Hamilton, Ambition, Perfection

posted July 2, 2016

IMG_4976“What is to give light must endure burning.”
-Viktor Frankl

If, on the night of June 2nd, you heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from a neighborhood in Northampton, that would have been me on learning that, for my birthday, my incredibly generous parents (via the urging of my hugely thoughtful and loving sister Katryna) had bought Tom and me tickets to go see Hamilton the Musical. On June 28. Two weeks before the Tony-awarded cast’s contracts were up. I was going to get to see the original Broadway cast. In person. I screamed for a full 10 seconds. More on that below, but first I have to say that I was going to post that picture of me surrounded by my new Hamiltome (a huge, beautiful libretto with photos, notes and essays on the production), my soundtrack and my copy of the Ron Chernow biography. But Katryna said, “You can’t tell people about this! They will kill you! Plus, it’s rude.” So I didn’t say anything until we actually went. That was still probably rude. But I could not keep quiet.

I am in the Adirondacks right now, writing with my retreatants at my parents’ house. Up on the wall of the kitchen is a snapshot that captures a moment of pure perfection, taken about 4 years ago, of my two kids when they were still in footie pajamas. They are sitting, side by side, at the foot of the stairs, waiting for their grandparents to come down. The morning light shines in on their brown heads, and they are both turned slightly to look at the photographer. One of them has an eager look on her face; she knows the glories that will come when her grandparents descend. The other is along for the ride, because he knows his sister usually has a good plan. They are alert, attentive, on the cusp, sitting up straight and tall, criss-cross-applesauce legs. They are snuggly and delicious, and when I see that picture, I melt. I want to scoop them up and hug them. I regret ever having done anything other than scoop them up and hug them, hold them to my chest and savor this rare period of time. Why, in the face of such wonderfulness, would a person do anything else? And yet I know that during that time, my mind wandered, just as it did (a very little bit) as I sat in the equally perfect production of Hamilton I was lucky enough to see.

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Like most folks who have heard the soundtrack more than once, I am a huge Hamilton fan. I love pretty much everything about it:
-the incredible songwriting (which I think is even better than Sondheim’s because it has so much heart and pathos)
-the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda got the idea from reading that big fat historical biography of Alexander Hamilton
-the amazing history lesson our kids are getting (mine are obsessed and know every word, ask me unanswerable questions about John Adams and Lafayette, are furious about Washington and Jefferson owning slaves)
-the politics (how much have things not changed???)
-the humor (King Louis’ head)
-the cast that looks more authentically like today’s America than any play I’ve seen
-the cast, the cast, the cast, oh my GOD, the cast!!!!
-the incredible study of ambition that we get in comparing Hamilton and Burr
-the awareness of privilege and class that we see as Alexander rises up from his origins in the West Indies
-the vast scope of the musical’s ambition
-The beautiful, inspiring love story
-the fact that it is the first musical I have been interested in since I was in high school
-the fact that it has made me fall in love with live theatre again
-the way in which L-MM composed the “mixtape” on Logic (what is Logic? How the heck can I learn it??? Can someone help me? please?)
-the references to the Beatles (of course)…

We arrived at the theatre at 3pm, and I was so nervous I was trembling. I was stuttering. I couldn’t believe I was at the Richard Rodgers theatre and that I was about to see my new musical heroes and heroines. I have listened to the soundtrack *nonstop* since my nephew William introduced me to it in April, and I have come to love the cast members the way I loved the Fab Four. I feel like I know them. I can’t imagine seeing Jefferson played by anyone other than Daveed Diggs. Or a different George Washington; who can possibly fill Chris Jackson’s shoes? So I was trying hard to pre-emptively lower my expectations on the experience, since there would surely be at least one understudy taking the place of one of my beloved leads. But when we got there, there were signs up everywhere warning the ticket holders that this production would be filmed.

And. Jonathan Groff, who had played the role of King George III onstage and on the soundtrack, and who had left the show in April, was coming back (*he’ll be back…*) for this performance.

GAH!!!!!!!!! ON TOP OF EVERYTHING, THERE ARE DELICIOUS BEATLES REFERENCES!!! IN THE AFTERMATH OF BREXIT!!! (which I loathe, but anyway, it’s interesting…)

Speaking of the Beatles, I have to say that I haven’t been this blown away and deeply inspired since 1977 when my friend Leila Corcoran introduced me to the Fab Four. But this brings something else up.

