Why Hamilton Is Not Just a Fad

I first heard of Hamilton three years ago, from the teenagers at my son’s drama classes. They were all excited about this new show that none of them had seen, but for which they knew the songs and lyrics. Endorsement by famous people, including the Obamas, added to the spice. Then, after the election of Donald Trump, it became a form of political activism to support this show.

The steep prices and instant sellout when the tickets were put on sale for the London show almost put me off the whole enterprise. But my teenage son looked at me pleadingly and I found some restricted-view sets that only involved selling off one arm and leg instead of my kidneys too… So I gave in to the buzz.

Then we had to wait for more than a year.

I bought the CD with the original Broadway cast. My older son and I became obsessed with it, much to the dismay of the younger son, who is not a fan of musicals. We started reading up about American history, the founding fathers, Lin-Manuel Miranda, bought the book. It became an all-consuming passion and we marvelled at the research, hard work, cleverness, passion and teamwork that went into creating the show. We worried that we were so impregnated with the recording that we would be disappointed with the new voices in the London version.

We needn’t have been.

Seeing the show onstage is an electrifying experience. Not so much because of the audience reaction – although it was wonderful to see that, alongside the elderly white people who could afford the seats there were also young people and people of all colours. It is simply even more dramatic and poignant getting caught up in the whirl of things live. I didn’t think I would cry more than once perhaps (at the death of Philip) after knowing the whole musical by heart, but seeing it performed had me in floods of tears a mere 4-5 songs in. So yes, I did embarrass my son (although I had tissues on hand).

The voices were indeed different and it took me a couple of songs to get used to it, but it then allowed me to appreciate all the nuances and differences in interpretation. For all of his Olivier award, Giles Terera was good but not as suave and extraordinary as Leslie Odom Jr. in the role of Aaron Burr. Jamael Westman is charismatic, unflappable and perhaps almost too heroic for the role of Hamilton – he certainly demonstrates why people fell in love with him, but is perhaps not as impish and nasty as I can imagine Miranda might play him. King George and Lafayette/Jefferson made the roles their own and milked them for all they were worth, providing excellent comic relief, while Laurens/Philip was very close to the Broadway original and utterly charming. My favourite was Eliza (understudy Marsha Songcombe) – who started off relatively quietly and hesitant, but just grew and grew in voice, drama and stature. She brings all that is good and loyal, beautiful and sad to the play. Her final gesture of reaching her arms out for her husband still brings tears to my eyes.

It’s not just the cleverness of the lyrics, the staging, the singalong music, the charismatic performers that makes this a night to remember. It’s not even the almost impossible blend of high drama, excitement, farce, lyrical moments and profound sadness. It is absolutely true that this breaks the mould and shows us what is possible with musicals and cast if you are audacious enough and inventive enough. But above all, like all good plays and musicals, it takes something that is particular (about a person and a time) and makes it universal. We all know that feeling of ‘running out of time’, the need to leave a legacy behind. We’ve all wondered ‘when my time is up, have I done enough?’. And Hamilton forces us to acknowledge as well that ‘you have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story’.

Hamilton London cast on opening night.

The problem now is living with having seen it. It feels like there is nothing more to look forward to. Ever.

And if you too want to see it, there are £10 tickets available for lottery.

It’s Been a Week and a Half!

Oh, I can pun with the best of them, can’t I? ‘Cos it’s been slightly longer than a week since my last summary, and also a very eventful week, ha ha!

The most important event was our trip to Ireland. I’ve only ever been to Dublin for business and have previously seen mainly the airport, St. Stephen’s Green and the inside of some banks. This time I visited a good friend of mine from school, who lives just outside Dublin, and she treated us like royalty. She took me and the kids on various day trips to places whose names I struggle to spell or remember: the port of Dún Laoghaire, Malahide Castle and gardens, Trinity College Library of course with the Book of Kells, the Wicklow mountains with their dark scrubland, Bray and Cabinteely, Dalkey and Howth. We were extremely lucky with the weather and the pictures tell the story much better than I could. You may well expect a Friday Fun post on this theme very soon! However, one highlight was seeing my friend’s children and mine discuss Irish history: as a footnote to British history or as a nation struggling to free itself. (Curriculum and biased interpretation in action!)

Before leaving for Ireland, we also went to see the Sondheim musical Assassins at the RADA with their final year students, a play about the best-known successful and unsuccessful assassination attempts against American presidents. Given the school shooting which followed shortly afterwards, the wit seems almost unbearably mordant in retrospect. If Sondheim is suggesting that the American dream is of ‘everyone having the right to be happy’, even if that happiness involves killing others, then yes, it becomes less funny.

