The Fire One and the Flower One

My daughter just watched her first full-length movie this week: Moana. She’s been watching the songs and clips on youtube for almost a year, so she’s very familiar with the characters and the music, but she hasn’t had the attention span to actually watch a movie until now.

My daughter has also been Going Through Some Stuff this week. The seasons are changing, I think she’s growing (she’s had a really hard time waking up in the mornings!) and she’s been extra clingy, with her teacher and with us–and then extra tantrumy when things don’t go her way, or when she has to share attention with other kids at school.

Trying to make sense of all of this has made me appreciate so much of what is wonderful and unique about Moana. We could write dozens of posts about what is good and not good about this movie (and others have), but for today’s purposes, I just want to focus on Te Ka and Te Fiti or, as my daughter calls them, “The Fire One” and “The Flower One.”

[OK, guys, Moana spoilers from here on out, but if you haven’t seen it yet by now I am not too worried about spoiling it for you]

When I saw the movie for the first time, I didn’t see it coming that Te Ka and Te Fiti were one and the same until just moments before it was revealed. I just was not expecting it, because it’s so fundamentally against the Disney MO! That the scary witch wasn’t just inherently evil and bad and needed to be killed, but that she had been injured and wronged, and she was hurt and sad and fucking angry about it (**ahem** if you’ve noticed in the meantime that Ursula, Maleficent, et al were almost universally powerful female rulers who had their power stolen from them, and were trying to get it back…?). And when someone (Moana) took the time to look at what was going on, and (crucially) amends were made, Te Ka recovered and transformed (back) into Te Fiti.

This was reassuring to my daughter in the most simplistic way while we watched the movie: The Fire One was scary, but then she turned into the Flower One. Imagine! A fairy tale resolved with healing, not with murder.

But it’s also been helpful this week, as we talk about her feelings and behavior. It’s been a rough one. There has been hitting, kicking, biting, pushing, screaming. And it has been so useful to be able to point to this image: that sometimes, when we’re scared or hurting or angry or confused, we are all The Fire One. And other times, when we’re well-nourished, well-loved, when we feel that we’re being seen and heard, we’re The Flower One. We’re still the same person. We’re not inherently bad or good. Sometimes we feel scared (and sometimes we act scary). Sometimes we’re at peace and better able to blossom. But that can (and does) change, back and forth, back and forth. And Moana’s greatest act of heroism is to see The Flower One through The Fire One, to help bring her back to herself–and to force those who wronged her to make amends. And so may we all.

Love to all my Fire Ones and Flower Ones out there…..



That would be enough?

More swirling thoughts on Hamilton from the recesses of my brain, this time coming to you from my dad’s hospital room, where we are waiting out serious lung complications after what should have been a pretty routine surgery. Typing with latex gloves on, so forgive the blunders and thanks for the distraction!

Much has been made of the character of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, portrayed on stage by the almost ridiculously lovely Phillipa Soo. Some even suggest that–especially given that she closes out the whole damn show with a list that’s three miles long (no doubt) of all the crap she did after everyone else died–that the arguably ambiguous title Hamilton is supposed to signal she is the hero of the story as much as Alexander is. For reasons rambled on upon at great length elsewhere, I think it’s clear almost by definition that Alexander is our hero. But regardless of how, precisely, you categorize her role, there’s no denying that Eliza’s an incredibly important character, and the one whose development is, perhaps, more quietly interesting than anyone else’s.

I hadn’t thought much about this on my first 10,000 listens to the album–I took her for granted as the virtuous foil to A. Ham as well as Angelica (if Angelica is dazzling the room, Eliza must, by contrast, be full of boring if lovely domestic virtue/nagging, yes?)–until I listened to the excellent Theater People podcast interview with Soo. When asked about the song “Burn,” which seriously still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it, Soo talks about the trajectory of Eliza as a character, saying that she’d had a “slow burn” going over the course of the whole show.

I mean, of course I’d noticed Eliza’s increasing frustration with Alexander (that desperate bum, bum, bum…Alexander… Bum, bum, bum…Alexander! In Non-Stop), which peaks with “Burn,” apparently simmers down into forgiveness in “Quiet Uptown” (though in fact she doesn’t speak in that song at all), and ultimately glows into romanticized adoration in the finale.

But what I had not noticed until I started listening just for her was the subtle tension between how we assume she is, how the people surrounding her tell us she is, maybe even how she thinks she is…and what her words tell us about her. Continue reading

“Yay Hamlet!”: Hamilton as Shakespearean Tragedy

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

Perfect Pairing: “He will never be satisfied!”

If you’ve spent more then 12 seconds of real or virtual time with me in the last two weeks, you will know that I have gone off the deep end re: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the hip-hop / R&B infused musical interpretation of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. (got that?)

You can hear the whole thing on Spotify, here:

Go listen to it 10 times. I’ll wait.

This show is awesome in all kinds of ways, and gets better and better the more you listen to it. It has pervaded my mind to the extent that I’ve been forced to reference it in meetings at least three times this week.

