You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘music’ category.

Black History Month, day 5

I love this picture book of the song that came to be known as the “African American national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” The words by James Weldon Johnson are thoughtfully, sometimes devastatingly paired with linocuts by the great printmaker and sculptor, Elizabeth Catlett.

I have not been able to find out how these pairings came about. The song came first (Catlett was born 15 years after it premiered, and the prints were made in 1945-6, when she was 30-31 years old, which, by the way, blows my mind) but did she make the prints specifically to accompany this song? Or did she choose them out of her oeuvre almost 50 years later? Or did an editor choose them? I’m curious, though ultimately it doesn’t matter. The words illuminate the art as much as the art illuminates the words.

Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote the lyrics and music, respectively, for a Lincoln celebration in Jacksonville, Florida, where it s sunny by an enormous chorus of children. Thirty-five years later he wrote:

Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it, they went off to other schools and sang it, they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

The lines of this song repay me in elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.

Elation/exquisite anguish. The lines of Catlett’s prints express this paradoxical combination just as the Johnsons ‘ song does. A beautiful book. (The music for piano and voice is printed in the book as well.)


I don’t do too well without deadlines. I imposed one on myself for this series; I would write about every song before I went to see the show. But then it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it, and I just lost steam. It’s been over a year.

In the absence of deadlines, however, polite requests are very effective, and someone at church asked if I were going to get back to this. Even more influentially, he indicated that he’d read them all and they’d helped spur him to listen to the album. All right, then! Onwards to “Take a Break”!

When we see a driven, brilliant person who accomplishes more in his profession than seems possible for any mortal, we might wonder, what is he like at home?

It’s hard to pull him away from his desk, even for dinner. He has to be nagged into spending a few minutes with his son on the child’s birthday. It’s almost impossible to get him to go on vacation. “I will try to get away,” Hamilton tells Eliza. Yeah, right. Every workaholic has uttered these words, and every spouse, child or friend of one rolls their eyes when they hear them. He will try, but then he’ll discover that he has to write one more draft, talk to one more Congressman, add one more argument, recalculate one more set of figures . . . The work will always be there, there will always be more of it, and it will always loom in his mind as too important to put aside. His family can’t possibly compete.

But he does adore them, and this song shows that both sides of that tug-of-war have force. When he’s finally compelled by Eliza to come hear Philip (“He’s been practicing all day”), he hears not more piano, but a novice rap. Don’t you love it? So does Alexander–“Hey, our kid is pretty great!”–and it’s a sweet moment. It’s just a snapshot, but enough to show the love in the family.

The dialogue with the off-stage Angelica also sketches a complex relationship in a few strokes. When I finally read Ron Chernow’s biography (see? I wasn’t wasting those months of non-blogging), one of the questions on my mind was “Did Alexander really write a letter that began ‘My dearest, Angelica’?” It seemed like a small but significant piece of evidence on which one could build a case that they had an affair, at least an emotional one (they were separated by an ocean most of the time). But no; it appears to be Lin-Manuel Miranda’s invention. What does have a historical basis is that brother- and sister-in-law had a relationship that was close, intellectual, playful, and supportive. Chernow writes that their flirtatious banter raised eyebrows, though it might not have done had Alexander not already had a reputation as a ladies’ man.

We see all of those elements here. Close:

Eliza: Angelica!
Angelica: Eliza!
Hamilton, with audible longing: The Schuyler sisters.
Angelica: Alexander–
Hamilton: Hi.
Angelica: It’s good to see your face.

Intellectual: “You must get through to Jefferson,” she advises; “Sit down with him and compromise / Don’t stop ’til you agree” Hamilton takes his sophisticated work problems to her. Playful: They banter via Macbeth references, though Angelica is the opposite of Lady Macbeth. “If you take your time, you will make your mark,” she tries to reassure him, and when she teases, “Screw your courage to the sticking-place,” she isn’t urging him to be more ambitious, but to put down his work and be with his family. Supportive: “Your favorite older sister . . . reminds you / There’s someone in your corner all the way across the sea.”

The way the sisters’ voices weave in and out around Alexander’s protests, it seems as if they must be irresistible. But when they go away for a quiet lakeside summer, he stays behind. Bad move.

I didn’t even know what a rap battle was until I heard Hamilton, and now I’m trawling through YouTube looking for the ones I like best. Insult humor has never done much for me before, maybe partly because what I saw of the dozens, or as we called it as kids, “yo’ mama jokes,” was just that: kids’ stuff. The put-downs were just put-downs, without much zing because they weren’t clever. Watching grownups do the dozens, or their heir, battle rap, is a whole other thing. And once you know how sharp and funny battle rap can be, framing an intra-Cabinet argument about financial policy as a rap battle is one of those ideas that is so obvious and right that you can’t believe no one’s done it before.

