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Here’s the very first exchange between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, as conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda:

Hamilton: Pardon me, are you Aaron Burr, sir?
Burr: That depends.

That’s Burr in a nutshell: unwilling to commit, even to the point of admitting his name. Oh, sure, it’s framed as a gentle rebuke to Hamilton’s manners, which he accepts: “Who’s asking?,” Burr goes on to say, a reasonable enough rejoinder when a stranger demands to know one’s name, and Hamilton catches his faux pas and introduces himself. But it is also an epitome of the defining difference between Burr and Hamilton in Miranda’s interpretation; Burr is guarded, “waiting to see which way the wind will blow” (“Non-Stop”), and Hamilton impetuous, always giving his opinion whether anyone wants to hear it or not–just as, at the end of this song, a newbie, he jumps in to the tavern debate: “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?”

Each will drive the other up a wall, learn from the other, and adopt the other’s ways to his own advantage. This meeting is the first step along the way to Hamilton’s becoming diplomatic enough, Burr style, to gain influence (“The Room Where It Happens”), and to Burr’s acquiring enough of Hamilton’s bulldozer drive to seek power (“The Election of 1800”) and as a result, end up fatally opposed. The reality was probably muddier, but that’s one of the thoughtful simplifications Miranda chooses, stringing a thread from each man’s earliest experiences, through their career decisions, to their final confrontation.

And then, of course, there’s the foreshadowing in the warning, “Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead,” which would be too theatrically ominous if not immediately humorously claimed, and thus undercut, by John Laurens’ shouting “What time is it? Showtime!”

Anachronistic humor is another tricky balance the play strikes well. What kind of beer does Laurens drink? Sam Adams, of course. In the gangsta-rap style introductions, Laurens speaks defiantly about the Redcoat “cops,” which prompts thought about ways in which the British and colonists were, and were not, analagous to today’s police and African Americans. Do government forces within the 21st century US perpetuate colonialism vis a vis the citizens? The play stays firmly rooted in the 18th century, but it doesn’t shy away from planting these ideas.

The foreshadowing is in the music as well as the words. Those chords of “Aaron Burr, Sir,” the second song? We will hear them again in the second-to-last song (“The World Was Wide Enough”), just after Burr shoots Hamilton and becomes “the villain in your history.”

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I’m sorry to add to the sorrows of anyone who didn’t wangle a ticket, but I’m very excited: we are going to see Hamilton in July! Around the time we got tickets, my mom asked what she should give us for Hanukah, so I said the cast recording, and I’ve been listening to it virtually non-stop since then. And when I listen and think about something a lot, I want to write about it. Ergo, this song-by-song analysis.

It’s tempting to start with my favorite song (if I could choose!), or the first one I heard, but I’m determined to take them in order. “Alexander Hamilton” is an opening song that does what an opening song should: sets the stage, the scope, and the tone; tells you, “This is what to expect,” even if some of those expectations are being set up deliberately to be tumbled down later. It leaps onto the stage with the fanfare-like seven-note motif that will be repeated whenever it’s time to set the scene. (Elizabeth Ayme points out that this motif’s rhythm is that of the key words, “Not throwing away my shot.” I’m getting ahead of myself; that’s song 3. But isn’t that brilliant?) All of the main characters are onstage, except as made impossible by the doubling of roles (much more on that later).

The rest of the play is going to cover almost 30 years of Hamilton’s life, from age 19 to his death at 47, so this song tells his life story up until that point, establishing several expectations right away. First, Aaron Burr is the narrator of this biography, and we’re going to get a sympathetic portrait of him as well as of Hamilton: “Me? I’m the damn fool that shot him.” Spoiler alert? Which brings us to the second point: false suspense about commonly-known facts will be cleared away from the start. In case you walked into the theater not knowing even the few things I knew about Alexander Hamilton—one of the founding fathers of the country, the guy on the ten-dollar bill, from somewhere in the Caribbean, died in a duel with Aaron Burr—you know them now. This lets us get right into the story that will unfold, of how two fine men came to point pistols at one another, an act of folly that would doom one to death and the other to ruin. (That’s my editorializing. Lin-Manuel Miranda himself is never so heavy-handed, telling the story with attention to the psychology of the duel, and letting us draw our own conclusions about the ethics.) The bullet sound that will be repeated frequently is introduced right here.

