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Founding father fixation: Probing the public passion for 'Hamilton'

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Whether you go to see “Hamilton” at the Wharton Center this month or not is a private matter between you and your accountant.

To put it in the proper idiom: The Broadway money machine about the men on the money will soon be rhyming and dancing in Lansing, with a mission that’s historic and a vision that’s euphoric. The only pollution in this revolution is that access to “Hamilton” is so exclusive its message of inclusion is sometimes elusive.

When the founders are in the house, you’d better favor beans over meat for weeks, savor every beat and soak up every syllable they speak, because it’ll take two paychecks for you and your sweetie to settle your meat in those seats.

OK, that’s out of my system.

“Hamilton,” which opens Tuesday at the Wharton Center for a nearly three-week run, is a treasury drain, to be sure, but it’s also a cultural phenomenon without parallel. Any show that has 8-year-olds singing about the American Revolution and gets glowing notices from Barack Obama and Dick Cheney is worth a closer look, and we can do that here for free.

I talked to some local “Hamilton” fans with pretty strong cred in theater, music, history and African-American studies and see why they think “Hamilton” is worth parting with so many Washingtons.

‘Door opener’

Early in “Hamilton,” the outgunned, outmanned American colonists get the word from General George Washington: “Guns and horses giddy up! I decide to divvy up my forces; they’re skittish as the British cut the city up.”

The spectacle of a black George Washington spitting brisk hip-hop orders from between his wooden teeth administered an almost chiropractic crack to American culture when “Hamilton” started its run at New York’s Public Theater in early 2015.

Since then, the public’s thirst for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “story about America then, told by America now” has been almost impossible to slake. A Chicago production launched in 2016, even though it’s rare for a second standing production of a Broadway show to run concurrently with the original. The national tour hitting the Wharton Center this month launched in San Francisco in early 2017, years ahead of the usual timetable for Broadway tours.

Now nearly every student in the nation gets a “Hamilton” unit in history class. Emily Conroy-Krutz, a historian of 18th and 19th-century America and an assistant professor at MSU, plans on taking her daughter, who is in third grade, to see it for the second time when it comes to Wharton.

“She and her friends love to sing the music together and talk about their favorite songs,” Conroy-Kurtz said. “We left the theater and she’s asking me all these questions about the Revolution. She’s engaged in a way I never could have imagined. It’s amazing.”

The show about the founding has its own founding myth. On May 12, 2009, Lin-Manuel Miranda performed at the White House, with President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama in the front row, as part of “An Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word.”

Miranda was expected to sing a song from his musical “In the Heights,” but he switched it up and made an announcement so audacious it drew laughter.

“I’m actually working on a hip-hop album — a concept album — about the life of someone who embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton,” he announced.

In a stunning YouTube video, Miranda put this preposterous idea in practice, rapping the opening number of “Hamilton,” with Obama nodding along and Michelle Obama snapping her fingers. You can hear the laughter gradually die down as Miranda carefully and urgently spits each word, forehead veins bulging.

The video has gotten nearly 7 million views by now.

When it was posted, students in Conroy-Krutz’s Revolutionary America class at MSU were struggling with an assignment to find a contemporary discussion of the Revolution and write a term paper about it.

“I got 10 papers on ‘The Patriot,’” Conroy-Krutz said, referring to a 2000 Mel Gibson movie she said teachers have to “teach against” and “debunk.”

A student alerted Conroy-Krutz to Miranda’s YouTube video and they all had a good laugh about how crazy the idea was.

“Here we are, a few years later, and it’s taken over everything,” Conroy-Krutz said.

Non-stop

Historians have pointed out plenty of simplifications, distortions and omissions in “Hamilton,” but many high-profile scholars of the period, beginning with Hamilton biographer (and “Hamilton” cosultant) Ron Chernow, have given it a seal of approval.

“Miranda did his work,” Conroy-Kurtz said. “He read extensively.”

“The 10 Duel Commandments,” a song about the rules of dueling, comes straight from the work of Yale historian Joanne Freeman. Freeman said her “jaw hit the floor” when she first heard the song and she recognized words from a document she found years before, at the bottom of a box in the New York Historical Society.

