Monday, July 6, 2020

"The $10 Founding Father"

I've always admired Alexander Hamilton. Back in the 1970s, my American political thought professor suggested a show should be made about him, heroically titled "Alexander." I never quite expected that to happen and was accordingly surprised and pleased when "the $10 Founding Father" became the subject of a Broadway hit. Of course, Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's masterpiece may not have been stylistically what any 1970s professor or student might have expected. But, as everyone now knows, it has succeeded, both as art and repurposed history. (And it may also have happily helped save Hamilton's honored place on the $10 bill.)

Needless to say, until now I have never seen or ever expected to see the show - Broadway being well beyond my price range. But now, for a modest fee (infinitesimal compared to theater prices), a filmed version of the theatrical production (with the original cast) is now available for streaming. So I spent some significant part of July 4 watching what I'd admired from afar but had never expected to see for myself.

Obviously, watching on my laptop cannot compete with or really compare with watching it live in a theater. Nor, since it is a filmed version of a particular live performance, is it a proper "movie," with all that that experience entails. I will leave it to the theater and film critics to analyze those aspects of this unique production. Even so, the performance - its music, its lyrics, its acting - is fantastic.

As always, it helps to know some history already. Undoubtedly, it helps to have read Ron Chernow's 2004 biography of Hamilton, on which Lin-Manule Miranda based his musical. But even the viewer with no knowledge of American history at all could learn a lot from this pop version of Hamilton's life - from his arrival as an immigrant in New York to his service on Washington's staff in the Revolutionary War, his marriage, his authorship of The Federalist Papers, his service as Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, his rivalries with Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, his affair with Maria Reynolds, the death of his son, his role in the 1801 election of Jefferson over Burr, and his death in a duel with Burr.

Hamilton, the immigrant outsider who made his way inside and became a great nation-builder, has always embodied a special sense of America's promise. Hamilton, the Broadway hit, transposes that perennial promise into the cultural expression of Obama-era multicultural progressivism, a novel take to be sure, but one well within the ultimate logic of Hamilton's story. In this repressive nightmare which we are now living through, that seems almost as far away as the founding era itself. Optimistic Obama-era multicultural progressivism appears almost as distant as the founders in their knee-breeches, and in its own measure flawed like them. Yet it speaks so eloquently of the power of America's founding promise that we can keep reverting to both the founding event and the founders themselves in new and imaginative ways, a retrieval which we will have to try to do again, on a much bigger stage, if and when our current national nightmare ever ends.

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