Third, we’re introduced to the mix of musical genres we should expect: in “Alexander Hamilton,” mostly rap and musical theater; British pop circa the 1960s, R&B, and jazz will be added further along the way. The rapping (which morphs into singing) is slow and steady here, easing us in, but we can already see that Miranda and the medium he’s chosen have a great capacity for condensing a lot of information into a few lines, artfully. Four years of Hamilton’s life are encapsulated in ten lines that move so effortlessly between casual lingo of our time (“woulda,” “scammin'”) and vocabulary befitting an 18th century genius (“astute,” “restitution”) that we can already tell this whole rap-about-the-first-Treasury-Secretary idea is actually, improbably, going to work:

There would have been nothin’ left to do
For someone less astute
He woulda been dead or destitute
Without a cent of restitution
Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord
Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and all the things he can’t afford
Scammin’ for every book he can get his hands on
Plannin’ for the future, see him now as he stands on
The bow of a ship headed for a new land
In New York you can be a new man

Other commenters have noted more resonances with musical theater and rap than I can do; I enjoy both, but don’t have enough breadth of knowledge to pick up on all the allusions. I hear similarities to some of my favorite songwriters, like the rhyme-by-enjambment of Tom Lehrer or Roy Zimmerman, the reveling in cleverness of wordplay of Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter, and the richness of rhyme of Bob Dylan, but I don’t know which of these Miranda would name as influences (except for Dylan, whose albums he buys the day they’re released). I just know this: if I want to hear wordcraft like “It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s delectable, it’s delirious, it’s dilemma, it’s de limit, it’s deluxe, it’s de-lovely,” or “I love all the many charms about you, / Above all, I want my arms about you,” Hamilton will oblige.

Although, again, the tempo has not yet ramped up to the rapid-fire pace it will reach in later songs, their richness of rhyme and internal rhyme are already here. Never mind ABCB or even ABAB rhymes; Miranda writes AAAAAAAA, and even then he doesn’t stop:

This ten-dollar Founding Father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter.

He’s not done!

And every day, while slaves were being slaughtered and carted
Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up
Inside he was longing for something to be a part of
The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow or barter.

Twelve, count ’em, twelve rhymes. A lot of popular music composers use ABCB because it’s so much easier; they also try to “rhyme” a word with itself, a cringe-inducing dodge Miranda never employs except, for emphasis, once (tell you about it when we get to Act II). Even in a long string like this, each rhyming word is a new one; when he uses a word twice, it’s for a purpose, such as the irony expressed by “Founding Father without a father.”

And fourth, since rhyme, assonance, meter, and other technical brilliance are all hollow unless pressed into the service of a grand vision, “Alexander Hamilton” gives us the grand vision: the themes of time, of who tells the stories of our lives, of the way history is written and re-written and forgotten, of the immigrant making good and making the country to which they’ve come, of the turning point that one life and one moment in history can be: “The world will never be the same,” the company sings. We’ll hear that again. And we’ll know it, gut-deep, by the end of the play.

As Hamilton himself might say, “One more thing.” The play informs us from the very first sentence that it is going to celebrate his being “a hero and a scholar.” American history celebrates military heroes, athletic heroes, heroes of love, and occasionally scientific heroes whether born here (Edison) or immigrants (Einstein), but “scholar” is not a word that is usually uttered with patriotic pride. But Hamilton was a thinker and political theorist who, as a mere child, orphaned and broke, started “readin’ every treatise on the shelf” in his cousin’s house. He was a writer, who “put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain / And . . . wrote his first refrain” of a voluminous, erudite and influential oeuvre. He was a self-educated finance wonk. In short, Alexander Hamilton was a highly pragmatic and creative intellectual. And his intellect, even more than his considerable military accomplishments or his way with women, is what this story celebrates.

I keep trying to write long pieces about this and feeling like others have said the same thing better. So I will just put it in two sentences.

I am thrilled that the UUA Board has committed significant money to Black Lives of UU (BLUU); identified white supremacy as one of the biggest challenges facing us, and the dearth of leadership by people of color in high positions in the UUA itself as one of the expressions of that challenge; and chosen a three-person, all-people-of-color team for the acting presidency. This direction not only seems wise, prudent, and moral, but it gives me a surge of hope for the future of our faith.

I usually have about three books going at once: one in the car, one or two on the nightstand, one in Spanish for my weekly class. Right now, though, it’s out of control. I am currently actively, if slowly, reading:

  1. H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald, begun during my study leave last week that focused on two topics: death/grief and African American history/fiction.
  2. Ida: A Sword Among Lions, Paula Giddings, ditto. I only dipped into the first chapter, knowing that I needed to clear the pile before I got into a thick biography, but still. I started it, so now it’s on the currently-reading pile too.
  3. March, Geraldine Brooks.
  4. The Cure for Sorrow: a Book of Blessings for Times of Grief, Jan Richardson. Usually if I’m reading a collection of prayers or poems, I dip into it here and there, but with this one, I’m reading it straight through. Beautiful.
  5. The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez. In the car. Beautifully read by several different people, and I’m loving the book, but I’m impatient. It’s time to return the audiobook and take out the print edition, which I’ll be able to finish myself in a day or two. But with all these other books on the pile, when will that day come?
  6. Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman, via Audible on my smartphone. I usually listen to podcasts while exercising, but right now it’s all Thor and Loki and Neil, all the time.
  7. Soy La Hija de Mi Padre, Maria Elena Salinas and Liz Balmaseda. For Spanish class.
  8. The Bible and the People, Lori Anne Ferrell. On the one hand, I’m interested in anything about religion. On the other hand, I’m not particularly interested in the history of the Bible. On the other hand, my mother gave me this after learning that the author was a seminary professor of mine (a great one). On the other hand, I have all these other books to read. On the other hand, this one is really being quite fascinating. All these hands add up to: I will leave it on the nightstand and keep nibbling, finishing it eventually.