“I can detail a lot of things that are not discussed or included in the play, or that are outright wrong with it, but it is important to remember that this is a hip-hop musical,” Freeman said in an interview published in YaleNews. The discussion begins, she said, when her students ask her: “What really happened?”

If Conroy-Krutz has any misgivings about the show, they center on the main character.

“Hamilton is not a figure I would choose to celebrate,” she said. “It’s possible to come out of the show with a sense of him as much more democratically inclined than he was.”
In the classroom, Conroy-Kurtz and her students cite the song “Non-Stop,” in which Hamilton is credited with talking for six straight hours at the Constitutional Convention (“in what is surely the most un-Tweetable freestyle of all time,” Miranda told a graduating class at the University of Pennsylvania in 2016).

“What he was talking about in those six hours was creating an unbelievably centralized government that would look a great deal like a monarchy,” Conroy-Kurtz said. “You have folks who certainly don’t share his politics now, celebrating him as their favorite founding father, and that’s interesting.”

Skill with a quill

Jeff Wray, an MSU English Professor, teaches courses in black film, African American literature and culture.  He believes that the power of the word — described as “skill with a quill” in the show — is the most potent arrow in “Hamilton’s” quiver.

Nearly every line in the show pops with internal rhymes, galloping nouns and double dipping verbs.

“Let’s take a stand with the stamina God has granted us,” Hamilton proclaims.

“It’s hard to have intercourse over four sets of corsets,” Aaron Burr laments.

“Wait till I sally in on a stallion with the first black battalion,” abolitionist John Laurens boasts.

Paying homage to the verbal virtuosity of the founding fathers by turning them into rappers ties both ends of American history into a wild, beautiful bow.

“Even folks I know that are really into hip-hop and might say ‘Hamilton’ isn’t ‘real’ hip-hop, admire the density of the wordplay,” Wray said. “Whether you’re talking about Shakespeare, the Bible, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Run DMC, the love of words is the connection a lot of folks really respond to.”

Besides, the soaring melodies and languid set piece numbers heard in traditional Broadway shows could never have packed as much character development, history and political debate into your head as “Hamilton’s” rapid-fire rhymes. Rodney Whitaker, director of jazz studies at MSU, saw the touring version of “Hamilton” in Phoenix last year.

“It was powerful,” he said. “It was time to bring that story to life, and it was brilliant to use rap to do it. Otherwise, to get all the words they needed to get in, it would have taken six or seven hours.”

The show’s blend of hip-hop and history reminded Whitaker of a similar convergence in the 1990s, when hip-hop artists sampled jazz tracks and hip-hop elements made their way into jazz.

“Being a jazz musician, I was such a purist in my youth, if you had asked me about that, I might have looked askance at it,” Whitaker said. “But I’ve since met a lot of people who found jazz through Digable Planets, Us3 and one of those groups.”

Similarly, Whitaker thinks the appeal of rap is bringing a new generation of kids — and adults — to study the founding period more closely.

“It made me go back and read some of ‘The Federalist Papers’ and some of the other things that are cited,” Whitaker said. “It’s a genius way to bring a new audience of people to something this important.”

Owning it

The bold stroke that makes Jeff Wray giddiest about “Hamilton” is perhaps the show’s most celebrated feature — its diverse casting.

“He’s saying, ‘This is how I’m casting it and I don’t give a damn, there you go,’” Wray said. “This story that is over 200 years old — this is how we own it, how we make it contemporary, how we make it now.”

The big flip of casting actors of color as the Founding Fathers, most of whom were slave owners, doesn’t sit well with everyone. In an essay called “Black Actors Dress Up Like Slave Traders — and it’s not Halloween,” virtuosic African-American poet and novelist Ishmael Reed asked a provocative question: “Can you imagine Jewish actors in Berlin’s theaters taking roles of Goering? Goebbels? Eichmann? Hitler?”

Other historians object that under the skin, “Hamilton” still serves up a “great white men” take on history. Lyra D. Monteiro, a professor of history and African-American studies at Rutgers University, criticized the show’s “erasure of the black past” in a 2018 essay.

