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Saturday, December 26, 2015

December 26-27, 2015: Emily Lauer’s Guest Post on Hamilton

[I’ve gotten to know Emily Lauer through my time on the Northeast MLA (NeMLA) Board, where Emily is doing great work as the current President of the Contingent Adjunct Independent Scholar and Two-Year Faculty (CAITY) Caucus. She’s also an Associate Professor of English at Suffolk County Community College in NYC, and a prolific Tweeter and public scholar. I’m excited to follow up my brief post on Hamilton with her much more in-depth Guest Post on the musical and its (and her) city!]

New York is Hamiltown

Look, I don’t have a hook for this essay. I love reading all the thoughtful, enthusiastic stuff that is being written about Hamilton. I agree with all the reviews and blog posts gushing about the breathtaking talent, the race politics, the gender politics, the excellent music and the adorable fandom. I have yearned, however, for an essay about New York in Hamilton and Hamilton in New York. So I decided to write it myself.

Hamilton is both set in New York and performed in New York. This convergence of content and context, New York City both on and around the stage, is more than just a coincidence of the location of Broadway theaters and historical happenstance. Sure, Hamilton's explicit references to New York are historically accurate and necessary for the plot of the play. However, they also function as a love letter from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show's creator and star, to our current New York, the context of the production of the play. 

I first started thinking about this because of a couple of lines in the second act. Hamilton chats with Aaron Burr about how General Mercer died and a street was renamed after him. Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr says, “and all he had to do was die.” Miranda as Hamilton replies, “that’s a lot less work.” Burr says, “We ought to give it a try.” In the context of the show, that line recalls some lines of George Washington, who has told Hamilton both that “dying is easy, young man - living is harder” and “winning was easy. Governing’s harder” to encourage him to rethink his priorities in different moments of the show. It also foreshadows the duel between Hamilton and Burr that will end the show and Hamilton’s life.  However, the exchange between Burr and Hamilton about Mercer brought up a whole host of associations from elsewhere, too, because it reminded me of all the characters in this play who themselves have bits of New York City named after them. I thought not only about my own experiences with Mercer Street as connecting me to the world of the play, but also about how there is a neighborhood of Manhattan called Hamilton Heights, and Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up in the adjacent neighborhood Washington Heights, and how these parts of the city were shaped and named after the characters in this play, and about how Miranda’s first Broadway musical was the Tony-winning In the Heights, and it took place in relatively contemporary Washington Heights and was about a different New York City immigrant community.

I am pretty sure the layering affect of associations is intentional, because Hamilton is about its own context in a variety of ways. There are references to theatrical classics, to rap and other contemporary music, and to politics and race, all of which indicate that Miranda is asserting Hamilton's legitimacy by situating it in a variety of theatrical and performance traditions while also affirming how appropriate and necessary the production is in our nation now.  Just think about the multiplicity of synapses that fire when Christopher Jackson as A) George Washington B) raps that he is the C) “model of a modern Major-General” on D) a Broadway stage in 2015. The effect is cognitive pastiche as an audience member’s associations with that Gilbert and Sullivan line merge with whatever associations they may have about George Washington and about rap and about Broadway today.

In fact, the pastiche is so multilayered that even if someone did not recognize the line from The Pirates of Penzance, they could still have a rich, nuanced experience as they process all those other associations in connection with one another.

Questlove addresses the concept of pastiche and multilayered associations in Hamilton with the conclusion that this makes the show inherently hip-hop, and if you get one thing out of reading this essay it should be to READ QUESTLOVE’S ROLLING STONE ARTICLE ABOUT HAMILTON [link: ] if you have not yet done so. He writes that Hamilton, because it is hip-hop,
locates the past and adds a layer of the present in a way that becomes genuinely forward-looking. That's the first great hip-hop characteristic of the show, to borrow all kinds of music equally, and to turn them toward one end.”

Putting together apparently dissimilar pieces of other things to make a layered whole that is greater than the sum of its parts: personally, I tend to think that is what makes Hamilton an example of high postmodernism, and if we start using the terms hip-hop and postmodern interchangeably, I, for one, will be fine with it. 

In both postmodernism and in the necessarily participatory experience of live theater, recognizing and appreciating all the references and allusions, all the associations and context, does not take the audience out of "the moment" because that IS the moment - the context is part of the content. 

The two are definitely united in Hamilton. In addition to quoting famous shows explicitly, Hamilton also alludes to its existence as a stage performance in other ways. For instance, after quoting Macbeth in a letter to his sister-in-law, Hamilton says that he trusts she will understand the allusion to a “Scottish tragedy without my having to name the play.” This works well for the development of these two characters who appreciate each other’s intelligence and wordplay, but it is also true that it is considered bad luck to mention the title of Macbeth in a theater. Superstitious people therefore refer to it as The Scottish Play when inside a theater, and productions of it are sometimes considered cursed or doomed. Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Hamilton, respects his sister-in-law. Lin-Manuel Miranda, as composer and performer, respects tradition.