Washington’s opening is like Miranda’s wink at the audience: “You’re watching a musical about the country’s first Treasury Secretary, and the joke’s on you because it’s actually terrific!” The president doesn’t say that, of course. Instead, he delivers the show-biz patter:

Ladies and gentlemen, you coulda been anywhere in the world tonight, but you’re here with us in New York City. Are you ready for a cabinet meeting?

If the prospect of an exciting cabinet meeting puts a disbelieving smile on any face in the audience, it’s been wiped off within a few bars. This is hot stuff. They’re posturing, strutting their credentials:

Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness,
We fought for these ideals, we shouldn’t settle for less
These are wise words, enterprising men quote ’em,
Don’t act surprised, you guys, ’cause I wrote ’em.

Trading innuendo and insults:

Jefferson: Now place your bets as to whom that benefits
The very seat of government where Hamilton sits.

Hamilton, later: And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment

Hamilton again: Thomas Jefferson, always hesitant with the President
Reticent—there isn’t a plan he doesn’t jettison
Madison, you’re mad as a hatter, son, take your medicine
Damn, you’re in worse shape than the national debt is in

Hamilton wins the battle of rhetoric, though not the policy argument. His plan won’t pass without enough votes in Congress, and it hasn’t got them–yet.

Other moments:

  • Madison is such a flunky, I’m embarrassed for him.

Jefferson: Such a blunder sometimes it makes me wonder why I even bring the thunder

Madison: Why he even brings the thunder…

  • It’s been less than two years since Hamilton and Madison worked on the Federalist Papers together. I would love to know what made them hate each other so much. Was it that process itself?
  • Both Hamilton and Jefferson are too brilliant to get away with taking the just-plain-folks side in the culture war between the experts and the anti-experts, but Jefferson goes for it, with a little laugh in his voice when he says of Hamilton’s plan, “It’s too many damn pages for any man to understand!” I wonder if the “I’m less expert than you” contest really existed then.
  • Washington, showing superhuman patience, gives Hamilton a crash course in political necessity.

Washington: You need the votes

Hamilton: No, we need bold strokes. We need this plan.

W: No, you need to convince more folks

H: James Madison won’t talk to me, that’s a nonstarter

W, echoing his line in “Right Hand Man”: Ah, winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.

H: They’re being intransigent

W: You have to find a compromise

H: But they don’t have a plan, they just hate mine!

W: Convince them otherwise.

My daughter wanted to know what Hamilton’s debt plan was. I didn’t know anything about it besides what was in the play, but the question led to a conversation about something I and anyone else who follows U.S. politics knows plenty about, the tension between the various states, and between the authority of the federal government and that of the states. Jefferson has a point, I told her, and we’re still arguing the same one today, since most laws and policies benefit some states more than others, and therefore basically benefit some at the expense of others. And Hamilton has a point for the same reason: the states with free labor did have a huge advantage over the ones that insisted on paying all workers, and we still have states running that race to the bottom when it comes to workers’ rights, health and safety laws, and environmental protection–we’ve just raised the bottom a bit so that it can’t include chattel slavery as it did in the days when free states had to compete with free. (Hamilton’s argument is a little anachronistic, by the way; slavery would still be legal in New York for another 10 years. But the state’s economy wasn’t as dependent upon it as Virginia’s.) And we’re still very much wrestling about how much power should inhere in the federal government. Few of us are very consistent; most U.S. Americans, left, right, and center, tend to cite the principle of states’ autonomy when we like a state’s policy in defiance of the federal government, and uphold a strong central government when we want to overrule a particular state law. So within us, and among us, the rap battle battles on.

Incidentally, listening to Hamilton and looking up the terminology has clarified what I’ve wondered for some time: is “federalist” the position advocating a strong central government, or a weak one? The answer is the former.  So I have no idea why the Federalist Society calls itself that, when it is a small-federal-government, states’-rights organization. Lots of other people also call themselves “anti-federalists” when they mean they favor a strong federal government, and they have it backwards, at least if “federalist” means Federalist. Hamilton, the Federalist, argued strongly for a strong central democracy, and against the idea that the states were or should be sovereign entities.

Another echo of today is Jefferson’s specious comparison of empire-imposed taxes to self-imposed taxes:

Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky
Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whisky

He sounds just like the Tea Party, every member of which has three representatives in Congress (unless they live in our resident colonies, D.C. or Puerto Rico), yet which likens us to the colonists who had to pay a tax on tea without representation in Parliament.

We’re in Act II! I’m curious about the way the chorus gives the date this time, not in its usual straightforward way, but stuttered–“Se-se-seventeen, se-se-” until Burr cuts in and completes it. Anyone have any ideas why?

Of the several intros of the “How does a . . . ” variety, this is my favorite to sing along with, with its fast tempo and easy transitions between rapping and song. “You haven’t met him yet, you haven’t had the chance, ‘Cause he’s been kickin’ ass as the ambassador to France . . . You simply must meet Thomas, Thomas . . . !”

