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In 2000, it seemed as if the whole world was reading the Harry Potter books. That did nothing to make me want to check them out. Truth be told, even though I was in my 30s and ought to have been well past any sense of adolescent nonconformity-for-the-sake-of-conformity, it made me less interested in checking them out. My sister told me, “Really, they’re really good!,” but someone in the grip of unacknowledged adolescent rebelliousness is likely to do the exact opposite of what her older sister recommends. I stayed steadily unintrigued. All those people lined up for the midnight release of the fourth book? Yawn. Even the discovery of a Harry-Potter-themed sermon online by a much-admired colleague and teacher, Ken Sawyer, didn’t draw me in, though I enjoyed the sermon.

Then a church member pressed the audiobooks of the first three books on me–I had a long commute and listened to books on tape all the time–and within the first few minutes, all my resistance crumbled. I loved them. I gulped them down, got a hold of the fourth, gulped it down too. They lived up to all the hype.

Oh, they’re conventional in many ways, and even the best of them has a plot hole you could fly a hippogriff through. And I’m angry with their author, who has torpedoed a deserved reputation as one of this planet’s kindest, most generous people by stubbornly insisting on a bigoted, mean mischaracterization of transgender. But the delights of these books are too many to list, and they keep on delighting me.

When I first discovered them, I sought out people who wanted to talk about them all the time, the way I did, and found them in the Yahoogroup Harry Potter for Grownups. I made good friends there, people I’m still friends with 20 years later, and among the funniest, smartest people in the group, I met the woman I would eventually fall in love with and marry. So Harry Potter changed my life in the most literal way possible. If I had continued to avoid it because it was so annoyingly ubiquitous and adored, Joy and I wouldn’t be married, we wouldn’t have Indigo . . . it’s scary even to think about it.

It’s rare for anything to live up to its reputation when it’s as widely hailed and appreciated as Harry Potter. But once in a while it does. Listen to my cautionary tale, dear reader. Do not deprive yourself of a greatly hyped cultural phenomenon just because it’s a greatly hyped cultural phenomenon.

The other work that has inspired me to say, “It lives up to all the hype, and more,” is Hamilton. Yes, it won 11 Tonys after being nominated for a record-setting 16 (inspiring this pre-Trump parody by Randy Rainbow). Its composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has won Tonys, Emmys, Grammys, the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, well before the age of 40. Its songs have been quoted by countless articles and as the title of a self-serving book by a wingnut who managed to become National Security Advisor and still undermine U.S. national security. It caused millions of middle-class white people to enjoy hip hop; millions of people who would never cross the threshold of an opera house to enjoy an opera; and countless people who don’t love musical theater to be unable to stop singing its tunes. Doctor Who predicts that it will be performed by 900 different casts over time, all of which the Doctor will see. Despite its near-universal popularity . . .

. . . it really is that good.

So, dear reader, don’t believe that the hype is wrong. Once in a while, something comes along that lives up to its stratospheric reputation. Heed my tale of narrowly-averted woe, and if there’s something you’ve been avoiding (despite the recommendations of people you respect) because it’s just too popular, give it a try. I won’t guarantee that you will meet the love of your life, but it might change your life, which is what art is all about.

As I’ve done before, I’m challenging myself to blog about African-American* history, thought, and culture every day this month.

Today’s post arises from my having just finished the audiobook of Letters to a Young Artist, by the actor, playwright, professor, and author, Anna Deavere Smith. She reads it herself, naturally, and I’m glad I heard it in her voice, though I am going to buy a paper copy as well. It’s a book I’ll want to reread, thumb through, underline bits of, pull off the shelf frequently, and give copies of to friends.

She’s writing to a painter, and many of her examples come from acting and writing, but the advice–no, the wisdom–goes far beyond any particular art form. In fact, what the artist M. C. Richards once said kept running through my head as I listened to Smith’s direct, engaging, humble yet confident words: All the arts are apprenticeships; the true art is our life. It’s life wisdom she’s imparting here, as valuable for minister-me as artist-me, and most of all for human-me.

Not having a print version before me, I can’t properly remember the things I wanted to underline and share. (I couldn’t even place electronic bookmarks, because I was driving.) But if you’re looking for a hopeful, urgent response to the crisi/es that we 21st century people face, try listening to the voice of Anna Deavere Smith.

*or African, or African diaspora

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.

Somewhere around “The Story of Tonight (reprise)” I realized that I was listening to an opera. It’s not called that–the subtitle is, “An American Musical“–but except for one spoken scene that’s not on the CD, and the brief spoken interludes of the songs, the entire play is sung or rapped. So the songs have to provide all the information and all the transitions. As the story moves between the personal and political, this reprise is one of the bridges between the two. It’s the party late at night after most of the wedding guests have gone home, when everyone’s a little drunk; the music slurs and slows along with their voices. Hamilton’s pals parody their anthem to tease him about the ol’ ball and chain–

Raise a glass to freedom
Something you will never see again
No matter what she tells you . . .

–and about his good fortune in marrying up the social ladder:

Raise a glass to the four of us
To the newly not-poor of us

Soon-to-be heroes of the Revolution though they may be, when these guys are drunk, they’re like the high school buddies who won’t grow up, putting down the more mature friend (Lafayette: “You are the worst, Burr”). Hamilton is a bridge, too, managing to be charming to both Burr and the other three while giving one his attention and dismissing the others.

