Lately my life has been set to the sounds of “Hamilton.”
Granted, it’s not exactly uncommon for me to put a Broadway cast album on heavy rotation. But this time I have a lot of company. The rap musical about America’s first Treasury Secretary is now the hottest thing on Broadway, winning the Grammy, the Pulitzer Prize, and probably a lot of Tonys in a couple of weeks, all while being sold out into the next presidential administration.
By now, the CD is spending half its time in my car and the other half with friends and family as I repeatedly ask “Have you heard this?” Sometimes it takes quite a while to come back.
It’s probably one of the most unlikely successes on the New York stage. And I’m still trying to figure out exactly what went right. You know, beyond having catchy tunes, acrobatic lyrics, and a truly compelling life story to build around. Any theatre fan knows about fun shows that didn’t last – mass obsession needs something more.
In this case, I think it’s the unfamiliar familiar.
No, my brain didn’t hiccup there. But one of the best hooks for any idea is to be almost familiar, the way a mind latches on to a song lyric you can almost remember or almost make out. (“Louie, Louie,” anyone?) You realize that it’s something you sort of know, but not quite … there’s just enough that’s alien or different to require closer examination.
Like a historical figure that most of us studied in school but only vaguely remember. (The same thing has happened with John Adams a couple of times now.)
Like a Founding Fathers drama that casts minorities and uses rap and R&B to make its musical points.
And maybe most compelling, a political setting that echoes the turmoil of our own, but with hope for the future.
I’ve said before that the Founders aren’t marble figures on a pedestal, nor were their times a stately waltz to the inevitable. In the years after the American Revolution, we had economic distress, brawling factions, threats of outright rebellion, and intense wars of words in the newspapers that sometimes escaped to the dueling ground. A presidential election once sat in paralysis for days because of an Electoral College deadlock, and passionately-held ideas fought for attention with accusations and scandals.
Nothing like the peace and sanity of our own times, right?
In that fact lies a lot of hope. It’s easy to get disgusted, to forget that we’ve been through chaos before and will be again. That’s part of what it means to be a free society – to know that things aren’t going to be neat, pretty, and pre-ordained, but that passion, conflicting motives, and even sometimes outright ignorance and intransigence will be part of the mix.
And yet, somehow, we keep going. In its own way, that’s as unlikely a story as the illegitimate kid from an obscure part of the Caribbean who defended a Constitution and built a national economy before being shot by an aggrieved politician.
“What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see,” Hamilton now declares from the stage. Amid today’s strife, seeds and stories are being planted that could grow into something totally unexpected. As long as we don’t give up on the garden (and on keeping an eye for weeds), it will survive the weather.
We know we can. We have a daily reminder. And a catchy one at that.
Want to borrow the CD and see?