We’ve met the actor already; Act II ushers out four characters and bring in four new ones played by the same actors. Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette make a great pair of roles to be doubled because Lafayette is French, Jefferson a Francophile; each wrote his country’s declaration of independence, and just as the song says, Lafayette consulted Jefferson as he was writing “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen”; Jefferson was, yes, ambassador to France before becoming the United States’s first Secretary of State. Oh, and the kicker, Hamilton was friends with one of these men, enemies with the other. It’s fun to hear Daveed Diggs move from one to the other, drop his French accent and drop into the slightly southern, distinctly condescending voice of Jefferson (I find his voice as Jefferson enjoyably annoying). It’s fun for us, that is; not so much for Hamilton, though he holds his own.

Anyway, we’re not to their first argument yet; that’s the next track. “What’d I Miss?” is just Jefferson coming home in a whirlwind of activity, to music that’s way out of date. He’s still doing boogie-woogie while the country he’s returning to has moved on to hip hop, which is one way Miranda tells us things are changing fast in the new nation. (In reality, Jeffferson did not miss the war on account of being “off gettin’ high with the French” (“Cabinet Battle #1”); he was quite busy stateside as governor of Virginia, a state that, according to Sarah Vowell, was notably stingy with support for the Continental Army, and therefore partly to blame for the soldiers’ having frequently gone shoeless and hungry even as they marched into battle right there in Virginia.)

His pal James Madison is another doubled role and another surprise and pleasure. Listening to Hercules Mulligan and James Madison side by side (so to speak) fills me with admiration for Okieriete Onaodowan’s versatility. His Mulligan is all roughness, toughness, and bluster, who mostly raps his lines and holds his own with the older* Laurens, Lafayette, Hamilton, and Burr, while his Madison is a soft-spoken second banana with a lovely singing voice.

You can see right away why Hamilton and Jefferson are not going to get along, even before we learn of the differences in their political philosophy. Both are arrogant, and two people this full of themselves are bound to clash (just look at Ed Koch and Donald Trump). Their arrogance takes different forms, each expressing their social class and status. Hamilton, the illegitimate, orphaned immigrant, knows he “amaze[s] and astonish[es]” (“My Shot”) with his hard work and genius; he’ll lobby George Washington to develop his gifts (“honor, a tolerance for pain, a couple of college credits and [a] top-notch brain,” as he says in “Helpless”), yet be tickled when they land him a spot as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He’s pushy, as you can see in the staging of this song. Listening to the bit where Washington sings “Mr. Jefferson, welcome home,” I figured Hamilton just stands next to Washington and eagerly, even politely, introduces himself, but not so: he cuts in on the president–the president–as Washington tries to shake Jefferson’s hand. Jefferson’s arrogance is no less, but has a different feel. He is to the manor born (pun intended) and he takes his honors as his due: “It says the president’s assembling a cabinet and that I am to be Secretary of State–great!” Jefferson is an aristocrat and a snob, predisposed to think himself superior to Hamilton because he was born to money and land. He no doubt despises Hamilton for being pushy, a failing Jefferson himself is not heir to because he’s always been on the top of the heap Hamilton wants to climb. (Later, in “Washington on Your Side,” he criticizes Hamilton’s “new money”–no one hates new money more than old money does.) And that “what’d I miss?” is so arrogant in itself, almost assuming that he can’t have missed much of importance. As if he just stepped out for a moment and can be filled in over a drink.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I want to like Jefferson–he was a quasi-Unitarian and praised the church highly in his time–so it’s a bit of a hair shirt at first to hear him being such a jerk. But it’s also fun to see him cut down to size. And although we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that Miranda’s Jefferson is the true Jefferson, or his Hamilton the true Hamilton, the real Thomas Jefferson totally deserves the dig here about the woman commonly called his mistress, but more correctly called the survivor of rape and sexual slavery at his hands, Sally Hemings: “There’s a letter on my desk from the president . . . Sally, be a lamb, darlin’, would you open it?” The most touching line in the song, the one where I feel the most affection and empathy for Jefferson, is “Looking at the rolling fields, I can’t believe that we are free”–how that must have felt after all of the work and dreaming and sacrifice! And it’s equally infuriating, because he’s just returned to his plantation full of slaves and has a hell of a nerve reveling in freedom. “What’d I Miss” delivers the whole complex package of Jefferson from the get-go: brilliant, patriotic, racist, revolutionary, reactionary, hardworking, respected, hypocritical.


*That’s in the world of the play. Miranda sketches his character as “a tailor’s apprentice,” with the others “in loco parentis,” but in reality he was considerably older than the other four.


Maaaaan, this song is non-stop! The repeated figure on the piano propels it forward, with the “Awwww!”s and “Non-stop!”s of the ensemble periodically giving it another push. Even though it’s episodic, with many changes of pace, and imparts an astounding amount of information about a very packed several years, it doesn’t lose its momentum.

