Margy and I finally had a chance to see the movie version of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical Hamilton. We loved it. I have seen many reviews and commentary on the musical, and I love its capacity to get us thinking and talking about so many issues–I love its lyrical, historical, and political density. Some commentary is highly critical of the musical, but I love what African-American historian Annette Gordon-Reed has said about how we can love art, and also enter a critical engagement with it.
(First indulge me in one ironic moment about how certain Broadway musicals have so much to say to audiences that can’t afford to go to Broadway. It reminded me of seeing Les Miserables many years ago in a theatre in Boston–my lover’s middle-class parents had given us tickets–and how weird it was to see this revolutionary drama about poor people, side by side with folks who were wearing their furs and jewelry. So Broadway, and most mainstream theater, has never been very accessible to my class location. But I am glad that this one was finally made into a movie.)
Some critics have chided Miranda for making the “founding fathers” more heroic than they were in actuality, and keeping the historical narrative focused on the white elites, despite his casting people of color as these historic figures. I found myself having a different response. I was thinking about the musical as it speaks to our time, to the situation of black and brown people in 21st century America. The way I experienced it, in the casting of people of color, the revolutionary heroism which has often been attributed to the “founding fathers” is being visually and transgressively applied to black and brown activists of today, illuminating their struggle and their heroism.
I see it in the lyrics (and music) from the song, My Shot:
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot…
Come on, let’s go
When you’re living on your knees, you rise up
And then the parallels to our own times cut me to my core in one particularly poignant song–It’s Quiet Uptown. We see the Hamiltons grieving the death of their first born son Phillip (who was shot in a duel). And because the characters are people of color, I can’t help but envision the pain of the parents of so many black and brown children killed by police brutality today.
There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down
The Hamiltons move uptown
And learn to live with the unimaginable
The pain is unimaginable, but Hamilton helps us to imagine it. And isn’t that the amazing power of art–to open our hearts and souls to the pain and joy of our different but shared existences?
Of course the musical isn’t everything to everyone–but as an activist who cares about social change, I found it emotionally inspiring and intellectually engaging. Oh, one last thought–if you are like us, and don’t already know all the lyrics to all the songs, it helps to turn on subtitles so you don’t miss a word.