Similarly, in the opening number, several characters sing to Alexander Hamilton, “we are waiting in the wings for you” and the audience hears about his ship “in the harbor now - see if you can spot him. Another immigrant, comin’ up from the bottom” as they narrate his arrival in New York City. Throughout the play, people will indeed be waiting in the wings - that is, the areas to the right and left of the stage where actors await their cues - as the action takes place on the stage of New York.

I am an English professor, so lines like those inevitably remind me of Shakespeare’s references, sometimes obvious and sometimes oblique, to his own Globe theater. For Shakespeare, all the world was a stage. For Miranda, it seems that all the stage is New York.

And of course this postmodern hip-hop self referential pastiche is perfect for New York City, itself a layered, allusive pastiche. The show feels organic to a ritzy Broadway theater, and quoting Macbeth or Pirates of Penzance feels appropriately self aware. However, not all references are quotations and not all allusions are textual. I am positive I am missing the majority of the hip hop and rap allusions, for instance. I do, however, have a lot of context for the lines that introduce the Schuyler sisters in Act I: ”there's nothing rich folks love more/than going downtown and slumming it with the poor.” Lines like those reward audience members who are aware that before Hamilton opened on Broadway, before it cost either five hundred dollars or waiting a year to get a ticket, the show had an incredibly successful run at the Public theater downtown in the East Village on Lafayette Street, which is named after yet another character in Hamilton. This line ushers in a song about how the wealthy Angelica Schuyler, cognizant that “history is happening in Manhattan/ and we just happen/ to be in the greatest City in the world,” goes downtown without her father’s knowledge because she is “lookin’ for a mind at work.” Any rich folks (and God, I regret not being one of them) who went downtown to see Hamilton at the Public surely saw a mind at work.

All of these examples, including the explicit quotations from Macbeth or Pirates and the references to the wings, require prior cultural knowledge from an audience member. Some of them, such as a line about the Mercer legacy being secure after a street is named after him, or the line about rich folks going downtown to get a observe a “mind at work,” also reward the audience member who acknowledges that Miranda's text is self-aware not only of inheriting the legacy of different theatrical traditions and musical traditions, but also self-aware as a production in a particular time and place. 

The production is now, this time. Miranda is the same age I am. He has a one year old kid and a goofy dog and he uses words for a living; I have a one year old kid and a goofy dog and I use words for a living. It is no surprise that all of his cultural touchpoints feel natural to me, for those reasons.

The production is here, this place. It is in, of, and about New York. Hamilton is going to travel, and while I am sure the show will be excellent everywhere, I suspect it will not feel as organic or as layered when it plays in cities where the action did not take place. Audiences in London will not see it and think of Washington Square and Lafayette Street just downtown from the theater when Lafayette is singing with Washington; audiences in Chicago will not see it and think of Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights just uptown from the theater when those characters sing with each other. When characters mention that someone is buried in “Trinity Church near you” or that the location of the Federal Reserve means that “we’ll have the banks,” the “you” and the “we” will not include the audience along with the characters.

I look forward to seeing what Miranda will do for those other cities to make the show feel local to them, especially in light of the democratizing steps that have been taken to make the incredibly expensive show more accessible to a wider audience here in New York. Not only is there funding for high school students to see the show quite cheaply, not only is there talk of recording and broadcasting a performance, but also Miranda’s ham4ham performances have become famous in their own right. When there is a lottery for cheap tickets to the play, Miranda literally brings a performance into the street. Five minutes before names are drawn out of a bucket to determine who will get ten dollar tickets to go inside the theater, he goes outside with a bullhorn and introduces (and sometimes participates in) a live performance. Sometimes it is performers from Hamilton hamming it up on the sidewalk and sometimes they are joined by performers from other shows. It is postmodern in that it creates an ephemeral paratextual experience linked to but not replicating the experience inside the theater. It is democratic in that anyone who can shove their way to the front of the crowd gets to see world class performers for free outdoors. In that, it is in the spirit of the Public Theater, where Hamilton debuted, since that is the organization that produces free Shakespeare in the Park every summer, and provides a Mobile Shakespeare Unit that takes Shakespeare productions into prisons, shelters and care facilities so that world-class live Shakespeare performances can reach people who would not otherwise have access to them.

However, the ham4ham shows are democratic in another way as well. Anyone with a cameraphone can record ham4ham, and post their video of the performance online. That means anyone with internet access can watch ham4ham performances. Hamilton fandom is much wider than the five boroughs, and as Miranda retweets people’s ham4ham videos from his @lin_manuel account, these snippets of New York City performance are broadcast and watched and discussed all around the world. In Hamilton, New York City is described as “the greatest city in the world.” The historical Hamilton, acting in New York City, produced ripple effects that spread outward to affect the whole nation, and thus, the world. Now Hamilton does the same.

[Year-end series begins Monday!

PS. What do you think?]


  1. My favorite NYC reference is the "yo yo yo yo what time is it? SHOWTIME!" that introduces Mulligan, Laurens and Lafayette.