You’re probably tired of hearing me on Hamilton, but too bad — my blog my rules.
I was thinking about the live performance Lin-Manuel Miranda did at the White House in 2009 that drew attention to the then-unfinished project, not because it’s spectacular — even though it is — but because of how it demonstrated the power of literary speech to upend utterly the mood of a room.
And not just any room, but one in which half of the people in it were side-long glancing at the president trying to figure out the appropriate response to this politically charged subject — Hamilton’s not an uncontroversial figure, after all, especially in a country in the midst of a series of banking crises like we were in 2009.
But initially it’s all a joke — the audience laughs along when it hears contemporary Democratic talking points about “self-starters” — until Miranda hits what appears to be the punchline at 2:16, “His name is Alexander Hamilton,” the camera cuts to the president and first lady getting the joke, and from there it should have been political theater.
But Miranda immediately undercuts it, barely even letting that laughter linger, with the next line, “There’s a million things he hasn’t done, just you wait, just you wait.” He turns that punchline — “Hello, this is me making a rap about the Founding Fathers, you know, for kids” — into what’s essentially a threat, “just you wait, just you wait.” The lyrics start to unwrite themselves, start to unravel, as it becomes clear that the lyric “His name is Alexander Hamilton” shares more with ODB declaring “I’m the original G-O-D” than Broadway fare.
And then the whole performance, at least from the audience’s perspective, goes sideways. Political calculus becomes impossible as Hamilton’s becomes a human story about a 10-year-old bastard and orphan, a self-made companion to a suicide becomes the quintessential story of the kind that — when not about Founding Fathers, of course — conservatives loathe.
The story of an autodidact, sans family, who earns a place in history on the strength of his flow, and as you watch Miranda’s performance you can feel the mood of the room shift. Of course there’s room for criticism — it certainly doesn’t hurt that Hamilton’s a white man who is, almost literally, the face of American capitalism — but there’s sympathy in those devils snapping along with something they’d otherwise revile.
By the time Miranda enjoins the audience that “the ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot him/Another immigrant coming up from the bottom,” you get the feeling even Donald Trump would be on board.