Finally, on Monday 19th February, I found myself going ‘just a little bit viral’, as my boys would call it. WordPress have highlighted my feather haibun post as a Blog to Discover. So I have been getting far more than my usual share of visits and likes. Thank you to all for reading and sharing, here’s to hoping that you won’t be disappointed that my posts are usually far more prosaic. I also hope I will get to know some of you better!

The Nostalgia of La La Land

It seems that everyone and their dog has been to see La La Land this past weekend and I was no exception. Oh, yes, I succumb to herd instinct just as well as anyone, although the Golden Globe wins very nearly put me off (I perversely don’t like films that make a clean sweep of things). But I wanted to make up my own mind and I rather like musicals: West Side Story, An American in Paris and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are among my favourite films ever.

So here’s my verdict (spoilers ahead, so don’t read now if you are planning on seeing it): sweet and very nostalgic, a piece of escapism for hard times, but a bit too self-congratulatory for my taste.  And by that, I don’t mean the endless film references, which I quite enjoyed.

Scene from Lala Land, from Indiewire.
Scene from Lala Land, from Indiewire.

First of all, the good bits. The music was very enjoyable, even though I would describe the singing of the male and female leads as brave rather than impressive. Even the white mansplaining of jazz did not disturb me as much as it did other viewers, because I am all about promoting the love of jazz in whatever form. Admittedly, I would agree with the character played by John Legend, who says the best way to keep jazz alive is not to enshrine it in a museum, but to keep on experimenting with it and updating it. The love story had both a floaty-happy feel to it, but was not overly sentimental, there was a hint of realism (and of the screwball comedies of the 1930s).

However, what irritated me was the supposed highlight of the film, when Mia auditions for the role of her life, to be filmed in Paris. She talks/sings about following your dream, being creative and different, trying your best – and this is Hollywood at its most cloying self-delusional state. This is Hollywood as it would like to believe it is: pushing the boundaries, open to new things. They think they want the eccentrics and misfits and true originals, when in fact most of the time they are focused on the box office results and keep remaking old successes (Beauty and the Beast, Ghostbusters) or sequel after sequel of tried and tested favourites, like X-Men 234 or Fast and Furious 32 or whatever number they’ve reached.

Some random film poster of the type we see so many of lately...
Some random film poster of the type we see so many of lately…

Also, if the message of the film was that you can’t have it all: the outstanding career, fame, success and the soulmate of your dreams, it nevertheless reiterated the idea of ‘follow your passion’, ‘don’t give up’, ‘you can excel at some thing’. But what about those of us who have only average talents, who end up with middling lives, a so-so relationship, a family they sometimes love to pieces but occasionally resent, a career that doesn’t live up to expectations but pays most of the bills, perhaps express some of their talent as hobbies at weekends? About 85% of people (rough estimate) end up like that (and that’s the best case scenario, for others will struggle to make ends meet or develop any talents at all). Well, I suppose life would become unbearable if we didn’t believe ourselves capable of moving outside that 85%? And if we are already resigned to it, then we probably head off to see La La Land and other cosy nostalgic fare with occasional flashes of inspiration. A mug of tea which reminds us of the ballerina or astronaut or Nobel Prize Winner we knew we were going to become.

Nostalgia, of course, does well in times of uncertainty and anxiety about world events. Comfort reading and comfort viewing will thrive in the era of melancholy that ‘nothing is as good as it used to be’, combined with the ‘Weltschmerz’ of directionless panic, the sensation of trying to build on quicksand and having doors slammed in your face. So I don’t blame La La Land for playing the nostalgia card.

But perhaps it’s worth remembering that nostalgia was a term coined in the late 17th century by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, to refer to the seeming depression displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting far away from home. It was more than homesickness, and returning home did not always cure them – sometimes it even killed them. As any expat returning ‘home’ knows: home has moved on. Nostalgia is not the longing for a specific place, but for a different time, an idealised time which most likely never existed, when things were simpler, choices more clear-cut.

Nostalgia, from soberistas.wordpress.com
Nostalgia, from soberistas.wordpress.com

The alternative dream of Sebastian and Mia in La La Land remains beautiful and precious because it was never given a chance. In reality, it may well have descended into incompatible aspirations, rancour and petty arguments. I had my own Sebastian in high school, the only person who ever held me to account over my writing ambitions and who believed I had the talent. I used to wonder how much we might have achieved together, but the truth is…

Life and the relentless day-to-day of it makes mincemeat of us all. Uncertainty and mess is all that we’ve got. The desire for rest and order and beauty is our only weapon against it. Call it nostalgia, if you will.