Every once in a while a piece of art brilliantly captures the glory, costs and ordeals of public life. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” did that. And so does Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” now playing at The Public Theater in New York.
The Public Theater seems hell bent on putting drama back in the center of the national conversation, and Miranda’s “Hamilton” is one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in a theater. Each element in the show is a jewel, and the whole is bold, rousing, sexy, tear-jerking and historically respectful – the sort of production that strips things down and asks you to think afresh about your country and your life.
It is a hip-hop musical about a Founding Father. If that seems incongruous, it shouldn’t. Like the quintessential contemporary rappers, Alexander Hamilton was a poor immigrant kid from a broken home, feverish to rise and broadcast his voice. He was verbally blessed, combative, hungry for fame and touchy about his reputation. Like Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., he died in a clash of male bravado. The spirits of Tupac and Biggie waft through this musical; their genre the modern articulation of Hamilton’s clever and cocky assertiveness.
The musical starts with the core fact about Hamilton and the strain of Americanism he represents: The relentless ambition of the outsider. He was effectively an orphan on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. His mother died in the bed next to him. He was adopted by a cousin who committed suicide. Relentlessly efficient with his use of time and brilliant in the use of his pen, he made his name.
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The musical reveals the dappled nature of that ambition. Hamilton is captivating and energetic – a history-making man who thinks he can remake himself and his country. But he is also haunted by a desperate sense that he is racing against time. He has a reckless, out-of-control quality. In the biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” upon which the musical was based, Ron Chernow writes that Hamilton “always had to fight the residual sadness of the driven man.” That haunting loneliness is in this show, too.
But Hamilton is not portrayed as ambition personified. The musical is structured around the rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who is the crafty one, the utilitarian manipulator whose only ambition is to get inside the room where power is wielded. In real life and in the musical, Hamilton’s ambition was redeemed by his romanticism. He was more Lord Byron than Horatio Alger.
Hamilton was romantic about virtue and glory. As a boy he read Plutarch and had an archaic belief that death could be cheated by the person who wins eternal fame. He sought to establish himself as a man of honor, who would live on in the mouths of those whose esteem was worth having.
He was also romantic about his country. Miranda plays up Hamilton’s connection to New York, but Hamilton actually dedicated his life to the cause of America. He sought redemption in a national mission, personal meaning in a glory that would be realized by generations to come.
He was also romantic about women, strong in his capacity for love. Hamilton communes with Angelica Schuyler, who is his intellectual equal. He marries her sister, Eliza Schuyler, who is not, but whose submerged strength comes out in adversity.
But the boldest stroke in Miranda’s musical is that he takes on the whole life - every significant episode. He shows how the active life is inevitably an accumulation of battles, setbacks, bruises, scars, victories and humiliating defeats.
Hamilton’s greatest foe, Thomas Jefferson, is portrayed brilliantly by the actor Daveed Diggs as a supremely gifted aristocrat who knows exactly how gifted he is. Hamilton assaulted Jefferson because he did not believe a country dominated by oligarchs could be a country in which poor boys and girls like him would have space to rise and grow.
By the time he set off for his fatal duel, Hamilton was a damaged man. But he left behind a vision, albeit one that sits uncomfortably across today’s political divide. Unlike progressives, he believed in relatively unfettered finance and capitalism to arouse energy and increase social mobility. Unlike conservatives, he believed that government should actively subsidize mobility. Unlike populists of left and right, he believed in an aristocracy, though one based on virtue and work, not birth.
He also left behind a spirit – the spirit of grand aspiration and national greatness. The cast at the Public Theater is mostly black and Latino, but it exudes the same strong ambition as this dead white man from centuries ago. America changes color and shape, but the spirit Hamilton helped bring to the country still lives. I suspect many people will leave the theater wondering if their own dreams and lives are bold enough, if their own lives could someday be so astounding.