I have been trying to blog about these songs every day, but the ones I love best tend to hold me up for a few days. I feel a kind of pressure to get them right. What if I post about “My Shot” or “Non-Stop” and I don’t say everything I want to say? Um, can you tell I relate to Hamilton’s character just a bit?

People with this kind of drive are a pain in the tuchis, a fact from which Miranda, who explicitly describes himself the same way, does not shy away. Eliza is exasperated with him, and Phillipa Soo lets us know with the tone of her first “Alexander” that this is not the first time they’ve been over this. Burr has said “no” to writing what will become the Federalist Papers, Burr says no, or argues, six different ways before Hamilton says “You’re making a mistake,” and Leslie Odom, too, says with his laughing, incredulous, “Good night,” I love the guy but he does not know when to stop. Hamilton can’t even summon patience for the man he admires most, Washington. When Washington invites him to join the first cabinet of the country, he nudges him to get to the end of the sentence, as if to say, yes, thank you, George, please pop the question already, I’ve got things to do.

Ah, he’s an arrogant PITA, isn’t he?:

I practiced the law, I practic’ly perfected it
I’ve seen injustice in the world and I’ve corrected it
Now for a strong central democracy
If not, then I’ll be Socrates
Throwing verbal rocks at these mediocrities

Hear the three rhymes in quick succession there? Socrates / rocks at these / -ocrities? That’s an unstoppably creative mind at work. Maybe the pleasure of observing it is why we, and Burr, and others, put up with him.

The question of what these two men like about each other is explored more thoroughly in this song than anywhere else, and Miranda’s explanation convinces. You can see the liking there, even while they’re driving each other mad. When they express frustration to each other, it’s not just with a “why,” but with a “how.” “How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?” Burr asks–he can’t wrap his mind around Hamilton’s energy. “I don’t understand how you stand to the side,” Hamilton declares–he isn’t just saying “Stop standing to the side,” he really doesn’t get it. Rather than dismiss each other, they keep trying to understand each other. When Hamilton approaches Burr about writing what will become the Federalist Papers, he is sincerely admiring; it’s not flattery when he details the ways Burr is the better lawyer. And Burr is admiring, as well as gobsmacked, when Hamilton writes 51 of the 85 essays over the course of six months. (Can we stop and think about that for a moment? That’s an average of two essays per week for six months straight. I write for a living and after four or five weeks of an essay [sermon] per week, I’m dying for a break. The man is non-stop.)

Also, we know how I like funny, and this song is laugh-out-loud funny. After speechifying dramatically about “the first murder trial of our brand-new nation,” Hamilton says:

I intend to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt
With my assistant counsel—

Burr: Co-counsel
Hamilton, sit down
Our client Levi Weeks is innocent. Call your first witness
That’s all you had to say!

Hamilton: Okay!
One more thing—

Hamilton’s tone of thrilled disbelief when he says, “I was chosen for the Constitutional Convention!” adds a little humility as well as humor; he still can’t quite believe how far and fast he’s risen, and it makes him less proud than delighted and surprised. And I love the other delegates’ reactions:

Bright young man…

Yo, who the f is this?

There’s also humor in Angelica’s “Don’t forget to write”–as if there is any question but that Hamilton will write to her, voluminously. It’s what he does.

If you look at the diagram of all of the cross-references, it shows that “Non-Stop” incorporates eleven, eleven, songs from earlier in the first act. It really goes wild in the “all skate,” as arranger / conductor / keyboardist Alec Lacamoire calls the zenith where five parts are sung at once, but the song starts pulling in references before that, around two minutes into the 6:25 song. I’ve marked them with <– in bold type. Thanks to for the lyrics transcription.

What are you waiting for?  <–“Aaron Burr, Sir”

What do you stall for?


We won the war
What was it all for?
Do you support this constitution?

Of course

Then defend it

And what if you’re backing the wrong horse?

Burr, we studied and we fought and we killed
For the notion of a nation we now get to build
For once in your life, take a stand with pride
I don’t understand how you stand to the side

I’ll keep all my plans
Close to my chest
I’ll wait here and see
Which way the wind
Will blow
I’m taking my time
Watching the
Afterbirth of a nation
Watching the tension grow

Wait for it, wait for  <–“Wait for It”
It, wait…Which way the wind
Will blow
I’m taking my time
Watching the
Afterbirth of a nation
Watching the tension grow

I am sailing off to London   <–“Satisfied”
I’m accompanied by someone who always pays
I have found a wealthy husband
Who will keep me in comfort for all my days
He is not a lot of fun, but there’s no one
Who can match you for turn of phrase
My Alexander


Don’t forget to write

Look at where you are       <–“That Would Be Enough”
Look at where you started
The fact that you’re alive is a miracle
Just stay alive, that would be enough
And if your wife could share a fraction of your time
If I could grant you peace of mind
Would that be enough?

