Hamilton Lived, Hamilton Died, and the Story’s Still Being Told

This is the third entry in a Hamilton trilogy I didn’t realize I was working on until now. For my thoughts on the show itself, click here. For my thoughts on how Hamilton works with and around race, click here.

It’s been about two years since Hamilton made its way from stage to cast album. As a young person, I guessed that The Phantom of the Opera or Wicked would be the standards of popularity, and I was more or less right. Wicked may have caused less excitement among my cohort of theater friends than, say, Next to Normal, but it was the show that people talked about seeing when they did pony up for theater tickets. The Phantom of the Opera held that place beforehand, and probably will for the rest of time. People love Les Miz and they propped Cats up on Broadway longer than you’d imagine to be possible, but the cast album of Hamilton provoked an exuberance about a musical that I don’t know that we’re likely to see again. Part of it was the rapturous acclaim for the show itself, mixed with the legend of how difficult it was to get a ticket. If, like me, you live far away from New York and may die without seeing the show in person, little tidbits like the Ham4Ham mini-shows would pop up on Twitter and give you what felt like an inside view of the magic.

None of it was a replacement for the album itself; if it’s possible to wear an MP3 out, I was not the only one to do so. As a musical, it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard. Lyrically, it’s in the same ballpark for density as Sondheim (and it earns points for having more of them than just about any other show). It has a scope at least as wide as those perfect Boublil and Schönberg musicals. The original cast has no weak voices or performers. The second act, which decides how good a musical is, is basically flawless; from “What’d I Miss” to “I Know Him” is an unbelievable stretch of music which then yields, ultimately, to “Burn” and “It’s Quiet Uptown” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” It passes a test that only a few other musicals pass for me: when I listen to it by myself, I feel encased by it. I can list on two hands the other musicals that do that, and I’m not sure I need all of both hands.

It’s been so long that Hamilton wasn’t a national phenomenon that you had to care about—and in some cases, had to love—that it’s worth recapping it as a musical and as an enjoyable piece of pop culture. Since then, Hamilton has crumbled. The backlash was inevitable, because that’s what happens when anything is liked enough. Some of it was well-deserved. Hamilton totally ignores what it was or is like for the average immigrant to America in favor of telling a bootstraps narrative about its protagonist. Matt Stoller, who is always an essential read on finance and economic history, wrote an excellent historical analysis of the musical’s Hamilton and the real Hamilton, who has never gotten better press. The PR for Hamilton leaned heavily on making the show into a secondary historical document with similar rigor to the source material; the legend of how Miranda came up with the idea for a Hamilton musical based on the Chernow biography of the man he took with him on vacation is now on the same plane as “No legs, no jokes, no chance.” The fact that the musical elides certain elements of Hamilton’s life is to be expected. Skipping the bit where he tried to create a partisan army with himself at its head is a little more surprising. The longer the show went on, the more other missing chapters of the story were discussed: Hamilton got the “problematic” label slapped on it at one point because not enough of it was about slavery. Part of the dissolution of the show was natural to showbiz, as the original cast members moved on to different projects, as original cast members do. (There are an absurd number of Elphabas who followed Idina Menzel in Wicked, but that doesn’t mean people still went gaga for “Defying Gravity” in 2007 like they did in ’04.) Some of the blowback was from the mere fact that there are a bunch of people who don’t like musicals and are uncomfortable about any setting in which irony isn’t foregrounded.

It is a little big funny that, like Hamilton himself, the musical launched itself to the highest heights and found that there was nowhere to go but down. The second half of this musical is the story of Hamilton’s greatest professional triumph—the Compromise of 1790 and the places it allowed him to take the fledgling American economy—right on top of his cataclysmic fall from grace. While he was accomplishing the former, he was engineering the latter with his long-running affair and his strident ambition to be in form and function, as Jefferson intimates, “fake royalty.” Hamilton worked itself into being one of the best musicals of the 21st Century. It also took the positively Wagnerian turn of inflating the creation myth of the nation in a way that credulous bourgeois viewers would be happy to ingest.

