballads to his recalcitrant colonies (that sound like rejoinders to a world steeped in it), to the out-and-out raps that dominate the soundtrack, and a cast that is dominated by minorities who definitely do not reflect the complexions of our founding fathers.
And I think these two features are at the heart of the reason why I can’t buy tickets. By casting George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr as men of color, Miranda is saying that these men and their ideas are not, as we like to say of the literary and cultural canon, “a bunch of dead white guys.” (King George seems to be the only main character cast as a white guy, and I’m sure that’s some kind of comment on privilege.) They were revolutionaries in the most real, fundamental sense, writing and birthing inflammatory, novel, treasonous ideas that set us on the path to nationhood. Rap is a perfect vehicle to convey that their ideas were as in-your-face, back in the day, as they could be.
What I’ve gleaned from the book, beyond a greater yearning to see the play, is how those ideas are playing themselves out today in our national debate and in our presidential politics. The schism about a strong federal government versus the rights of the states is as old our nation, there from the start, or as the character of Hamilton asks early in the show, “Are we a nation of states? What’s the state of our nation?” When Hamilton designs the banks, stock market and monetary policy, you see the vision he had for a nation that needed enough laxity in regulation to have a vibrant capitalist society, yet simultaneously needed enough oversight so that avarice and greed would not run amok. Of course, more than 200 years hence, we’ve seen what happens when those things are out of balance. And I’ve heard (because of course, I haven’t SEEN it) is that when the characters of Hamilton, born in the West Indies, and the Marquis de Lafayette (the brilliant French major general who participated in the American revolution), sing “immigrants, we get things done,” it gets a big round of applause, no doubt echoing the themes and memes of today.
I may never get tickets to see “Hamilton” on Broadway. It might be cheaper at this point to buy them for the national tour in Chicago or D.C. or Houston, fly there, stay in a hotel and make a weekend of it. Or perhaps I should just buy that ticket to Australia.
I’ve still got several hundred pages to go before I get to Hamilton’s deadly duel with Burr, then the sitting vice president of our country. So as strange as things are today in politics, contemplate that, if you will (then again, if you recall, Dick Cheney shot a hunting companion while he was veep, so maybe this isn’t so outlandish). At the outset of “Hamilton,” our hero sings, “I am not throwing away my shot.” In the end, he most definitely does.
But in between he leads a life of fiery purpose— a wildly successful bootstrapper, inspired, inspiring and flawed. It’s something to remember on July 4, that among those dead white guys who founded this country, Alexander Hamilton still so brilliantly sums us up.