Alexander joins forces with James Madison and John Jay to write a series of essays defending the new United States Constitution, entitled The Federalist Papers. The plan was to write a total of twenty-five essays, the work divided evenly among the three men. In the end, they wrote eighty-five essays, in the span of six months. John Jay got sick after writing five. James Madison wrote twenty-nine. Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one!

How do you write like you’re
Running out of time?
Write day and night like you’re
Running out of time?
Ev’ry day you fight like you’re
Running out of time like you’re
Running out of time
Are you running out of time?

Running out of time?Running out of time?Running out of time
Running out of time

How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write ev’ry second you’re alive?
Ev’ry second you’re alive? Ev’ry second you’re alive?

They are asking me to lead  <–“History Has Its Eyes on You”
I am doing the best I can
To get the people that I need
I’m asking you to be my right hand man  <–“Right Hand Man”

Treasury or State?

I know it’s a lot to ask

Treasury or State?

To leave behind the world you know…

Sir, do you want me to run the Treasury or State department?


Let’s go


I have to leave


Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now  <–“The Schuyler Sisters”

Helpless… <–“Helpless”

They are asking me to lead

Look around, isn’t this enough?

He will never be satisfied
He will never be satisfied
He will never be satisfied
Satisfied…Why do you fight like
What would be enough
Be satisfied
Satisfied…Look around
Look around!
Isn’t this enough?
What would be enough?
Why do you fight like
History has its eyes…On…You!
History has its eyes…
Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room? Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room? Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room?
Soon that attitude’s gonna be your doom!
Why do you fight like you’re running out of time?
Why do you fight like

History has its eyes on you

I am not throwin’ away my shot!<–“My Shot”

I am not throwin’ away my shot!

I am
Alexander Hamilton!
I am not throwin’ away my shot!

Just you wait!  <–“Alexander Hamilton”
Just you wait!Alexander Hamilton
Hamilton, just you wait!

What a way to end the first act. Even just listening at home, I pump my fist and cheer.

Parents, doesn’t this line capture perfectly what happens to you when you hold your child for the first time?: “There is so much more inside me now.”*

Alexander Hamilton sings it to his baby son, and since it immediately follows the line, “Pride is not the word I’m looking for,” it could be interpreted narrowly, as “There is so much more than pride inside me now,” but I both think it makes more sense, and like it better, interpreted more broadly.

As I got familiar with the musical, but didn’t yet really know who was singing what or what plot points were unfolding–the “folding laundry in the other room while it’s playing on the stereo” stage of acquaintance with the CD–I started to develop a mental list of things that have to happen, dramatically speaking. We have to know how he becomes the treasury secretary; we have to hear the war come to an end; we have to know why Hamilton and Burr duel; we have to know how duels work; we have to hear how he and Eliza fall in love. And somewhere in there, we need a duet between Burr and Hamilton. “Dear Theodosia” is it.

Oh, they sing together plenty of other times, but this is just the two of them, their voices twinned in close harmony and then unison, a matching verse for each, making it very different than “Aaron Burr, Sir” or, in Act II, “The Room Where It Happens.” The closest parallel will be “Your Obedient Servant,” when things go downhill in an exchange of increasingly angry verses. For the moment of (literal and figurative) harmony between them expressed in “Dear Theodosia,” Miranda chooses something purely personal they have in common: the birth of each one’s first child, the moment each becomes a father. We’re reminded that each grew up without his own father, and that they are both heroes and founders of this country, an act that is as personal as it is political.

You will come of age with our young nation
We’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you
If we lay a strong enough foundation
We’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you

It’s a gentle melody, on piano, strings, harp, and acoustic guitar. The tenderness of the song cements our affection for each of the characters, heightening our sense of what is at stake. We want them to survive, both of them! And to add a layer of heartbreak that isn’t stated in the play, both of these children will precede these fathers into death. So the two men will share the experience of that grief as well.

For now they share something gentle and beautiful: a surrendering of pride. Nothing does more than the first days of parenthood to make you feel like all your skill and expertise have left you totally unprepared. I am sure my wife and I were the bazillionth human beings to hold a child and utter the words, “Oh my god, we’re supposed to know how to keep her alive?” Hamilton has only a few moments of humility in the play, just enough to leaven his pride and arrogance, and this is one of them (most of the rest come in Act II). It is Burr who says to his child, “I’ll make a million mistakes,” a repeated theme for him and, notably, not for Hamilton. Yet Hamilton discovers his limits too, in words they share: “And I thought I was so smart.”

Their parts intertwine, sometimes echoing, sometimes together in harmony (sorry, formatting will work only on a desktop, if that):

Hamilton:                                                     Burr:

My father wasn’t around
.                                                            My father wasn’t around

I swear that
I’ll be around for you                           I’ll be around for you.