Emily Dickinson’s complete poems are also always on the pile, but I won’t even count those. I read one when I remember (I fell off the one-a-day train ages ago), in order, and will keep doing so, but other books come and go while this multi-year project continues to spike my days with shafts of light.

No more new books! I must finish some, or my attention, which is happiest when split among a few different activities, will end up in such small shards that they’re good for nothing.

Do you read more than one book at a time? Which ones are you reading right now?

When my daughter was very little, three or four years old, there was a conversation we would have all too often. I tried not to nag about minor dangers, preferring for her to learn safety through experience. But from time to time she would do something risky that could easily have been made less so, such as running down polished wooden stairs in her socks. “Be careful,” I would say. “Those socks are slippery on the stairs.”

Her almost invariable reply was: “I am being careful.”

“For example,” I would persist, “You could walk. Or take your socks off. Or hold on to the banister.”

“But I’m being careful!” she would say, hurtling down the slippery stairs in her slippery socks without a hand on the banister.

To her, “being careful” was something you did in your mind. Having declared the intention of carefulness, she could continue iffy actions without concern, as if the words were a magic spell. To me, the warning “be careful” implied action: if you want to be careful, you mitigate the risks by holding on or switching to bare feet. Otherwise, what you have in your mind doesn’t mean a thing.

Sometimes she fell and sometimes she didn’t, but the magical thinking wore off eventually, as it does. Magical thinking is common in young children–in fact, a key developmental stage–and they outgrow it. Except that I keep noticing it in adults when it comes to racism and white supremacy.

“I’m not being racist!” we white people tend to insist, holding up our good intentions as the magic amulet that will keep us from perpetuating white supremacy. But the intentions will not do that. Only our actions will.

If I feel like I’m opposed to white supremacy, if I want white supremacy to end, but I accept the lower car insurance premiums offered to me only because of my perceived race, or dismiss the abundant evidence of racist policing, or don’t take any action about redlining or hiring discrimination, then my actions are maintaining white supremacy.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto will shortly participate in the White Supremacy Teach In brought to us by the excellent work of Black Lives of UU, and I think that in my role of educating adults, I will emphasize this attention to action. (Dan Harper, our Minister of Religious Education, will be leading the children’s piece.) For too long, white conversations about racism have focused on what is within us, whether it’s guilt- or shame-inducing (“I had a racist thought! I’m bad!”) or a source of righteous pride (“I’m an anti-racist racist!”), and as far as I can tell, it has been largely counterproductive. So as I strive “to be the change I want to see” (Gandhi), I am trying to worry less about what is in my mind and heart, and focus more on what actions I am taking–or declining to take. William James observed, “Action seems to follow feeling, but really actions and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not. Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there.”

The sovereign voluntary path (what a great phrase!) to eradicating white supremacy from our hearts is to act and speak for justice and equality. Or, as I said ad nauseam to my child when she was small and prone to magical thinking: saying “I’m careful” doesn’t make you careful–grabbing the banister makes you careful! So: let’s do this thing. Right now, instead of thinking “How awful” about discrimination in car insurance–which is true, but does nothing for anyone–click on that link, and if your insurance company falls into the pattern, write to them pressing for a reversal. Here’s my letter. I expect I may need to send a follow-up, so I’ve put it on my calendar for 60 days from now.

[my address]

April 6, 2017

The Progressive Corporation
6300 Wilson Mills Rd.
Mayfield Village, Ohio 44143

Dear Sir/Madam,

I was impressed by the careful methodology of ProPublica’s investigation into whether car insurance companies charge some people more for liability insurance depending on their likely race:

https://www.propublica.org/article/minority-neighborhoods-higher-car-insurance-premiums-white-areas-same-risk

Being committed to the eradication of white supremacy, I naturally looked in the data for my own company, Progressive, and was dismayed to see that the disaparities in your liability premiums are striking, especially in Missouri. (The study only looked at four states.)

I know that unconscious bias can cause us to perpetuate white supremacy without intending to. Charging some people more for the same risk, depending only on where they live, is a textbook case of institutional racism, and it hurts people of color. I hope you will undertake a review of your premiums as quickly as possible (piggybacking on the research ProPublica did should expedite this process), correct the problem, and reimburse those customers who have been paying unfairly high premiums for years.

Please keep your customers informed of your actions on this matter. For my part, I will be asking ProPublica to look into home insurance to see if it is likewise biased.

Sincerely yours,

Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Or, you know, act on whatever aspect of white supremacy is most infuriating to you. Just act. And if you’re near Palo Alto, join us for the Teach In April 30.

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