May 23, 2016


The Rooms Where It Happened : Review of Hamilton: An American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York City) and Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter (ALISON L. LACROIX, New Rambler)

To watch Hamilton is to experience a total work of art - a Gesamtkunstwerk, in which different forms are combined into a single unified whole. The production brings together a staggeringly wide array of musical styles, including hip-hop, ragtime, Broadway musical theatre, jazz, and baroque harpsichord. The tableau unfolds dynamically - actors are perpetually in motion; an ensemble of dancers surrounds the main characters with intricate, sharp choreography; at various points in the show, two turntables revolve, often in opposite directions, turning the singing actors and placing them in ever-changing speed-tableaux. The costumes manage to be elegant and period appropriate while also avoiding caricature. There are no wigs, except for one that accompanies the occasional warble from the peruked George III. 

But the most astonishing artistic weapon that Hamilton unleashes is the power - in both force and quantity - of its words. The two-and-a-half-hour show comprises 20,000 words, nearly all of them delivered in some form of song or rap. The show is "sung-through," a phrase whose new frequency among the general public is yet another consequence of Hamilton-mania. The fastest song in the show, "Guns and Ships," is reported to clock in at a rate of 6.3 words per second - most of them fired in French-accented rap cadences by the Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs). Quite simply, the audience is fusilladed with words. On and on they come; one tries in giddy vain to remember the last set long enough to savor them before the next wave arrives. Indeed, this is one reason that consultation of the printed lyrics is necessary: because the ear is incapable of processing the words as they hurtle forth. Happily, the lyrics are included in the booklet accompanying the original cast recording, and - with photographs and extensive annotations - in Hamilton: The Revolution.

One such moment comes in "Cabinet Battle #1," in which Hamilton (Miranda), Thomas Jefferson (Diggs again), George Washington (Christopher Jackson), and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) debate Treasury Secretary Hamilton's proposal for the federal government to assume the states' wartime debts. In response to the russet-velvet-clad Jefferson's preening self-citation of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" ("These are wise words, enterprising men quote 'em/Don't act surprised, you guys, cuz I wrote 'em"), Hamilton bursts forth:

Thomas. That was a real nice declaration

Welcome to the present, we're running a real nation

Would you like to join us, or stay mellow

Doin' whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello?

If we assume the debts, the union gets

A new line of credit, a financial diuretic.

How do you not get it? If we're aggressive and competitive

The union gets a boost. You'd rather give it a sedative?

The stakes of late-eighteenth-century debates about debt assumption, the federal union, and a national bank are thus conveyed within the context of a post-millennial rap battle. We care how this clash will turn out; we want to know who will win - even though we already know, as we knew before we heard the first bars of music: Hamilton's financial system will ultimately be established; the federal government will assume the states' debts; and the Union will become more robust and centralized. The genius of Miranda's words, however, is that they make us forget that we know how it will all end. The national bank, the strong judiciary, the encounter at Weehawken - we already know. And yet we watch and listen as though we don't. Because while we know what happened to the faces on the currency and the portraits in the museum, we don't know how it will all unfold for these particular people whom we are watching and listening to.

The words are the components of the barrage issuing from Miranda and his fellow performers on stage. But the words are more than just a medium. In the world of the show, they are also the impetus behind those volleys, for Hamilton is above all about the power of words, both the purposeful and the uncontrolled, to shape individuals' destinies. We see the young Hamilton propelling himself out of the raw Caribbean periphery of the British Empire to New York City and a scholarship at King's College (the predecessor of Columbia University). As Madison describes it in the first song, "Alexander Hamilton,"

Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned,

Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain,

Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain,

And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain.

Twenty-two songs (or, in actual historical time, fifteen years) later, in "Non-Stop," the final number of Act I, we see the mature Hamilton, clad in a gleaming bottle-green silk suit, scribbling with a quill pen atop an off-kilter wooden plan held by eight ensemble members in buff waistcoats and breeches. The scene is Hamilton at work on his towering fifty-one Federalist essays, as we are told by narrator Aaron Burr in tones of mixed awe and horror. Burr is typically played by Leslie Odom, Jr., but Odom's understudy Austin Smith gave such an outstanding performance in the show that I saw that I did not realize until days later that I had not seen the original Burr. Such is the formidable depth of the Hamilton cast. While Hamilton feverishly writes, the chorus sings with urgent speed:

How do you write like you're

Running out of time?

Write day and night like you're

Running out of time?

How do you write like tomorrow won't arrive?

How do you write like you need it to survive?

How do you write ev'ry second you're alive?

Ev'ry second you're alive? Ev'ry second you're alive?

Earlier in the same song, Hamilton chants with childlike glee, "I was chosen for the Constitutional Convention!" The moment is an all-too-rare popular culture triumph for constitutional law professors.  

Federalist 78 is one of the earliest theorizations of American judicial review - a practice that had existed under the British Empire, that was not specifically named in the Constitution itself, and that was extended in the early nineteenth century by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall. Some scholars posit that Federalist 78 was essentially a restatement, albeit with Hamiltonian flourishes, of a preexisting colonial belief in popular sovereignty.  

But Miranda is depicting something more than just codification of prior practice here, and this image seems historically apt. Who better than a "bastard brat of a Scots pedlar," to borrow John Adams's epithet, to draft the fundamental structural justification for federal judicial authority? Federalist 78 married the divided authority characteristic of federal structures dating back to the seventeenth-century Anglo-Scottish union of crowns with the novel institution that Article III of the Constitution called "the judicial power of the United States." As Hamilton wrote in Federalist 78, "No legislative act . . . contrary to the constitution can be valid." Rather, he argued, judges "ought to regulate their decisions by the fundamental laws, rather than by those which are not fundamental." Popular sovereignty was a part of the story, to be sure. But what Federalist 78 invoked was something new: the Constitution as both a source of authority for governing, and as the governing power itself.  

Posted by at May 23, 2016 7:09 PM