I’ll do whatever it takes
.                                                             I’ll make a million mistakes

I’ll make the world                                 I’ll make the world
safe and sound for you…                           safe and sound for you…

Then they end singing in unison. Just lovely. If only our love for our children dissolved all enmity between us.





*Maddy, am I continuing my streak? Is this one of your favorite lines too?

It’s quite a feat to make King George III, the natural villain of the piece in any American Revolution story, rather sympathetic and interesting, but Hamilton does it. He’s funny, and most people, like me, are inclined to soften their view of someone who makes them laugh. Then, too, he’s got problems, poor guy. He gives us a peek into his experience. And even though it’s hard to hear it from him, he speaks truth.

What comes next?
You’ve been freed
Do you know how hard it is to lead?
. . . Do you have a clue what happens now?

That truth is exactly what must be on the victors’ minds now that they have to turn revolutionary dreams into an actual working government. The Continental Congress was overseeing a new country that was fairly desperately in debt at this point; as Hamilton noted back in “Stay Alive,”

Local merchants deny us equipment, assistance
They only take British money, so sing a song of sixpence.

The war debt has the country flat broke–some states more than others, so there’s also the tension among them to be dealt with. The Constitution has yet to be drafted; there are no rules. Throughout history, revolution is often met by counter-revolution, or just never settles down into the sober, boring business of governance. The words Miranda puts in  King George’s mouth drip with schadenfreude and a bit of sour-grape juice, but that doesn’t make them incorrect. No less than George Washington agrees with him, a few songs later when Hamilton’s fine theories come up against realpolitik: “Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder” (“Cabinet Battle #1”).

The king’s problems are laid out in the intro:

They say
The price of my war’s not a price that they’re willing to pay
You cheat with the French, now I’m fighting with France and with Spain
I’m so blue
I thought that we’d made an arrangement
When you went away . . .

Poor George. He is still stuck in the past, looking back nostalgically at that almost 200-year-old “arrangement.” But he is in a world of trouble, now that both Spain and France have been riled up against him. Jonathan Groff hits a tone on “I’m so blue” that makes me want to hand him a hanky and pat his shoulder, he’s so bewildered by his turn of fortune. It doesn’t last–in the next line, “. . . you were mine to subdue,” he sounds aggrieved, even a bit threatening. Yeah, the hell with that. Sorry, dude, the deal is off, and we’re glad we left you. But still, the song has let us see the world from his point of view, and that empathy helps us to hear the warning he delivers.

Also, he’s been there, right? “Do you know how hard it is to lead?” comes from the depths of bitter experience, and then, “When your people say they hate you / Don’t come crawling back to me.” It’s vengeful and petty, the ditched boyfriend crowing that his ex will get her comeuppance, but there’s also a pang of truth: his people said they hate him. And what United States president or member of Congress has not had the same experience? It’s gotta hurt, even when it’s just. We don’t want it to happen to Hamilton and Washington, whom we’ve come to like. And we want our country to be a country, instead of sinking into the morass that so many new nations do after throwing off the shackles. As with the preceding “Yorktown,” it feels a bit miraculous that the leaders of the time did turn to statecraft and create something that could last.

Though we have our problems . . . We had to fight a war 80 years later because we couldn’t find unity without continuing slavery. (In a bitter irony, if we’d stayed in the British Empire, the enslaved people on our continent might have been freed in 1833, when England abolished slavery throughout all of its colonies.) Some of the dreams, such as women’s suffrage, took even longer to become reality, and some of the accomplishments of the new nation ended up being liabilities–I’m thinking of Hamilton’s invention, the Electoral College, which made a lot more sense for those 13 colonies than it makes for today’s vastly disparate states. When I hear this song and think of today, I understand a line that appears in all three of the king’s songs, “Oceans rise, empires fall.” The empires are obvious, but why “oceans rise”? Maybe it’s only in his first and third song so it can be here, and remind us that the rise of the oceans is one of the worst creations of, and greatest challenges to, these United States of America. Is King George snickering, wherever he is?

My favorite line, for laughs, is when Groff, having perched on the pinnacle of British accents–“You’re on your own”–drops down to surfer dude tone with “Awesome. Wow.” I’ve tried to analyze how Miranda makes anachronism work for him, instead of clunking. I don’t know. He just has the ear. Of course, it’s possible that it will clunk when Hamilton is produced 20 years from now; slang is the thing that sounds most cutting-edge when it’s new, and ages fastest and worst. But I think it will wear well. As slang goes, “wow” has shown a lot of staying power. I’m afraid the rising oceans won’t go out of date anytime soon, either.