On July 9 of last year, several cast members took their final Hamilton bows: Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr., Phillipa Soo. Daveed Diggs left the next week. Jonathan Groff had been out since November of the previous year. On July 9 of last year, FiveThirtyEight gave Hillary Clinton a 77.9% chance of defeating Donald Trump for the presidency. Less than two weeks later, the Republican National Convention met in Cleveland. And in November, down to a 71.4% chance of victory, Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election. Wisconsin went for a Republican for the first time since 1984. Pennsylvania and Michigan went red. North Carolina and Florida went red. In late October of last year, we were talking about Arizona or Georgia flipping. (Remember that scene in Airplane! where everyone gets in a line to slap and/or beat the bejeezus out of that panicking woman? We could use some therapy along those lines, I think.)

Hamilton got big enough that it genuinely got tied up with how we looked at the country. Rembert Browne, in his annual Who Won/Didn’t Lose [year] column for 2015, sent Hamilton on a long run into the Elite Eight where it eventually lost to Donald Trump. He wrote:

Hamilton was one of the beautiful things from 2015 that you’ll never be able to take away from the strides this country has taken. Trump, on the other hand, represents how far we have to go. And because the latter is stronger, he again advances.

There were fans who were playing up Hamilton as one of the great artistic endeavors of all time; they turned their fandom into part of their personal identities just as surely as Rick and Morty fans have turned an unholy hankering for high fructose Szechuan sauce into part of their personal identities. And there were smart people who looked at Hamilton and saw it as symbolic of our nation’s progress, which is somehow even more insane. It didn’t help that Miranda, a hereditary Democrat, became part of the celebrity train campaigning for Clinton; nor did it help that there is a species of elite center-left types who put up Hamilton as some kind of unquestionable good, whose political gospel is “I’m with her,” whose most scathing critique of Trump is “This isn’t normal,” who go to church via Pod Save America, and who praise John McCain’s bravery while tossing soft anti-Semitic comments at Bernie Sanders. For months, there were people who genuinely thought that Clinton could become president when we proved that Trump had been placed on the throne by the Russians, thus invalidating the results of the election. Or something.

Hamilton ceased to be a force in American life when the center-left ceased to hold any authority. The New York Times, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and above all else the Democratic Party no longer seem to be worth much. The Times is scared to death of being sued for calling someone racist a racist but happy as a clam to continue employing knuckleheads like Bret Stephens, David Brooks, and Ross Douthat. Barack Obama is a million times more likable than all other non-Carter ex-presidents, and while we miss him we also look back on the shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act, the expansion of drone warfare and American tinkering in the Middle East, the endless police brutality against African-Americans, and the lenient approach to banking which will cause another enormous recession in your lifetime as long as the planet doesn’t kill you first. Someone else you’ve read has done the Hillary Clinton takedown I don’t have the heart to do. And for the first time I can remember, people would rather associate themselves with a tiny political party with no infrastructure and no real chance at electoral victories than with the Democrats, who are as beholden to moneyed interests as Republicans and who think the way to victory is to push right to win back Trump voters. The past is littered with endless New York Times articles about Hamilton, the concert at the Obama White House where Miranda unveiled “Alexander Hamilton,” Miranda doing Hamilton numbers with rewritten Clinton lyrics. If Hamilton two years out is a symbol of anything, it’s a symbol of how conventional wisdom fails us. It never symbolized “America” or “America’s progress” or “America’s future.” It symbolized a subset of the population which yearned to be wowed by top-down leadership. It symbolized a subset of the population which fell in love with the dash and the hot topics but couldn’t read its darker themes. It symbolized a subset of the population which put its truth in mythology and personality cult and reaped the whirlwind for doing so.

It’s hard to listen to Hamilton anymore, not because I’m necessarily tired of the music or because I’m over the politics of the show itself. Like I said before, the show is still really, really good; it’s so good and so singular that I’m not sure how it will be revived. (I remember being terrified for the Les Miz movie. A Hamilton movie would undoubtedly give me the same problems.) It’s more that Hamilton reminds me of a time we didn’t realize what easy marks we were and we loved that. I’m not sure that we understand that we’re easy marks now—there’s a lot of “won’t get fooled again” types out there who wouldn’t know snake oil if it wrote a novella-length Twitter thread—but Hamilton reminds me of a vulnerability I didn’t know I had and didn’t know I shared with a great many other people. Hamilton used to feel bold, almost like an affront. Now when I cue it up, it sounds a little more hollow, like it wrote a check that it couldn’t cash.

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