Just You Wait: Reflections on Hamilton, Founders Chic and the Need for an Example in the post-truth era
There were two types of people in high school in the late 90s: those that screamed and swooned and became haunted with a lost look in their eyes at the mention of Tori bloody Amos (I mean Christ I had friends who wrote flipping research papers about her) with a log-lady like protectiveness, and those that wondered what the fuck they were on about.
I must confess, dear reader, I fell into the latter.
I fell outside the clove-cigarette smoking circle.
I couldn’t tell you y Tori kant read.
And I was never a Cornflake Girl.
Which is not to say I don’t appreciate the beauty of her music; perhaps it’s just envy or frustration that I missed the rapturous mass convrersion to the Church of Tori.
So it goes with most obsessive fads: Harry Potter, Bubble Tea, Christianity.
Blink and you miss the wave and the further it drifts away from you the less fun it seems like to catch.
Which is funny really, because I write to you from inside the Hamilton bubble, that wonderful phenomenon of storytelling that has swept from Broadway to most major American cities and now on to the London stage and that everyone who is anyone seems to be talking about and seems to know everything about.
Except me. I knew almost nothing. I heard vague references to a hip hop musical and Alexander Hamilton, who had always been a footnote in American history books mentioned somewhere in connection with federalist papers (yes, it’s true when they say ‘every other founding father’s story gets told’). And I hadn’t expected much because I’m one of those people who’s just ‘not that into musicals’ (I hated Billy Elliot the musical. Did I mention? Awww look at all the cute Northern miners striking for their very fucking survival! Good job, Elton John for condescending to them and treating them like pixies!)
And this wasn’t some desperate grab for tickets. This wasn’t me entering the Hamilton lottery every day or calling ticketmaster or camping out like I did for Ani DiFranco tickets back in Penn State. This was pure luck. My editor at The American happened to be unable to go and so he offered it up to me. On the night my mother-in-law was landing from Dublin for Christmas.
I ask you not to judge me for choosing Hamilton.
I wish I could buck the trend and say it didn’t live up to the hype.
‘Well,’ my brother intoned to me skeptically over facenet with digitally raised eyebrows, a couple days after I had seen the show, ‘I hope it’s more than just… gushing praise.’
I mean it was articulate gushing praise.
My younger sibling was worried that I had not caught on to the trend of Founders chic, the celebration and the cool rebranding of our anglophile, landowning, manipulative power hungry founding fathers and the backlash against said trend. He was right. I hadn’t been all that aware that John Adams had been made cool again or that all the kids were pejoratively referring to their worst enemies in the playground as lobsterbacks.
And I get the point. I really do. We spent the first couple hundred years setting up these white men indignant at having less privilege than their British counterparts as Gods. And I know it’s not as simple as that, but it’s also not that much more complicated. George never came clean about the cherry tree. He never chopped down the cherry tree. It was a myth invented by Washington’s first biographer. Draw what conclusions you will but that tells you a lot more about our national character and our unquestioning belief in the deified founding fathers than any account of our first commander-in-chief’s life and times.
But is re-interpreting Hamilton’s life as an inspirational tale of an American grafter overcoming adversity by pulling himself up by his bootstraps really dangerous? As a former History major and a former teacher of History, I can sympathise (see above for my irreverence and unquestioning acknowledgement of our ‘founding fathers” non-greatness and flawed humanity) with the frustrated historians who see it that way. After all, I refused to shell out to see The Iron Lady in 2011 because I’m not going to financially support anything that humanises a woman who would gladly see her fellow MPs die on Hunger Strike and question their virility before she would negotiate for their rights as prisoners of war. To be sure, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill looks compelling but I’m deeply skeptical of the perpetual lionisation of prime minister who changed parties twice and didn’t really know what to do without a war to get him up and going in the morning (or midday… or whenever he slept off the previous night’s whiskey as it were).
But here’s the thing. Because Hamilton includes references to history does not mean it is to be taken as a History Lesson. It is fiction. A compelling story. But no more an attempt at a factual historical account than Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most compelling portraits of witty, villainous, despotism in which the bard, according to many frustrated British historians, greatly maligned the last Plantagenet.
And I’m not going to repeat the obvious arguments in greater detail than has already been outlined with greater eloquence than I could accomplish here (that hip hop subverts the white elitism that was the currency of Hamilton and Washington’s era and forces us to reflect on it with fresh eyes, that Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians playing historical figures who would have been exclusively white also challenges us to a process of cognitive reevaluation of the way we perceive our history).
What I will say is that we need Hamilton as a story and as a national mirror of who we are, and we need its critics every bit as much. We need Hamilton for reasons that neither Lin Manuel-Miranda nor anyone else could have anticipated back when the show opened in 2015, that its jibes at major political leaders would seem so much more poignant now than they did then. That we would suffer such a paucity of leadership that James Comey would join the ranks of bestseller authors by building a case several hundred pages long about the poverty of leadership from which we as a nation currently suffer. And we also need Hamilton because one of its very true facts: that unlike some of our current and recent political leaders, Hamilton came clean about his sexual misdeeds. He faced up and ‘overwhelmed them with honesty.’ He showed us how to handle a scandal. It may have circumscribed his political ambitions, but at least he was honest.
So read Hamilton‘s critics. Get to know them. Understand them. If this magically inspiring historical musical that is as American the spirit of protest that allows us to use our greatest words to protest through historical analysis, and to be inspired by an engaging narrative about energy, ambition and drive, then more power to it.