I have read elsewhere that the British general Cornwallis ordered his soldiers to sing “The World Turned Upside Down” after their surrender; Sarah Vowell says it’s apocryphal (Lafayette in the (Somewhat) United States). But historical accuracy be damned. It’s perfect. You feel it, how long the odds were, how earthshaking it is that “a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower / Somehow defeat[ed] a global superpower” (“Guns and Ships”). It was absurd to think we could win. But we won.

A Facebook friend-of-a-friend dismissed Hamilton on the grounds that no one leaves the theater humming the tunes after a hip hop musical. I guess he would think I was unbalanced if I said that I’ve woken in the morning with this running unstoppably through my brain:

Take the bullets out your gun! (What?)
The bullets out your gun! (What?)
We move under cover and we move as one
Through the night, we have one shot to live another day
We cannot let a stray gunshot give us away
We will fight up close, seize the moment and stay in it
It’s either that or meet the business end of a bayonet
The code word is ‘Rochambeau,’ dig me? (Rochambeau!)
You have your orders now, go, man, go!

Alexander Hamilton’s part in the battle really was crucial, and it was fought the way it’s described here: an advance up the hill to a siege and hand-to-hand combat. It was incredibly dangerous, and it’s moving (following up on my reflections on “That Would Be Enough”) that Hamilton really wants to survive now. He is so close to death, and his old imaginings are with him again (“This is where it gets me: on my feet / The enemy ahead of me”), and he’s all right with it (“If this is the end of me, at least I have a friend with me / Weapon in my hand, in command, and my men with me”) until:

Then I remember my Eliza’s expecting me…
Not only that, my Eliza’s expecting
We gotta go, gotta get the job done
Gotta start a new nation, gotta meet my son!

He comes back to this as victory sinks in. The British sing, mournfully at first, he repeats it, Lafayette also crying out victory, and the voices of the company rise in volume and intensity until it doesn’t sound like the British singing anymore at all, but the victorious, finally independent Americans–

The world turned upside down!

I get tears in my eyes, I admit it. I want to jump up and cheer and cry. It’s an intensely patriotic moment, when I feel all the potential of our country, how important it is that it not be frittered away only 236 years later. We won! The world turned upside down! We have to keep moving toward freedom. We can’t let anyone or anything stop us.

Other thoughts:

I know of no musical hints here that Miranda is making reference to Puerto Rico at all. But his father came to New York from Puerto Rico, a colony of the United States empire, and the son supports the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. As the colonists celebrate their freedom, it’s hard not to notice the parallel to Puerto Rico and every land that is ruled by a power other than its own people.

Another departure from historical fact: at this point, far from being in South Carolina, John Laurens is fighting to take Redoubt No. 10, just like Hamilton. He died in Charleston, South Carolina, the next summer–Yorktown was the decisive battle of the war, but not the very last–and the one unsung scene in the play brings news of his death (just before the last song of the act). So Miranda is condensing the timeline here.

It’s worth paying particular attention to Okieriete Onaodowan’s voice on this rap. He plays Hercules Mulligan, the crudest of the four friends in words and the grittiest in vocal tone, and he’s at his roughest here. The next time we hear the actor, he’ll be playing a different character with a very different voice and demeanor.

Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fightin’ Frenchman! Daveed Diggs digs deep and declaims diatribe with dizzying dispatch, as Gallic gallant garners guns and galleons for grateful General George.

If I were my wife, I could write this whole thing in alliteration, but I’m me and that’s my limit. Listen, if you haven’t tried to rap Lafayette’s part in “Guns and Ships,” stop reading and go try it now. It is so much fun, and if you can do it without a slip, you will earn serious coolness points from any child you may be trying to impress. I had to practice a couple of dozen times, but it was worth it. Extra points for a French accent, unless you’re French. But if you can’t manage that, hey, even Diggs reverts to his natural accent at “get your right hand man back.”

Vocabulary word of the day, in fact of the play: “ingenuitive.” I looked it up, sure it would be a neologism; it turns out it is pretty new, though Miranda didn’t coin it. WordPress is giving me the squiggly red line, but it’s a good and needed word. Haven’t you ever reached for an adjectival form of “ingenuity” and found yourself trying, and rejecting, “ingenuous”? Haven’t we all? So, you get even more points if you can work “ingenuitive” plausibly into conversation and help get it into the dictionary.

Lafayette advises Washington to bring Hamilton back to the front–I don’t know whether that part is true, but we did “win this war at Yorktown,” and Hamilton was a key leader in that battle–and Washington does, giving Hamilton his sword and his command in “History Has Its Eyes on You.”

He also gives him advice of the “here’s what I wish I’d known when I was young like you” variety, in almost those words, and Hamilton has cooled off enough since their shouting match to listen. (Washington is almost 50, which makes him twice Hamilton’s age, and far more experienced in battle, and at least he doesn’t call him “son” again.) Christopher Jackson, who plays Washington, gets to take the raps (heh) off that rich, husky voice. His singing here and in “One More Time,” in the second act, literally makes me weak in the knees. It’s humble and powerful, like Washington’s character; we hear the emotion that has always stayed with him in the line “I witnessed their deaths first hand,” the importance of what he’s telling Hamilton in the line “You have no control.”

