I saw “Hamilton” the other day. It is a masterpiece.
It’s good news for America, too.
There is nothing like it on the New York stage, and never has been. I got choked up so often I started counting how many times I tried not to weep. The man in his 20s who accompanied me also got misty, and at our show, the Easter Sunday matinee, the cast, which has been performing the musical since January, came out for their bows, and three of the major players had tears glistening in their eyes. One was the writer, composer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who urged the audience to contribute to Broadway Cares and noted that he was seeing a lot of moist eyes.
Why did they weep? Why was everyone so moved?
Because it hits your heart hard when you witness human excellence. Because the true tale of how an illegitimate, lowborn orphan from the West Indies went on to become an inventor of America is a heck of a story. And because it is surprising yet perfect that that story is told in a hip-hop/rap/rhythm-and-blues/jazz/ballad musical whose sound is pure 2015 yet utterly appropriate to the tale.
Imagine this. Small theater, lights down, and suddenly elegant, beautiful young artists in 18th-century garb come out and create a world. Alexander Hamilton is there and he is telling you his story. “Another immigrant, comin’ up from the bottom / His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him.” Young Hamilton was alone in the world, an orphan with no connections, a self-tutored genius who had read everything and read deeply. He is ambitious, full of hunger for life, but he needs a stage. He gets himself to New York, then as now the city of ambition, and hears in the taverns of the rising American revolutionary spirit. This is his moment, his chance—“I’m not throwing away my shot”—at the richness of life, at status, meaning and acceptance. He wanted to be great. Barely arrived and Alexander Hamilton was already an American.
From that rough beginning he became George Washington’s right-hand man during the Revolutionary War, a major voice in the creation of the Constitution, the first Treasury secretary and inventor of the nation’s financial foundations. (You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a rap face-off over which fiscal and banking policy is best for a rising 18th-century nation.) And there is Hamilton’s private story: He is in love with two sisters, marries one, becomes enmeshed in the first American sex scandal, is blackmailed, goes public, loses his son in a duel to defend his name. In the end he too is killed in a duel by a man, Vice President Aaron Burr, whose anguish was that he was not great and would never be central to the Age of Greatness.
In a telephone interview Mr. Miranda says: “There are so many highs and lows in Hamilton’s life—tragic circumstances. Then he pulls himself up to incredible early American heights. Then he pulls himself down!” Mr. Miranda recalls that by the end of the second chapter of Ron Chernow’s biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” on which the show is based, “I fell in love. I know this guy. I know about improbability. He’s like Pip in ‘Great Expectations’—the genius, the frustrated genius, I know who this guy is.”
I asked about the tears. Those involved in the show say they are a common occurrence. “I get to live a whole life every night for two hours and 40 minutes, and the last section in particular, that [Hamilton’s] wife lives for another 50 years.” Elizabeth Hamilton tells the audience, in a closing soliloquy, how she spent it: doing good, founding charities to help the children in the nation her husband helped invent.
I want to get to how the show comes as a profound refreshment, as something new and startling. It isn’t only the wonderful production—the music, acting, sets, costumes, choreography, direction.
“Hamilton” is loving. It spoofs Jefferson and takes a cool-eyed look at Burr, but it shows a reverence not only for the founding of America but also for the founders themselves. You’re not supposed to do that in 2015, but in Mr. Miranda’s vision they are human beings embarked upon a great enterprise. “I wanted to present their political arguments clearly, surely, and give voice to what they were trying to do politically. But they were people. The Constitution is not the result of something written on a stone and handed down, it was the result of compromise and hard work and fights! They were all human, fundamentally flawed, and their relationships were fraught and complicated.”
“Hamilton” is modern in some new way. The women aren’t forced to adopt the usual modern scattershot bitterness at their plight. They know exactly their position in their world. They live successful, limited lives, not in an old-fashioned way but in the way that all successful persons live limited lives, because life is limited.
The personal nature of ambition is given full play. Not everything is ideology or outward exigencies. You don’t want to be great for no reason, you want to make your mark for reasons that have to do with your interior world and with the meanings you divine from life outside of and apart from it.
The show is not politically correct, but not in a way that feels forced. It seems effortless and natural, as if Mr. Miranda never heard of political correctness.
And there’s some kind of new racial alchemy in the show. Mr. Miranda is Puerto Rican, his cast is black, white and brown, and the actors get to play the parts that suit their talents, not their racial circumstance. “Hamilton” marks multicolored America seizing U.S. history and making it its own, and producing in the process a work not of all colors but of a universal American color. By respecting the American Dream and presenting it in this way, “Hamilton” says the dream is alive, everyone owns it, and if you look close you can see it playing out every day, all around you.
It is a big thing to say a play is worthy of Alexander Hamilton, but it is.
And in some way I can’t explain, it feels important that every Republican candidate for president see it, absorb it. I don’t know that Hillary Clinton absorbs much beyond strategy and tactics these days, but the young Republicans running now need to see this show. It is going to make them hopeful, and in some new way it’s going to make them grateful.
“If there’s a political takeaway,” says Mr. Miranda, “it is that it’s always been like this. The Eden in which we had no political parties lasted about six months or a year. Divisions were inevitable. We fight, we’re people, it’s messy.”
The one person in the show Mr. Miranda presents as a contemporary political character, he tells me, is Burr. “He’s the only one who leaves no paper trail, who always preserves the ability to not commit. . . . The Burr character—we know this guy.”
Another takeaway. “History is long,” says Mr. Miranda, and it matters who tells your story. “That lands with them.”