Before I ever heard “Wait for It,” I read something Lin-Manuel Miranda had said about its writing: how he was trying to capture that feeling of seeing one’s friends and age-mates rocket ahead with partners, kids, career, recognition, when one is still struggling to get established. (Aside: Did he ever have that feeling? Not for long, I’m guessing, but when you’re young even a few years’ gap can feel like an eternity. I’m not overly prone to that feeling myself; I don’t hanker much after fame, even in my own small pond, and I’m successful by my own lights. Nevertheless, when, only 13 years after his own graduation, Miranda gave the commencement address at the university we both attended, he had already written a Tony award-winning play and another one that was about to go on Broadway and rock the cultural world. I was 25 years out of college, and definitely experienced one of those “I will never catch up to that” twinges.) Anyway, knowing that Miranda empathized with Burr’s position, I was predisposed to see the merits of that “Wait for it wait for it wait” in tension with “I am not throwing away my shot.” The moral of the play is notcarpe diem.”

And then, too, Hamilton is being unreasonable here, when he says of Burr’s affair with a British officer’s wife, “Go get her. What are you waiting for?” Burr might play it too safe about a lot of things, but in this matter, he’s already sailing pretty damn close to the wind. I don’t know what the penalty was in such matters, but I’m guessing that if he’d taken Hamilton’s advice, he’d have been unceremoniously shot. (Burr’s approach did work out well for him. He and Theodosia were still together when her husband died, presumably never having discovered the affair, and she was Burr’s wife for 12 years, until her own death.)

“Wait for It” is about how two people in similar circumstances can take them in opposite directions. In contrast to Hamilton’s poor and fatherless childhood, Burr grew up in a distinguished family (the “fire and brimstone preacher” grandfather he refers to is none other than Jonathan Edwards), with money and privilege, but otherwise their stories run in parallel: orphaned at an early age, burdened by a sense of responsibility, possessed of  brilliant minds and a strong drive to do something worthwhile with them. That can cause one person to rush ahead, feeling that “He has something to prove / He has nothing to lose,” and another to hang back waiting for just the right moment to use his gifts.

Miranda says he had to think hard about which of these two characters to play. He judges “Wait for It” and “The Room Where It Happens” the best songs he’s ever written, and wryly notes that he gave them both to Leslie Odom, Jr.. But he decided that as a Latino actor he never got a chance to be the main character, only the white guy’s sidekick, and with the chance to play the title character and hero, he was going to be Alexander Hamilton. I think it was the right decision on other grounds. Can you imagine these two voices switched? Miranda’s is rougher, more conversational, and not only because he does nothing to obscure his Nuyorican accent. He sings with great expressiveness and subtlety, but his voice, like Hamilton’s personality, is a bit abrasive. Odom’s is lyrical, befitting Burr’s more diplomatic character, the one who persuades rather than arguing someone into submission. The one who, in this song and elsewhere, is all too aware of the possibility of making mistakes; the one who calls his friend/enemy by his first name (Hamilton never calls him simply “Aaron”); the one who wonders of the other, “What is it like in his shoes?”

And his voice rises to the occasion of this great song: it’s tender, gritty, and passionate in turns as he Burr shares his whole life philosophy and how he got there. He may seem like a ditherer to Hamilton (and to us), but he has his reasons for taking his time, and we hear it in his voice as clearly as in the words he sings:

I am the one thing in life I can control
I am an original
I am inimitable

I’m not falling behind or running late
I’m not standing still
I am lying in wait.

There’s so much more to say, but this is long enough. Instead of writing ten more paragraphs, I’ll encourage you to read or watch Miranda’s address to those 2015 graduates, which is all about Hamilton and Burr, and the way each of them responds to “the ticking clock of their mortality.” It’s eloquent and will make you see these characters in a more nuanced way.

P.S. Isn’t it great how you have to wait for the second-to-last “Wait for it” Burr sings? “I’m willin’ to . . . wait for it.” It comes at such an unexpected moment that I had to listen half a dozen times and practice about half a dozen more before I could hit it on cue. Waiting is an art.

How will our lives appear to the people of future generations? How will our story be told? Hamilton repeatedly raises these questions. It’s a historical drama about history itself.

Of course Miranda fictionalizes when he has Hamilton meet all three of these friends at once. Maybe they didn’t ever all gather together, in a tavern or anywhere else. But when they sing,

Raise a glass to the four of us
Tomorrow there’ll be more of us,

the details of who and when are not the point. The song is about the seeds of change, the people who were on board the train when it began rolling so fast there was no stopping it. So they are confident that

when our children tell our story
They’ll tell the story of tonight.

The lines I ponder most are:

Raise a glass to freedom
Something they can never take away
No matter what they tell you.

Do you think it’s true? There are political prisoners all over the world, even here in the republic Laurens (the principal singer in this short song) and friends are hoping to found; people are locked away for life, sometimes in solitary confinement, for trying to use their freedom. But in the sense of “Gedanken sind frei,” thoughts are free, I guess it’s true. In which case, maybe that is the freedom Laurens and the others are toasting: the freedom of the mind, which can be surrendered but never taken.

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.

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