What ‘Hamilton’ says about our past, present, and future

 By Dan Cava

Cover photo: Joan Marcus

October 22, 2018

The Broadway musical blockbuster Hamilton is playing in Charlotte now and, yes, it’s as good as its sensational reputation. If you’ve heard about it (and not everyone has– more on that later), then everything you’ve heard is true. The touring version has brought with it all aspects of the Hamilton phenomenon: from the show itself– the postmodern jolt of hearing American history retold via hip-hop, the electrifying performances from a majority minority cast, the dizzying complexity of the wordplay, the rich revolutionary themes– to the circus around the show– the scramble for and instant scarcity of tickets, the debt-inducing prices, and the feeling of being struck by historical lighting if you somehow manage to get in.

Experiencing Hamilton in Charlotte, It’s hard to imagine the Broadway version could be much better than the incredible roadshow. Enough has been written about Hamilton that another glowing review seems, right now in 2018, a bit superfluous. And yet seeing Hamilton today gives us a one-time opportunity to consider what it might have to say to us and about us here in the present moment.

Photo: Joan Marcus

Hamilton is meant, I think, to expand our sense of what “We, the People” really can mean. We the people. Our shared history. The show is a reminder that some of us did amazing things, and some did selfish things. Some did noble things, and some did terrible things, and some parts of us did terrible things to other parts of us. We watch Hamilton’s beautifully diverse cast playing America’s founders– heroes and villains alike– and we think that in some ways it was like that, in some ways it should have been more like that, and in some ways it can still become more like that.

With Hamilton we see not just a recap of our distant history, but also a relic of our very recent past. Hamilton still radiates with the glow of the pre-2016 melting pot pride that buoyed America through the ebbs and flows of the Bush and Obama eras. It’s not an accident that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakthrough performance of the musical’s first song occurred within a few feet of our nation’s first black president. Watching Hamilton for the first time this year as I did, it was painfully obvious to me that everything I was seeing was conceived before the current pandemic of polarization had swept the nation. Before the Right’s surrender to Trumpism and the Left’s surrender to identity politics reduced so many of us to seeing America, not as us, but as us and them.

Hamilton possesses that paradoxical kind of ancient wisdom: “wise as serpents, innocent as doves.” Wise because it hides its subversion in a sense of celebration. Innocent because it comes by its celebration so earnestly and honestly. Hamilton, and our reception of it, feel untainted by the rifts of the last few years. It’s dispiriting to wonder what the response to Hamilton might have been had the show debuted now after Trump’s election. Think about it: the angry anxiety from the Right about it being an attack on white men, and the chin-stroking cultural lecturing from the Left about how a hispanic man (playing Hamilton) accusing a black man (playing Thomas Jefferson) of owning slaves is “problematic.”

Photo: Joan Marcus

Poignant reminders of our divided present accompanied my attendance of Hamilton. Standing in the Belk Theater, which had been sold-out within hours of the show going on sale, I couldn’t help but notice the unmistakable affluence and whiteness of the crowd. For complicated social and economic reasons, theater attendance in America has often trended white, but somehow I thought this hip-hop laden genre-smashing cultural event might have risen above the statistics. Alas, but for those on stage and a handful in the seats, no one else of color was in the room where it happened.

A few days later I mentioned to a class of college film students, none of whom are white, that I’d seen Hamilton. Only one had even heard of the show, and all were stunned by the ticket prices. After my glowing recommendation, a number of my students registered for the digital lottery for $10 tickets, but the longshot-ness makes it extremely unlikely any of them will see Hamilton anytime soon. The temptation to see my students’ lack of access as a metaphor for something more serious is…tempting. The glorious, effortless integration on the Hamilton stage hasn’t found its way into the Charlotte Hamilton audience. Not yet.

Photo: Joan Marcus

But I’m willing to wait for it. Mercifully, both the timing and the content of Hamilton help us to both believe in and long for the America Hamilton portrays, where diversity flourishes, where progress and compromise not only coexist but are codependent, and where both women and men are afforded heroism and vulnerability. In Hamilton, America, the “great unfinished symphony,” gets a renewed past and a vision for the future. Even it’s egalitarian curtain call felt aspirational, where the actors all stood side by side and bowed together, rather than in order of importance like most shows. “All of us are in this together,” it seemed to say. “We don’t move without each other.”

Hamilton portrays a past we can look back on and a future we can live up to. But the more pressing challenge for us is in the present. For us. Now. “Look around, look around,” sings Hamilton’s wife Elizabeth Schuyler, “the revolution is happening.” It did happen. It should be happening. It can still happen.

Check out the remaining showtimes for Hamilton at Belk Theater.

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