“Despite the proliferation of black and brown bodies on stage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in the play,” Monteiro wrote.

“It’s an interesting take,” Wray said. “But I don’t think Miranda was interested in shifting our gaze to the corners of the room. He wanted it fully on the main players. He wanted to subvert and play with the iconic figures. George Washington — yeah, we’re going to make him a black man, and just keep on going.”

Wray does admit that the scrappy Hamilton of the play is a partial fabrication.

“One of the main critiques you hear is that he makes Hamilton this very down, immigrant figure,” Wray said. “History doesn’t offer that kind of evidence. He was brilliant, and a social climber, but as one of my friends said, ‘Was he really down with the black and the brown?’”

Conroy-Krutz is comfortable with the show’s liberties, if only because they encourage further study.

“The potential downside, if you watch ‘Hamilton’ and don’t engage more deeply, is that you can walk away from the show thinking these elite figures were attuned to questions of diversity and representation, equality and open access,” she said. “They weren’t.”

None of that is a deal breaker, though, even for an incisive student of America’s fraught racial history as Wray.

“I like the license they take,” he said. “It’s open to critique but in the big picture, I’m constantly going, ‘Damn. Wow.’”

New lens

Chad Badgero, director of the Peppermint Creek Theatre Co., is the kind of theater fanatic who goes around listening to Broadway soundtracks all day.

“We’ve done “In the Heights” and I’m a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda anyway, but he’s written some great music for ‘Hamilton,’ Badgero said. “It’s not ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’ it’s a language young people can relate to and understand.”

But Badgero’s love for “Hamilton” goes beyond its obvious strokes of music and casting.

He admires the show’s deft double casting of several pairs of characters. The same actor (Daveed Diggs in the original cast) plays both the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. The same actress (Jasmine Cephas-Jones in the original cast) plays both Peggy Schuyler, younger sister of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, and Hamilton’s mistress, Maria Reynolds, and so on.

In each case, the double casting highlights some common conflict or character relationship the paired characters have with Hamilton.

“It’s not just to tighten the ensemble or give more opportunities for the actors to show their chops,” Badgero said. “It comments on the relationship between the two characters and it’s done so well.”

Lean, smart stagecraft is another lesson Badgero drew from “Hamilton.” Deftly deployed bits of timber, ropes and brick suggest the time period without overwhelming the eye or distracting from the spoken word and interpersonal drama.

“They don’t truck out 19 different set pieces — ‘Oh, now we’re at Constitution Hall,’” he said.  “They create a world with their bodies and with one little prop. It’s abstract in some ways, but it’s fast and continually moving. They really trust the audience to go along in a way most productions don’t.”

The music of “Hamilton” throws several genres into its hip-hop mill, from Britpop to R&B and a hint of traditional Broadway.

“Don’t get me wrong — jukebox musicals have a place,” Badgero said. (He should talk — he’s currently directing the Abba-riffic musical “Mamma Mia” at Okemos High School.) “But ‘Hamilton’ is new material, a new voice, and a new lens to put on history. Creating work that doesn’t exist yet is harder for dramatists and directors but it’s what people want.”

In a recent video for WKAR tied to “Hamilton,” Jeff Wray focused on what he called the “genius of adaptation.” He chose two versions of the song “My Favorite Things:” the original, from Broadway’s “The Sound of Music,” sung by Julie Andrews, and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s extended, euphoric take, recorded shortly thereafter.

“Both classics, both brilliant,” Wray said. “It’s something new and different. That’s what ‘Hamilton’ reminds me of. It’s a great adaptation, amalgamation, not just a remake.”

All of the people I talked to about “Hamilton” for this story have all seen “Hamilton” already, except Wray. (And they all plan to go again.) Until now, Wray has known “Hamilton” only through cast recordings, “The Hamilton Mixtape” and YouTube videos.

Whether he catches up with the tour through East Lansing and Detroit or goes to the Chicago production, he is determined to part with as many Washingtons as necessary to see “Hamilton” in the flesh.

“It’s difficult, difficult, difficult, but I’m going to see it this summer, come hell or high water,” he said.

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