This blog post is different than most that I write here. I usually write about my books, my process, how my books relate to me as a writer or to the world at large. But today I am writing about the musical Hamilton, which my husband and I watched recently on Disney. It has nothing to do with my own writing, but it did very much touch me and bring up a number of issues around the search for a legacy and wondering where our country is headed. More than that, it is a well told story that made me care about many of the characters. And that is something any author can learn from, as it is what we strive to do as well.
My husband and I watched the musical Hamilton last night on Disney. I’d heard about it since it opened in 2016. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and 11 Tony awards, as well as a Grammy for the album of the musical, and many more. Yet knowing of the awards and critical acclaim, I’d not gotten around to it for a variety of reasons. I should not have put it off. I wish I’d seen it years ago–though it’s unlikely I would have spent the money to go to New York in 2016 to see it. Nor would I have paid the huge prices to see it as a touring show in Portland when it came through. Fortunately, Disney bought it and released it in July 2020. Why did it take another year and a half to see it? Because I didn’t have a Disney+ subscription until last December when a deal made me think it was worth it.
I highly recommend it!!!
What makes Hamilton so special?
It has all the aspects of things I look for in a truly stand out work. A way of looking at the world that no one has done before. It is difficult to take any historical figure and write a book about it, or do a movie about it. But to also do it in a musical–a musical that did not follow any “norms” for casting, writing, or many of the songs. First, it casts non-white actors as the Founding Fathers (all of which were white men) and other historical figures. I’d seen a couple of online comments about how people were so upset about that. I didn’t think anything of it. Shakespeare cast men as women. Many theaters don’t pay close attention to race when casting a role. The Shakespeare theater in Oregon often has non-white people cast in major roles. They cast the person they believe will best play the role.
I actually had the opposite reaction in watching the show. Though I’m white–my relatives immigrated from Ireland and Germany–I actually felt more seen in this show than I did in 1776 which seemed so much about aristocrats and their concern for little but their own interests. Though certainly the primary political founders of our country were well-educated and some were aristocrats, the fact they were played by people of color who I know were just as poor as my relatives, and some were enslaved, it seemed more uplifting to me for that casting. All of my relatives were very poor when they migrated to America. Most of my relatives are still poor and never made it beyond high school. Very few of my relatives today have even made it to the middle class. So, for me, I could identify with the need to rise up from poverty, to take a chance on a new nation and the promise of independence from a way of life that was ptescribed in terms of your relationship to the King.
Another unique part of the musical is that there is not a single spoken line of dialog. Most musicals are primarily dialog with eight to ten well-placed song and dance numbers. In this musical the music contains the dialog. Though some of the music did reflect the types of show tunes I expected in a musical–lyrically uplifting songs of love and marriage, forgiveness and hardship. Most of the music was hip hop, rap, and soul combined. It was fast paced, rhyming, and both hit what I expected from the character in that moment, but also delivered on the basic history. As far as I know, a musical without any dialog that isn’t song has never been done.
In watching the interviews with the cast and Miranda, he described Hamilton as looking at the founding of America “as part of the immigrant experience.” After all, everyone who came to the colonies were immigrants. Of course there were no “Americans” per se. There were the indigenous people who already lived here. Everyone who else who came was an immigrant. Miranda also described the script as being about “America then, as told by America now.” That is told by an America that is multi-cultural and would filter the story through their own cultural experience and understanding of what happened in our history.
For me, seeing that approach actually made the founding of this country more real, more believable. I know that the production didn’t adhere exactly to historical events in terms of dates and sometimes stretched the story to make a dramatic point (1776 was also notorious for not sticking to the historical record). Historians may quibble with what year something actually happened (a year earlier or a year later than in the musical) or if the exact relationship to that historical character was as described (e.g., the relationship with Burr was not as actively a conflict as portrayed in Hamilton). For me, what makes history come alive is the individual stories of the people around a primary person. No man who founded this country did it alone. Not only did they have to work with each others–even when they disagreed–but they also had wives and children, mothers and fathers, constituents that were a part of every decision. Was Hamilton less of an aristocrat consumed with appearances? I don’t know. It is interesting to me that the musical 1776 did not include Hamilton in the story at all.
I laughed, I cried, I identified with so much in Hamilton’s life—not only for myself, but for so many politicians, artists, people who must create something new or different. That need to “take my shot.” That desire to have a historical legacy. The realization that legacies come in all sizes, shapes, and meanings. The pull between doing good things and the choices one makes to accomplish those. Nothing comes easy. There are always people to convince to join you, and always compromise. Those who cannot compromise cannot lead. It is in the compromise that some people give up too much, go against their own values, or lean toward winning above the purpose of the program they are championing. There is always a point at which power and popularity causes some people to lose sight of what they really wanted to accomplish, and instead to shift to more power.
