PHOTO by Joan Marcus
by Charles McGuigan
HAMILTON, the musical, which is playing at Altria Theatre through December 8, is the perfect entrée to serve up with the impeachment hearings. It was, after all, Alexander Hamilton who forged, in the fiery furnace of his brain, the tools to remove a wannabe autocrat from office.
Like many Americans, I knew next to nothing about Hamilton before reading Ron Chernow’s exhaustive biography about this frequently forgotten Founding Father (a volume my daughter got me for Christmas a few years back). Unlike many of the other founders, Hamilton was born without the oral benefit of a silver spoon. He was a commoner, an outsider, an immigrant who lived a hardscrabble life in the Sugar Islands, and witnessed the brutality and injustice meted out to enslaved Africans. So, it’s no surprise that Alexander became an abolitionist, and those founders who were of the manor born resented him for this—he wasn’t a member of the club—and tried to diminish all he had done for the fledgling Republic. Chief among them were men like the Sage of Monticello, who was forever preening his peacock plumage, and reserving his place in history books, a grandstander of his day, the consummate 18th century self-promoter.
This musical, which is based on Chernow’s book, is lively, irreverent (when it needs to be), and peppered liberally with references to the flaws and pitfalls of Hamilton and his life. Many of the musical numbers resonate with the audience. In one of the songs, QUID PRO QUO is used twice, and the response is immediate with cheers, laughter, and thunderous applause.
The scores and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda blend hip-hop, jazz, blues, rap and R&B in an apparent homage to music that is distinctly American, grown on our fertile soil from the seeds sewn by our unpedigreed immigrant forbears who came, willingly or unwillingly, to lay down their roots. The songs, with barbs of truth and satire and good-spirited humor, inspire like no anthem ever could, and each of the players voice them with unparalleled expertise. It’s easy to understand why HAMILTON won the 2016 Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album.
From the astounding choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler, to the musical supervision and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, to the scenic design by David Korins, the stunning and colorful costume design by Paul Tazewell, this musical is as singular in each of these efforts as the man it is about.
Which brings me back to Hamilton, the man, and an eerily prescient essay he penned way back in 1792. “When a man unprincipled in private life,” he wrote. “Desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper . . . despotic in his ordinary demeanour — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government and bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.'”
PHOTO by Doug Dobey
It’s seems particularly fitting that HAMILTON, a celebration of the truth of our founding, will run almost until the time of the unveiling on December 10 of Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War on Arthur Ashe Boulevard adjacent the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The arc of the moral universe is again bending toward justice.