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May 23 2020

America Sings For You

By Carol Antman for The Island Eye News

If You Go:
hamiltonmusical.com/us-tour/tickets. Shows begin in several U.S. cities this summer, including Atlanta in August and Charlotte in January 2021. Coming to Charleston in 2021 – date to be announced.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

I love that transcendent moment when the curtain goes up and the air is electric with anticipation. But nothing was like the opening of “Hamilton.” In-your-face lyrics asked who the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore … dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean …” could “grow up to be a scholar?” And, then, tauntingly: “What’s your name, man?”

 A diminutive actor emerged from the ensemble and meekly recited, “Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton.” That’s when the audience went wild, especially the teenagers. A Beyonce concert, screaming kind of wild. Why all of this excitement for parts of U.S. history that bored us in high school? Clearly this is not just another Broadway show. It’s a cultural phenomenon. 

Our mom took my two sisters and me to dozens of Broadway shows growing up.

We still burst into song upon mention of “The Music Man” or “West Side Story.” Family occasions often include parodies with costumes and props – which scared off a few would-be boyfriends back in the day. So traveling to Nashville to see “Hamilton” was a good reason for a trip together. But I wasn’t sure I’d like the show. I’d heard the acclaim. But rap music? History?

How good could it be?

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s originator, elicited the same reaction when he previewed the work in process at the White House in 2009. “I’m working on a hip-hop album about the life of someone who embodies hip-hop – Alexander Hamilton.” Curious chuckles rippled through the audience. But he explained that this “young, scrappy” man who codified so much of our nation’s fundamental concepts “embodies the word’s ability to make a difference.” A few years later, the show was a blockbuster, and Michelle was one of its biggest fans.

“Hamilton, I’m pretty sure, is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I agree on,” President Barack Obama joked. “This show brings unlikely folks together. And, Lin-Manuel, if you have any ideas about a show about Congress, now is your chance. We can use the help.”

Over wine and cheese in our wonderful Airbnb, we listened to the show’s recording and studied up.

Printed lyrics prepared us for the rapid fire renditions from the stage. We read interviews and debated themes. We were especially intrigued by Miranda’s inspirations, which included his father and Tupac Shakur. Luis Miranda was an ambitious Puerto Rican who moved to New York after graduating college at age 18. He went on to serve as an advisor on Hispanic affairs to New York Mayor Ed Koch before starting a political consulting company. Tupac, the rapper who was shot to death in 1996, reminded Miranda of Hamilton because both were brilliant writers who incited animosity and jealousy. Also, neither knew when enough was enough. We debated whether the non-white cast constituted cultural appropriation which led us to understand Miranda’s intention to get the audience, and especially the non-white youthful audience, to relate to the story. Instead of harpsichords, there is hip-hop. Miranda wants us all to picture ourselves in America’s still-evolving story.     

As first and second generation Americans, we identified with this “quintessentially American story,” as Obama described it. “In the character of Hamilton – a striving immigrant who escaped poverty, made his way to the New World, climbed to the top by sheer force of will and pluck and determination – Lin-Manuel saw something of his own family and every immigrant family.”

The glow of patriotic pride followed us from the theater as we imagined our nascent country floundering and fighting for freedom. It’s our grandparents’ story, too. They risked everything to come here. The cast sings, “When you’re living on your knees, you rise up. Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up; tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up; when are these colonies gonna rise up?”

The unconventional music also struck me as a moment of cultural transformation. Like other innovations, it raised alarms. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” premier caused a riot. Gershwin was called a poser and a Tin Pan Alley hack when he wrote “Rhapsody in Blue.” Even Miranda’s mentor, Steven Sondheim, cautioned him that an evening of relentless rap might get monotonous. Only a few glimpsed the potential. Rob Chernow, author of the biography that the play is based upon, heard a preview and said, “He sat on my living room couch, began to snap his fingers, then sang the opening song of the show. When he finished, he asked me what I thought. And I said, ‘I think that’s the most astonishing thing I’ve ever heard in my life.’ He had accurately condensed the first 40 pages of my book into a fourminute song.”

The show is the colorful, exuberant, youthful, messy, ever-evolving, radiant history of America. As President Obama said, “We hear the debates that shaped our nation … with a cast as diverse as America itself … the show reminds us that this nation was built by more than just a few great men – and that it is an inheritance that belongs to all of us.”

Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hour’s drive of Charleston, as well as more far-flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. Please visit peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com for more adventures.

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