As inspired as I am by Hamilton, I am also daunted by it. I am almost defeated by its perfection. I am obsessed by its genius pacing. How did he figure out which parts of that huge book/huge life to include in the 3 hour story, and which parts to cut? He brilliantly tells the first 19 years of AH’s life in a masterful opening number:

How can any songwriter ever lift her quill again in the face of this? How can I even begin to approach my 850 page novel The Big Idea when I have in my head the perfection I witnessed on Tuesday night? My book is not as good as Hamilton. So why bother.

I told my friend this the other day. OK, my therapist. She looked at me and shook her head, as she often does. “Whaaat? You must be out of your GODDAMNED MIND….” No, just kidding. She said, “Um, why are you comparing a novel to a musical? And what does your novel have to do with Hamilton? Who, besides you, would even make a comparison of you to Lin-Manuel Miranda?”

I don’t know. It’s arrogant (*bastard*) to compare oneself to the likes of L-MM; one doesn’t usually compare oneself to Shakespeare or Mozart or even Lennon/McCartney. One just sighs and knows that there are some who achieve a kind of immortality, while most artists, even wildly successful ones, are content to get paid and to bask in the contained era of their fame.

How was the show? I was on the edge of my seat for the full 3 hours. I trembled throughout the first act. I wept all through the second (except when I was laughing). And yet, there was a way in which getting EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED left me feeling a bit…off. I know that sounds horrible and ungrateful. But what I mean is that it’s a strange thing to be fully satisfied,just as I was fully satisfied when I was cuddling my small children in their footie pajamas. And this is itself one of the themes of the play. “You will never be satisfied,” sings Angelica to herself and to Hamilton. These two characters have almost everything in the moment when she sings these words: wealth, success, beauty, love, family (though Angelica is lacking something very particular, of course….) Still, it’s a very difficult thing, even in the very very best of times, to remain fully and completely present. Even in the face of perfection––and an absolutely perfect entertainment experience––my mind sometimes went somewhere outside the Richard Rodgers theatre. (To my novel. To my children. To my concern about driving home after the show in the rain.) Also, and I am deeply ashamed to admit this, a part of me was convinced that this incredible good fortune (of getting to see the show, of getting to see the entire original cast) would not go unnoticed by the gods, and surely I would be smote somehow. So what is that about?

I need to add here that, besides the price of the tickets, there was a pretty significant cost to my birthday night. I sort of smote myself. My bloodcurdling scream seriously wrecked my voice. At the retreat yesterday, I had intended to do way too many things. Among them were to record a demo of Liv First’s song “The Shame Wars” for my friend Dar Williams, who will be singing it for the soundtrack that will accompany The Big Idea. It’s been a month since I screamed that bloodcurdling scream, but I still don’t have the full range of my voice back. I can’t cleanly sing the D above middle C, which used to be an easy note for me. I warmed up and warmed up, but the note is still not there. And I have in the back of my mind, “Payback. For all your good fortune. For getting to see Hamilton.”

I ended up macguyvering my little Casio keyboard (the song is played on piano) to make it a half step lower, and then I was able to sing the song. I sent it off to Dar, and I sent other songs off to the band. The experience of seeing that beautiful work of art last Tuesday stays with me. The songs are in me, the images and the dances too. Certain gestures I got to witness feel intrinsic now to my whole life. Just as the experience of witnessing my two children grow from babies to footie-pajama’d youngsters to the mountain-climbing violin-playing soccer-ball-kicking infuriatingly rule-breaking wonders they are today is woven into my blood and bones. Just as Hamilton and Burr wove themselves into each others’ blood and bones, so that by the end of Hamilton’s life, he has a bit of Burr’s hesitancy and judiciousness, while Burr has some of Hamilton’s go-for-it ambition. Time will tell if I get my D back. I will go and warm up my voice again today and see. If not, I’m willing to *wait for it.*

The Comments

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  1. Will see the show
    Won’t see the original cast
    Will be excited
    Won’t curdle a scream
    Will love your book
    Won’t compare it to a musical
    Big hug

