Alchemy: a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination. (So Google says, anyway.)
Writers are alchemists, in a way. We take from thin air and imagination that which no one else can see or touch, and create worlds in which others can share.
And after a week, I can honestly say that alchemy is the only word I can use to adequately describe the experience of seeing Hamilton live on stage. There, my friend Patrick. I have described it. It is nothing more and nothing less than the transformation of life and words and history into magic. (I can see you rolling your eyes, Patrick.)
On July 11, 2004, my mom and I were at home, watching TV. Trying to find something worth watching, I’m sure. I don’t remember which channel we landed on – CNN, possibly, or maybe a New York station (because our wonderful satellite provider used to give us both New York and Los Angeles feeds – and I miss that!). The New York news was always fun – one amazing July 4, we watched the tallships in New York Harbor, as they made a slow, beautiful loop up and down the coastline.
But this particular day, we caught something I’ve never forgotten – a live re-enactment of the most famous duel in history, fought by descendants of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.
Of course, I already knew about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and that duel. And when I started teaching history soon after, I made sure to include not just Washington and Jefferson and Adams in my lectures on colonial and early American history, but also Hamilton. Because how could you not? To me, he was the most interesting one of all. The outsider, the rebel, the hothead. The forgotten one.
Last fall, I showed clips of Hamilton in my Anthropology class, to show how different cultures can interpret history. I didn’t expect to start listening to the soundtrack, to become completely enthralled with it. And if you’d told me in May, 2018 that I’d be buying tickets to see it, live on stage, I’d have laughed.
Well. Fast forward to this spring, when Kansas City Music Hall announced that Hamilton tickets would go on sale during our finals week, and since it was expected to sell out, they were doing an online ‘lottery’ so that some lucky people could get tickets a day early. I never win anything, but I won that lottery. I got my ticket. (Do you have any idea how hard it is to say “I did not throw away my shot” here?) 🙂
As I said – alchemy and magic.
Novelists get to paint worlds in words. Create everything for our readers, describe our worlds so perfectly that they know precisely what we mean. We can put into words what we want them to see in their minds. The readers may put their own spin on things, but if we do our job right, there’s synergy. We see it in our minds. We write it. They read it. They see it in their minds.
With something meant to be performed, though, it’s different. I know the Hamilton soundtrack by heart*, but there’s a veil there we can’t cross, images we can’t completely create in our imaginations. Some settings we can guess at – we’re pretty sure that “Story of Tonight” takes place in a pub – but there were other songs I just couldn’t quite visualize. How, for example, did you take a song like “Say No to This” and put it live on stage?!
Now, I know.
It’s not that the sets are complicated. Far from it. It’s the actors. How they interact on stage. Their expressions, their choreography, the small actions that suddenly breathe life into songs I thought I knew. They have more depth, more expression, than they did before. You get them on a completely different level.
How, you ask? So many ways, but let’s take the humor. So much of the humor is in the acting and the choreography. Things you can’t hear in the songs. Things you don’t know until you see them. Sure, some of the humor comes through in the songs, but – well, take King George, for example. Played on tour by Jon Patrick Walker, he is an absolute riot! We adored him. We adored him the moment he asked us to put our cell phones on silent, for God’s sake. He was that good.
And that brings me to one of the biggest things I loved most about the experience – the audience. I’ve been to plays where the audience just sits there. The actors are working their hearts out and the audience is just – blah. Not this time. There was an almost immediate rapport between stage and seating, a rapport that doesn’t always happen. So you could almost feel those moments where the actors played it up for us, knowing we would love it. Sitting there, I could tell that there were a lot of us in the crowd that knew the story by heart, and were waiting for our favorite moments – but there were just as many that were seeing and hearing it all for the first time. It didn’t matter. One moment we were all laughing as Jefferson told Burr that he’d never be vice-President because I’m the President and I don’t like you! – and then, in the very next moment, as Burr sat down to write that first fateful letter, an absolute hush fell over the entire audience. I don’t think anyone moved, or made a sound, for the next twenty minutes. It was an eerie, awful silence, as together we watched the events play out the way we knew they must. Instant synergy – and instant magic.
And I want to say one more thing: the principle actors always get a ton of credit, and they should because every single one of them was amazing, but the support cast? They are freaking awesome. The physical demands of the choreography was astounding, and they made it look effortless. Not only that, but they were also, I believe, the ones who moved all the props (desks, etc.). They are an integral, seamless part of the entire musical and without them, there is no Hamilton. They’re not there to do a song-and-dance number once per act – they’re on stage all the time. And they are awesome.
As a writer, I think one thing that has always struck me about Hamilton is how nuanced and faithful the characters are to real life. None of them are perfect, least of all Alexander. Read his biographies. But I have always appreciated how Lin-Manuel Miranda gives Burr humanity. I find that hard, even in my lectures (again, he’s despicable). As the play progresses, you see how at every turn, Burr is shut out of what he thinks should be his rightful place. Miranda made sure to develop that character arc perfectly, to follow Chernow’s biography as faithfully as he could.
Yes, some details are changed for narrative’s sake – for instance, Angelica was already married when Alexander met Eliza (but she definitely had a crush on the boy!). But who they were, who they are – that never changes. And that’s because there was no reason to manufacture anything. Hamilton’s life was lived in a perfect story arc – which Miranda echoes perfectly – with everything in his life leading up to victory at Yorktown and becoming Secretary of the Treasury . . . and then from there, cartwheeling into the abyss, mostly due to his own actions.
I left the Music Hall in tears (I wasn’t the only one; a girl behind me was sobbing and kept saying “I didn’t know how it ended!”) , and came home . . . and immediately bought tickets to Oklahoma City in August. Closer, this time. Row 5. It was an imperative. I could not not see it again.
And you know what? I cannot freaking wait.
*(Almost. I have to admit that I never listened to the final three songs; I just couldn’t. And I’m glad I didn’t, because I got to experience them for the first time live. It was chilling to realize that Lin-Manuel Miranda used snippets from the actual letters they wrote each other. No hip-hip. No bravado. Just their own words.)