I’m kind of sort of for real plotting a trip to New York in the spring to see this business on the stage

(How could I not? OMG.)

So if you want to come, “Riiiiise Up!”.

Wolf_Hall_coverBut meanwhile, from home, if you’re looking for a even more to think about while you’re rapping “Bonjour, mon ami, je m’appelle Lafayette…” I recommend pairing Hamilton with Hilary Mantel’s fictional interpretation of Tudor right-hand-man Thomas Cromwell, in the massive novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (BOTH books won the Man Booker Prize, by the way, which I believe is unprecedented).

I know these books have now also been miniserialized…I’ve not seen that yet.

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Cromwell have remarkably similar stories: both came from undistinguished roots, grew up in unfortunate circumstances, and were on their own by their mid-teens.

Both were self-educated, incredibly clever with language and money, driven by unbelievable energy, bound by their own (and only their own) definition of ethics and honor, and above all deadly ambitious.

Both rose through the ranks of government, so effective at getting shit done that they proved themselves indispensable to the man in charge….but made plenty of enemies along the way.

Hamilton captures how precarious was the fledging democratic government. It’s terrifying how close the whole thing came to falling apart. Mantel’s series captures how precarious were the tempers of Henry VIII. It’s terrifying to see a whole government trying to adjust to the whiplash of the king’s whim–or lose their heads in the trying.

Hamilton and Cromwell, while similar in their talents and ambitions, have to operate in somewhat different ways in order to survive their respective settings. (“How lucky we are to be aliiive right now!”)

Ugggggh….baby’s crying–talk about a tyrant–so I can’t get into Anne Boleyn and Angelica Schuyler. So let me sum up: Listen! Read! “Write like you’re running out of time!” And I hope I’ll see you in NYC (“The greatest city in the woooorld!”)

Lullaby Grab Bag

We all think we have our favorite songs, the ones we know by heart.

But at 3:30 a.m., in the dark, when you’re only half-awake and a tiny person is screaming in your face, and some voice deep inside you says, “I should probably sing a soothing song,” and you open your mouth wondering what will come out….this is when the truth is revealed.

Which songs are actually written into the muscle memory of your vocal cords? That you can sing from your brain stem, when higher functions fail? Probably not the ones you anticipated, eh?

Here, I’ve learned, are my top 10:

10. I Just Can’t Wait to be King Not even close to my favorite Disney movie or Disney song, but there it is. Also, the babe really likes the “bada ba dum bum, bada bum bum” intro. You know.

9. Good Morning I mean, who doesn’t fantasize about waking their charming children every morning with this song? Oh, not you? This one ranks down here only because, bummer, I realized I don’t know it as well as I thought and I got stuck on a second verse loop that I couldn’t find my way out of. Songs you have to think about don’t make the cut.

8. Put on Your Sunday Clothes This is another one where I tend to get stuck in the middle. But for bucking up and powering through those Blue Mondays, it can’t be beat.

7. The Tree Song Sang this one in church choir every year for approximately a decade, though we did not have such jazzed up accompaniment, let me tell you! Are you a downtown tree or a riverside tree?

6. In My Life Clearly, the only song to sing in the wake of a major and permanent life change. Reassuring to all parties.

5. Reel around the Sun Not really singable, but apparently her favorite thing in the world.

4. My Love How was this simple, sweet, image-rich song not designed for parents to sing to/with their children? I can’t wait until she is old enough to sing this one with appropriate hand motions, which I will obviously make up! Replace “I want you more” with “I love you more” if that makes you more comfortable.

3. “Hey little squalling girl, why are you a squalling girl” This, in case you couldn’t tell, is a creation of my own. No Puddles the Clown covers have been posted to YouTube yet, but this is more or less how it goes:

Hey little squalling girl, why are you a squalling girl?

Hey, little squalling girl, why are you a squalling girl?

You don’t have to be a squaller, instead you could be a sleeper

You don’t have a be a squaller, instead you could be a sleeper

Hey, little squalling girl, why are you a squaaaaaallliiiiiing giiirrrrrl?

So, you know, it’s pretty profound.

2. Edelweiss I mean, obviously. Bloom and grow forever, little girl! Frankly, I always assumed this would be my number one, but under pressure, it turns out something else has consistently edged it out.

And, drumroll please…..

1. Wouldn’t it be Loverly Cockney accent optional. Never would have guessed it, but I now sing this song about 100 times a day. I think a combination of factors come into play here: I know it forward and backward. Thanks, 6th grade musical + Big Note Broadway piano book + watching the movie 8,000 times when I was little. The range is pretty small. It’s not a stretch for a normal voice, and it’s easy to sing softly. No belting required. And, frankly, it’s a very sweet song about simple pleasures that was perfect for this first long winter. Who among us doesn’t want an enormous chair, lots of chocolate, warm feet, and to never budge till spring? Right? When I remember, I change the words from “someone’s head resting on my knee” to “Daisy’s head resting on my knee.” Better to paint the picture of a faithful canine friend than an unknown male supplicant, amirite? 

So, what songs have been resurrected from the depths of your soul and called into action in times of need?