December 28, 2015


'Hamilton' Makes Me Want to Be Great (Justin Fox, 12/28/15, Bloomberg View)

So what is it about "Hamilton"? There are lots and lots of things, but I'll offer three:

It's a complete, original, dazzling work of art. Yes, "Hamilton" is based on Ron Chernow's great biography, and is stuffed with way more homages to rappers living and defunct than I could ever hope to keep track of. But Miranda and his co-conspirators tweaked and embroidered and massaged and eventually transformed that source material into something bracingly new. It's not that it's perfect -- some songs are better than others, some parts fly by faster than others. But there are no obviously fixable flaws in it. Economists call an allocation of resources Pareto optimal when (I'm quoting from Wikipedia here) "it's impossible to make any one individual better off without making at least one individual worse off." With "Hamilton," it isn't clear what could be improved without making some other part worse off. It verges on Pareto-optimality, which is awfully rare for the product of the modern American entertainment industry.  [...]

It's about America, and America can be really interesting. Much has been made of the musical's cast of Founding Fathers who don't look anything like the Founding Fathers. This isn't a stunt. Miranda is clearly in love with the United States of America, past and present, and much of the genius of his creation lies in how it makes the personalities and conflicts of the late 1700s feel fresh and relevant today. Hamilton came to New York from the Caribbean as an impoverished teenager, so it doesn't feel like a great leap to see him portrayed by a guy (Miranda) whose parents both came to New York from Puerto Rico. "The ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot him," Leslie Odom Jr.'s Aaron Burr sings of Hamilton. "Another immigrant comin' up from the bottom." The diversity of the rest of the cast flows naturally from that. It also doesn't hurt that the rest of the cast, with Odom at the lead, is pretty brilliant.

Miranda has said the spark of the idea for the musical came as he read Chernow's biography of Hamilton and was reminded repeatedly of the ambitious, talented, combative and prematurely deceased rapper Tupac Shakur. The comparison is one sense ridiculous: Shakur is No. 86 on Rolling Stone's list of "100 Greatest Artists of All Time," with "All Time" starting in about 1954; Hamilton helped create a nation that's still thriving more than 200 years later. But different times offer different opportunities, and the idea that similar angels and demons drove the two men isn't ridiculous at all.

Then there's the musical's clear-eyed but generous take on politics. Political debates don't dominate the plot, but the confrontations between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over economic matters and foreign relations are lots of fun, and full of parallels to contemporary conflicts. Someone like me with pre-existing Hamiltonian tendencies found much to reinforce my views, and Daveed Diggs' portrayal of Jefferson as an arrogant, fast-talking dandy may forever shift the public perception of that particular Founding Father. But "Hamilton" actually renders each side's arguments quite faithfully and sympathetically.

Miranda grew up in a family immersed in New York City Democratic politics, and perhaps as a result of that experience he portrays politics not as a moral quest but simply as conflict between opposing groups, with none having a monopoly on virtue. In a climate where political identify is increasingly becoming "fair game for hatred," as one researcher recently put it, this is wonderfully refreshing.

Posted by at December 28, 2015 11:58 AM