The Audacity of Hope, 2020 Version

by admin on July 5, 2020

Going off-topic today, with apologies to my chess fans.

I. Last night Kay and I had movie night, a family tradition every Friday. Sad to say, I can’t tell you what movie we watched last week, or the week before that, but I can tell you that last night we watched Hamilton and it was really, really good.

Hamilton premiered as a Broadway play in 2015 and became a cultural phenomenon, winning 11 Tony Awards. But for us, not living in a major city and not wanting to pay exorbitant ticket prices, it might as well have taken place on another planet. All that I knew was that Hamilton was a modernized re-telling of the story of the U.S. founding fathers, using a mostly minority cast and rap music. On July 3 the movie version debuted on television (specifically, on Disney Plus) — a year earlier than planned, thanks to the coronavirus epidemic. The film version is very literal: it is simply a recording of the original musical with the original cast, made in 2016.

Let’s start with the minority cast. Gimmick? Maybe, for like 30 seconds. But what really matters is that the play is outstandingly acted and outstandingly sung. Aaron Burr (the character) is complex and tortured.  George Washington (the character) convinces you that nobody else could have been the first president. Thomas Jefferson (the character) is a preening, self-absorbed dandy who oozes charisma. Alexander Hamilton (the title character) is a man who picks himself up by his bootstraps in classic American fashion, but is a little bit too ambitious for his own good. Every one of these characters is vividly realized. Instead of being names in a history book, they are believable people, and after you watch the play you can hardly think of them any other way.

The songs are dynamic, with the energy you would expect from rap music. But most of them are not strictly speaking rap music; they are actually Hollywood show tunes sung at a rap pace. The breakneck speed allows an unbelievable amount of exposition. You see Hamilton agitating for a command in the Revolutionary War. Lawyering after the war. Writing the Federalist Papers. Serving in the first cabinet as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Creating the first national bank. Think about that: Can you believe they wrote a musical about the life of a lawyer and banker, and it became a hit?

But actually, what the play emphasizes most is that Hamilton was a writer. He ghost-wrote Washington’s letters and speeches, and most of the Federalist Papers. You wouldn’t think there would be enough action in the life of a writer to fill a jam-packed two-and-a-half-hour play. But you’d be wrong!

As Kay and I watched the movie, we realized that some cultural memes have been going on around us without our being aware of it. Most notable is a song called “The Room Where It Happened,” whose title was borrowed by John Bolton for a tell-all book about Donald Trump that came out just two weeks ago. I thought at the time, “Wow, that’s a pretty cool title,” but I had no idea what it was referring to or even that it was referring to anything. Now I know! Some other songs, like “My Shot,” were also very popular, and now that I know about them I’ll probably start seeing references to them everywhere.

I have only two tiny complaints. The very first song was utterly confusing. My ears hadn’t gotten used to the pacing yet, and it is a full-on rap. I seriously was near to bailing out after that song: “You mean there’s two more hours of this?” Thank God I didn’t. Second, I thought that the composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, missed an opportunity. In the first act, he returns over and over to the musical theme of “My Shot” and the line: “I’m not throwing away my shot.” Just before the intermission I started wondering, why is Miranda repeating that word over and over: my shot? Then it hit me: Hamilton DID throw away his shot! In his fatal duel with Aaron Burr, he shot into the air. Once I realized this, I was waiting throughout the second act for this reveal… but it never happened. We saw him aim into the air, and that would have been the time for the composer to bring back the theme music and have Hamilton say, “I HAVE to throw away my shot.” But Miranda didn’t write it that way. I don’t know why, because he set it up so perfectly.

Five stars! Best movie that Kay and I have watched together since we started our Friday movie nights.

II. I wrote the above review on Saturday morning, before reading anything about the play or the movie online. Since then I’ve read several articles that describe Hamilton as a “time capsule,” a relic of the Obama era that has already become a little bit quaint. David Sims’ article in The Atlantic describes the origins of the musical in, of all things, a poetry night at the White House. Are you kidding? Was there actually a time when they held poetry nights at the White House, and the President actually attended?

I agree with a lot of the things that Sims has to say. The musical was born in a time of optimism, when you could toss around phrases like “the audacity of hope” and actually be taken seriously. Even more than that, I think that Hamilton as a cultural event shows Blacks and other minorities taking ownership of the country they live in. America? It’s our country, too. The Founding Fathers? They’re our fathers, too. Hamilton was the product of a new kind of empowerment, the kind of empowerment that comes from being included rather than excluded.

Now, I agree, those times seem long ago. “The audacity of hope” sounds naive. We forgot that hope needs a push now and then. We forgot also that every action causes an equal and opposite reaction, and when the reaction came in 2016 we weren’t expecting it.

Even knowing all this, I was delighted to have Hamilton cast its spell on me, even if it came four years too late. I do not think that you ever have to apologize for being naive, optimistic, or having the audacity of hope. The political pendulum will swing back, or perhaps it will swing off in an entirely different direction. Who knows? No matter what happens, Hamilton will still be an estimable work of art.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Roman Parparov July 5, 2020 at 3:52 pm

Dana, as you know, us, ex-Soviets, like allusions, allegories, references and quotations much more than the Americans, but I just couldn’t resist:

… The question of the painting was not all plain sailing either. There might be difficulties of a purely technical nature. It might be awkward, for instance, to show Comrade Kalinin in a fur cap and white cape, while Comrade Chicherin was stripped to the waist. They could be depicted in ordinary dress, of course, but that would not be quite the same thing.

“It wouldn’t have the right effect!” said Ostap aloud.


admin July 5, 2020 at 5:34 pm

It’s fascinating to see how much the United States is trying to turn into the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, we don’t have the benefit of centuries of “anekdoty” to help us see our mistakes.


Roman Parparov July 5, 2020 at 6:08 pm

Russians do say that the smart person, unlike fool, doesn’t repeat his/her mistakes.

However, the Jews add that the wise person doesn’t repeat the smart person’s mistakes.

How about US re-watches the history of the USSR…
Because, as the “anekdot” goes:
the USSR is a country with an unforeseeable past.


Larry Smith July 6, 2020 at 10:17 am

Thanks for your great commentary! The “shot” aspect is very interesting.

We watched about 1/2 of Hamilton on Saturday night. We were interrupted by the need for granddaughterly ministrations, but we will definitely return to it. I thought it was simply amazing, and I’ll leave it at that.

Re: allusions and references, though. I caught two. One was George III (I think) referring to himself as a “modern Major-General,” and the other was the line “you have to be carefully taught.” The first is of course Gilbert and Sullivan, and the second is from some musical that I didn’t remember (South Pacific, as it turns out). Another reference I didn’t catch (but our granddaughter’s father did) was the song “Ten Duel Commandments” was based on/inspired by “Ten Crack Commandments” by Notorious B. I. G.


Roman Parparov July 7, 2020 at 7:01 am

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