“How can you be American and have got away this long without seeing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?”
We are in the pub for the Great British tradition of The Sunday Roast. My friend S is incredulous. She has certain criteria that must be met by her Americans.
“Well, he’s not really American, is he?” My friend P “wittily” retorts.
Oh, touché. I do my best to stretch my face into indignation. It’s no good. I’m used to my muddled accent and my “Europeanism” attracting similar commentary. I’m a mutt by lifestyle now as well as birthright.
S is technically correct. Earlier in the week, I had been to see Seven Brides in The New Wimbledon Theatre in order to review it for The American Magazine. I had never heard of it, despite its unflinching, cliché-embracing Americanness. I had received the email from my editor, seen “press tickets” in the body of the missive, thought: opportunity, and replied in the affirmative.
I didn’t think it was going to be a musical. I thought it was possibly some mythical magical realist piece (seven repeated in the title?) or some Kung Fu romance (there is a lot of avant garde theater in London).
I was right about the mythologism, well, half-right. It is based on the Roman story of “The Sabine Women,” in which the early Romans abduct women from the neighboring tribe, the Sabines in order to marry them and propagate the species. The story was rewritten as a Twain-esque parody called “The Sobbin’ Women” by Stephen Vincent Benet. From there, it was made by MGM into a movie musical in the heyday of movie musicals, fated to become one of the most beloved films of its kind of all time.
Except by me of course, since I’d never heard of it. That, and I tend to hate musicals.
I can’t stress this last point enough. In order to give you some sense of scale, I hated Billy Elliott. With a passion. I despised it for two hours while my wife and our friend, A, sat spellbound in a West End Theatre marvelling from expensive seats, open-mouthed with amazement at the gravity-defying feats of acrobatic excellence taking place on stage while I kept thinking: this is Elton John’s way of getting us all under one roof to say, “Aw, look at the cutesy wootsy working cwass! They’re soooo adawable! The way they dance away their pwoblems with idiotic gwins! I love love love it! Le Sigh.” Pass. The. Bucket. I think the film was a masterpiece, but the stage show does its best to trivialise the struggles of the miners and the main character himself, captured with such beautiful conviction in the film.
So, not generally a musical guy. Which is why Seven Brides took some getting used to.
Because once you realised that Adam Pontipee was an unreconstructed Davy Crockett lookalike with a barely post magnon attitude towards women, who was only slightly more well-rounded and modified by curtain call, and further realised that the denouement of the whole narrative involves Adam’s “sassy” wife Milly finding his overt sexism really rather charming (bless his beautiful hide), you begin to wonder what there is to like about these rustic types. Suffice to say the two principle characters were not what held my interest in the end. No, I ended up enjoying myself in spite of myself and them.
Why? Because it is with the entrance of the seven brothers of the title that this big musical comes alive and is injected with some much needed vim. For it is their civilising, their reformation, and the edges that are left of them after that process of transformation that generates real interest in this story; the brothers on stage form a solid rousing chorus of toe-tapping unity, solidarity and at times, lament, that feels attractive, that envelopes you and lifts you along on a tide of rhythm and country charm.
And this brings me nicely and perhaps metaphorically back to national types. As I watched the brothers, I wasn’t convinced by their accents — which were inconsistent and sometimes pure Punch Magazine caricature — but by the flavo(u)r of their sentiments. I realised that the directors had made no attempt at authenticity or nuance in depicting America. This dancing, leaping pinwheel of colo(u)r is not really what the British think we are. This is what the world is nostalgic for and really want us to be: swaggering, confident, sometimes foolish, unerringly optimistic and larger than life in vibrant technicolo(u)r.
I stress, the West is not part of who I am as an ill traveled tristate boy, but this show made me wish that it was. There is still a mythical hold the American West has over the imagination, a place where one can still go to seize some space of one’s own, whether real or of the mind, and reinvent oneself as a prospecting, prosperous go getter, a rugged individualist with initiative, with getup and with gumption!
I’ve seen Seven Brides now. I can tick it off my cultural heritage list. And there are many beyond our shores who know enough to look past the stereotypes, and know that we are a diverse people full of cultural richness and intellectual depth. Although I’m critical of my country, it is because I love where I am from. Unlike Michael Moore, it personally annoys me when Americans blithely dismiss their compatriots in favour of a misty-eyed romanticisation of Europeans as though they are somehow innately better (just more civilised, that’s all). Nothing could be more false.
I will confess that I don’t always, as a Canadian friend recently put it, “give good American.” Upon my first meeting with my late grandmother-in-law in Dublin, her first comment to my wife-to-be once I’d left the room was, “Very quiet… for an American. Very quiet.” And it is probably important to bear in mind after the humbling last few weeks in which we’ve become the stereotypical belligerently drunk American frat boy at war with ourselves and unable to do anything productive or function stumbling around in our own corrosive bitterness exposing the very worst of ourselves, our partisanship, our literal mindedness, our refusal to see the wood from the trees, our insularity, that of the national stereotypes there is to choose from — Hollywood’s walk-on English baddie (preferably Alan Rickman), the stage Irish drunk, the humourless German hun, the snooty Frenchman — you could do worse than the uncouth American frontiersman, staring down the elements and adversity, still offering something to the stage that is the world and open to new possibilities and to change.
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