The looming crisis brings up themes that were introduced in “Alexander Hamilton,” of our lives becoming stories that we eventually call history, of the future watching us critically and not always kindly (or even accurately). Eliza sang of them in “That Would Be Enough” when she asked to be “part of the narrative / In the story they will write some day”; now Washington, who has lived in the harsh spotlight of history for years, is telling Hamilton that it’s not all roses when the “history book mentions [you]” (“Alexander Hamilton”):

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory:
You have no control
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

The company sings the “whoas” from “My Shot,” telling us: these colonies are rising up. The time has come; the decisive battle is before them. But Washington isn’t giving a pep talk. He doesn’t tell his protegé about glory, except to imply that it’s a pipe dream that one discards as age and wisdom advance. Instead, he wants him to know about mistakes, shame, and the torturous burden that rests on your shoulders when you realize that what you are doing really matters. If you have been fortunate enough to have that kind of mentor (as I have), you know how powerful such moments are. Washington is handing Hamilton a heavy weight, and telling him he knows he can carry it (“I know that greatness lies in you”), because he, too, was young and flawed and yet he is bearing the burden with courage. Now that’s leadership.

Ahhhhh . . . we finally get to hear Phillipa Soo really open up and sing. What a pleasure.  And poor Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. The world would be a poorer place without the drive of people like Alexander Hamilton, but that doesn’t make them easy to live with. “He will never be satisfied” (“Satisfied”), while for her, life’s theme is “that would be enough.” Can this marriage be saved?

For example, what are we–what is Eliza–to make of his response to her pregnancy? He sounds tender, but there’s also deep ambiguity here:

Eliza: I wrote to the General a month ago
Hamilton: No

Is he saying, “You shouldn’t go writing letters to my boss pleading for family leave,” or a more loving, “Why did you tell him and not me?”

I want to poke him with a sharp stick when she says, “I knew you’d fight / Until the war was won” and he interjects “The war’s not done.” Yes, thank you, Alexander, she knows. She worries every day that a message will arrive saying that you’ve been killed. She’s so relieved that you’re home from the front, and all you can think about is that you haven’t finished the job.

Still, the bond between them is clear even just from the voices here. Eliza doesn’t keep up with the genius sparkings of his mind–unlike Angelica, who seems to match him beat for double-time beat–but she loves and appreciates it. After all, she wanted to marry him in the first place “’cause there’s nothing that [his] mind can’t do” (“Helpless”).

I don’t pretend to know
The challenges you’re facing
The worlds you keep erasing and creating in your mind
But I’m not afraid
I know who I married
So long as you come home at the end of the day
That would be enough.

This seems the moment to bring up Hamilton’s preoccupation with death, which seems to worry Eliza. I wouldn’t call him suicidal, exactly, but the casual way he regards his own life and death goes beyond a courageous willingness to die for a good cause. It’s not just “I will lay down my life if it sets us free” (“My Shot”), but “I am more than willing to die” (“Meet Me Inside,” my emphasis). He thinks about death a lot, and he has wished for its release.

When I was seventeen a hurricane destroyed my town
I didn’t drown
I couldn’t seem to die . . .
I was twelve when my mother died, she was holding me
We were sick and she was holding me
I couldn’t seem to die (“Hurricane”)

I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory (“My Shot,” “Yorktown,” “The World Was Wide Enough”)

Some of it may just be realism, the lesson learned from growing up among desperate poverty, like an inner city black boy in our America.

I never thought I’d live past twenty
Where I come from some get half as many. (“My Shot”)

And he’s decided not to settle for an attitude of “make this moment last–that’s plenty” (“My Shot”), because he’s part of a movement and its dreams are not yet realized. But he seems to flirt with death, just the same. So when Eliza begs him,

Let this moment be the first chapter:
Where you decide to stay,

I don’t think she’s just saying, “Commit to this marriage” (though it is certainly striking that a year in, she’s still having to say “Let’s begin”). She’s asking him to commit to life. She’s the one anchoring him in life, reminding him how far he’s come from that grim childhood, reminding him,

Look around, look around at how lucky we are
To be alive right now,

and all he can think is that he hasn’t done enough yet–for her, for the child he has just learned she is carrying, for the revolution. The war was supposed to give him a leg up, and it hasn’t done that yet.

Will you relish being a poor man’s wife
Unable to provide for your life?

She responds, “I relish being your wife.” He is enough for her, but–so far–she is not enough for him. At the end of the song, she is still hoping that she, they, will be. Maybe the staging tells us his response; the song does not.

Enter your e-mail address to receive e-mail notifications of new posts on Sermons in Stones

Follow me on Twitter

Links I like

%d bloggers like this: