Hamilton! Awesome! Wow!
Yeah, yeah, yeah, five months later (“…I’m writing a letter nightly”) and my love for Hamilton has not abated. Rather, like a happy marriage or a fine wine, it has matured into something even richer and more complex.
And so it took a new arrival to the private Hamilton chat group I’m in (you guys should see the Hamilton stream-of-consciousness-commentary I don’t post to Facebook) who said today, with all the wonder of Eternal September:
I can’t wrap my mind around the genius of this album. It’s perfection. Every single song. How did he do it? I don’t remember the last time something knocked me over like this.
to get me really thinking again. And? She’s right. Genius is an easy word to throw around. And certainly the breathlessness and hype over this show is enough to make any thinking person sit back and say, enough already! But there is something real here. Like this: I don’t know a single person who has seriously spent time with the show who can choose a favorite song. And more telling, I think, is not that they have “more than one favorite” or that they “like the whole thing,” but that in fact on repeated listening, and depending on what’s happening in the world and in the listener’s own life, different songs resonate from week to week. It seems like there is always something new to hear, a quotable quote for the week. The play is not just the thing, but a living thing.
And–I swear to God this isn’t just me–once you really know the show, you can’t help but hear and speak in shades of Hamilton at all times. Everyday phrases–wait for it, sometimes that’s how it goes, you are the worst–speak volumes. Following the cadence of someone’s conversation–about anything at all–will suddenly lead you stumbling dactyl over tetrameter into I’M in the CABinet I am comPLICit in WATCHing him TAKing that POWer and KISSin’ it. You find yourself waking up with lines repeating in your mind–and the thing is that you don’t mind.
In just over a year, Hamilton has both captured the imagination and infected the minds and language of its fans (admittedly a small group, with respect to the whole world, but a large one I would argue, compared to the usual audience of a one-year-old musical). It’s changed the way we think and speak. This is beyond catchy, beyond trendy (“our odds are beyond scary”)–there is something monumental here. But what?
Hm, let’s see: Hamilton is an old story, lifted from the chronicles of our nation, re-packaged and re-told in a contemporary voice for a contemporary audience. It’s almost entirely in verse and loaded with every shade of allusion. It is the tale of a promising and successful man raised high and laid low by his ambition. Or his fate. Or both.
In other words: Hamilton evokes a Shakespearean tragedy and that, I think, is why it feels both familiar and fresh, why it resonates in such a significant way.
Oddly enough, though, amid 8 million gushing think pieces,I haven’t seen much about Hamilton and Shakespeare at all–except of course the infamous Lin-Manuel Miranda tweet that spawned the hashtag #yayhamlet.
So, why not? Is it because it’s too obvious? Like, Hamilton tells us this himself in Act II when he refers to “another Scottish tragedy”? Or because drawing such a comparison sounds so over-the-top–Lin-Manuel is Shakespeare now, heavens preserve us, no, that’s not what I said–that no internet critic wants to imagine the backlash? Or because we’re distracted by the fact that Hamilton is a musical, which tend to play by different rules?
I dunno. But in any case, it was a new idea to me, on my evening commute home tonight. So, just for fun, let’s see how Hamilton (and by Hamilton I mean the cast recording, of course, since that’s what I have access to, though I know there are a few important moments missing from it) maps onto Freytag’s five-act structure of a Shakspearean tragedy. Of course, one could break the acts anywhere one wanted, and one could probably tell any number of compelling narratives about why one did so. (Do it! In the comments!) This is just one way of doing it. Here goes: Continue reading