Yet, in spite of all that Hamilton did, or George Washington or other founding fathers, it was so many around him—in the background—that made a difference. Those who knew their locus of control was small, but believed in sacrificing for this different way of life. Many small players had to be willing and ready to participate to actually propel the revolution. More than that, it propelled the formation not only of a new country but of an ethos—however flawed—by which the country would grow and change.
Finally, I was left with the knowledge that no matter how hard one tries to control their legacy, it is others who determine it by the stories they tell about us. We really have no control over how others view us, our work, what we try to make happen within our sphere of influence. Should any one of us be so lucky to have others tell our story after we die, we have no real control in what is included or excluded or the themes that will be central to the story.
In Hamilton’s case, it was his wife (who survived him by 50 years) who made sure his legacy was remembered. She held up his belief in the republic and a way of living as she continued his work and built upon it beyond what he planned. And now it is also Lin Manuel Miranda and all those who worked on this musical that has added to that legacy–whether 100% accurate or not–it has left many with a different way to view the struggle for this new country.
Why Do I Link This to What is Happening in Ukraine?
So many of the things that happened during the American Revolution is also echoed in Ukraine and what is happening there. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, UkraineA country that has fought hard to find democracy over the past thirty years. Though they had officially formed a country separate from Russia, A country that finally appeared to have “won” that fight though certainly is not perfect—neither is the U.S. A country that is now facing the equivalent of a Russian “King” who thinks nothing of his own people’s welfare in his continuous reach for more power, more land, and most of all the desire for everyone to see his fearsome might. He, too, has a picture of his legacy. He, too, will not be the one to write it no matter how hard he tries.
Then there are all the other countries in the world which are a part of today’s story. Unlike the American revolution in the 18th century where news of war and power and greed were not circulated so quickly, we now see almost instantaneous coverage not only in print but in video. We even have the capability to predict what is going to happen because of satellite imagery, and of course human and technological spy assets around the world.
Yet…just like Hamilton…the siren call of “legacy” can override all the signals of right and wrong. Just as the colonies would not have found their freedom without the assistance of France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic. Also, Ukraine will not be able to be free without the assistance of the U.S. and Europe.
I am happy to see European nations and the U.S. providing Ukraine with resources, while attempting to choke Russian oligarchs economically. I do believe that some of the heads of state are doing it because of a true belief in sustaining democracy around the world. However, I’m also certain that they could not do it without appealing to those who don’t care about democracy but do care about economics, about controlling or at least having a part of the natural resources Ukraine has to offer. Europe would much rather deal with a democratic Ukraine for oil and gas and other resources, than deal with an autocratic Russia.
That is the messy reality of politics and democracy. To sustain any democracy, you need a strong and steady economic engine. The same goes for autocracy. The question is will the democratic experiment continue to be one that puts the wealth in the hands of the many? Or will we let not only Ukraine, but our own country, instead devolve to autocracy which puts the wealth in the hands of the few.
What legacy do we choose? What “shot” will we take?
I vote for democracy both on ethics and belief in the system. For me, sustaining our democracy is key to sustaining our economy. And sustaining our economy means we cannot withdraw from the world. The world no longer allows for isolation politics. We are all tied together.
As a writer, I have gotten ahead on the belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” What I mean by that is when we work together, based on our values and the longer-term legacy that helps all, that is when we succeed the most.
Though the phrase was popularized by John F Kennedy in relation to economic policy, I prefer this founding of it in May of 1916 from The Spirit of Missions.
The editor of THE SPIRIT OF THE MISSIONS is certain that he speaks not only for himself but for every official connected with any missionary enterprise when he declares that he would not, if he could, divert a single dollar from the relief of Europe. On the contrary, he rejoices when gifts for the war sufferers increase, not only because of his passionate desire that this awful suffering may be relieved, but also because he knows that “a rising tide lifts all the boats,” and that every good cause should profit by the sympathy which this crying need awakens in the hearts of men and women who too long have been concerned chiefly about their own comfort and gratification.
May we all contribute to, and be part of, a rising tide that is concerned about the welfare of all people struggling in our own country and abroad. May we all be missionaries for democracy and for ensuring that all people have a voice and the ability to choose their leaders and their laws. May our hearts open beyond our own comfort and gratification to help others rise up with the tide.
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