  2. Minds are made to wander. But I know how you feel when you want to be completely present in an experience, and you just can’t be perfectly there. It happens to me pretty chronically. Since you brought up the Beatles– I saw them at Shea Stadium both times. (Not quite comparable to your Hamilton experience, because, unlike Hamilton, the performances were far from perfect. Just being in the same air space with them was the main thing.) The first time is a bit of a blur– literally — I was so far away that my photos consisted of mostly roof from the above tier with a sliver at the bottom of something that looked like a stage with 4 fuzzy ants on it. I do distinctly remember the second time, though, when I was closer and more able to see real people on the stage. After all the months of anticipation, (and the seemingly endless teases by the announcer: “And now, what you’ve all been waitung for– the Ronettes!, Bobby Hebb!, the Cyrkle!, etc., etc.”), when the Beatles finally came out onto the field, I felt overwhelmingly compelled to turn away briefly, my back to the stage. I recognized that my reaction was rather bizarre, and that I was missing precious moments. But it did feel like I couldn’t emotionally reconcile all that I had continously been living, Beatles-wise, in my mind with the reality of them being in front of me. Ultimately, of course, I did manage to watch and listen, to “be there” to a certain extent. And then it was over in the blink of an eye. Which is almost literally true since they were on for less than 20 minutes).

  3. A friend forwarded a link to this blog post because he knows how “Hamilton” crazed I’ve been. I’m a singer-songwriter and writer who is scaling back on my music career (rough patch/burn-out/mid-life crisis…?) to work on a book I’ve been writing off-and-on for the last 20 years or so (it’s really time I finished that project, wouldn’t you say?!) Unfortunately, it’ll be a couple years before I get to see “Hamilton.” In the meantime, I’ve been listening to it constantly, marveling at it’s utter perfection, crushing hard on L-MM and his amazing talent, and feeling more inspired than I’ve been since I discovered Les Miz… all ALONE! I haven’t been able to trap any friends in the car or otherwise force anyone to check it out, so I’m left to wander the world wondering when I’ll come in contact with another being in my neck of the woods who shares my obsession. Like you, I find myself comparing my music and my writing to Lin’s and thinking, “How can I live up to that?” But I also find such inspiration in his tenacity, fearlessness, and drive. I remind myself that he didn’t create this beautiful thing overnight and that keeps me burning the midnight oil writing and pushing myself to dig deeper. Lin started a fire that’s burning far beyond “Hamilton” and lovers of musical theater; he’s sparked a forest fire of inspiration for creatives like us who have our own fires to light. Thanks for sharing your story/obsession. It’s good to know that “my addiction,” as my friends are now calling it is affecting others in the same all-consuming way. I may be crazy, but I’m not alone in regard to this particular mental illness.

  4. Well, I have to say, Nerissa, your experience at ‘Hamilton’ reminds me of when I went to the best concert I ever heard. It was 16 and 1/2 years ago, just after the turn of the century, and I saw you and Katryna perform at, if memory serves, Germantown Academy in Montgomery Co, PA. I had to take a train and then walk about half a mile in the dark just to get there, thinking all the while if I take one wrong turn I’m going to get lost. But I didn’t–got there an hour early in fact and was first in line at the door. And then you and Katryna just wowed me with your singing and how winning and charming and funny you both were, referencing current events in your banter. And continually, throughout the generous set of songs you played, for well over an hour, in my mind popped the annoying refrain, ‘why am I not able to lose myself in the moment and enjoy this as it ought to be?’ I guess maybe it is a common experience, actually, and perhaps why I never have gone to concerts or live events very much, that sense that as good as it is, the experience is also elusive and slipping away from you, in space as well as time. (And so I’m happier, I think, just playing the CDs in private, yours among a few other artists, or watching videos on YouTube.) Still, that was a magical night, one I’ll always cherish, and I just want you to know what you, Katryna, and the rest of your band are capable of, what you have already achieved. We all have our gods, and goddesses…

    BTW, you have impressed me with your adoration of ‘Hamilton,’ to the point that maybe I should look into more of what it’s all about. Normally, I’m pretty close-minded about and cast a suspicious eye upon anything that becomes so popular and transcendent culturally; to this point, I don’t really get it that a musical about Alexander Hamilton has become so huge, though obviously it has something to do with the music and the performances. But I have read some books about Hamilton, Jefferson, and especially Aaron Burr, who is kind of a personal hero to me for being misunderstood and yet living such a rich and long life despite everything that happened to him. So now I’m somewhat curious to find out how this show portrays the three of them, and the extraordinary, odd, interconnected relationship between them.

    Thanks, as always you have been enlightening!

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