Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Night With the Founding Fathers

There is an entire store in Chicago devoted to Crocs.  I can honestly say that this is something that would never have occurred to me as a retail opportunity, but there it was.

You walk in and you’re surrounded by hundreds of pairs of resolutely, defiantly uncool footware, each formed out of a substance that clearly was developed by mad scientists concerned about a possible Swiss cheese shortage and looking for a non-perishable substitute that could be dyed colors that occur nowhere in nature.  For what it is worth, they may have succeeded.  There’s also a helpful sales clerk who is probably wondering what you’re doing there, which is a fair question.

Because we had more interesting places to be on Thursday night than a shoe store.

A couple of Octobers ago my friend Joshua introduced me to the cast recording of Hamilton.  I’d heard of it before – you can’t be a historian specializing in the Founding Fathers and not get early wind of a hip-hop retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton – but actually listening to the music was a revelation.  As someone who spent more than three decades backstage at one level or another and who sang in more than his share of choirs, I was hooked.  And I loved the fact that, within the tolerances of a Broadway musical, it was more or less historically accurate.  I have since played a few of the songs for various classes I’ve taught, in fact.  My students were usually surprised to discover that such a thing existed.  

This was before Hamilton became a national phenomenon, but not much before.  I kind of felt hipsterish for a while, except that I was quite happy to find it becoming popular.  I will never understand the mentality that says things are only good until people find out about them.  If they’re good, people should enjoy them.

A month after being introduced to the cast recording, we realized that we’d be in New York City over New Year’s, visiting family, and we thought, “Hey!  Wouldn’t it be lovely to see Hamilton?”  So we called the theater.

“How about August?” they said.

The musical – really an opera, since there are no spoken lines outside of the songs – had become immensely and deservedly popular, and it remains so even now.  It’s won awards.  It’s made the news.  And it’s spawned touring companies.  We didn’t even bother trying for tickets this past New Year’s – I think Broadway is booked out until 2045 now – but when tickets went on sale last summer for the Chicago touring company we decided it would be worth the price.  Christmas would be light on presents, but we were going to see Hamilton.  

You know you live in the midwest when the idea of driving a couple of hours on a school night for an evening’s entertainment and then driving a couple hours back makes perfect sense.  

And it did make perfect sense.  We had a magnificent time.

Pretty much the instant we all made it home from our various schools on Thursday we piled into the van, drove through the local burger joint for dinner, and hit the road.  It was smooth sailing until we got to Chicago itself.  Chicago is surrounded by a permanent gridlock of cars like in an old Doctor Who episode, with entire generations being born, finding spouses, reproducing, and passing away without ever getting to their exit.  Fortunately we managed to give all that the slip and eventually we found ourselves at the parking garage with plenty of time to spare.

Which is why we could stop at the Crocs store that was almost exactly halfway between the garage and the theater.  

And the art supply store on the corner.

Eventually we made it to the theater, showed them the ticket code on Kim’s phone (seriously – they just print you the receipt right there, which is a bizarre thing), and found our seats.

We were way over on house left, on the first balcony – so far over, in fact, that we couldn’t actually see the last four or five feet of stage right.  We didn’t miss much, though, and we were right up by the stage too, so they were good seats.  There was nobody in front of us.  And we had actual chairs that we could move around to find more comfortable positions, so it was a win all around.

After a short run at the souvenir stand (new mug for me!  you cannot have too many books or mugs!) we settled in to wait for the show.

The first thing I noticed, as we waited for curtain, was the incredible number of lighting instruments hung about that theater.  It’s not a very big space, really, but it was festooned with instruments – there must have been at least 300 of them over the stage itself, as well as maybe half that many out in the house that I could see.  During the intermission Tabitha and I wandered down to the lip of the stage to get a closer look – you could get right up to it, and even put your hand on the stage if you really wanted to.  You could also peer down into the orchestra pit – the musicians were actually under the stage, and during the show the conductor’s head just barely peeked out of a small opening downstage center.  There were a couple of monitors on the front of the balcony, in the center of the house, so the actors could see the conductor, and they were fun to watch during the performance.  There were also three separate spotlights way up at the rear of the house, a fact that probably nobody else noticed or cared about but which made us very happy.  During the show we noticed a lot of the lighting, actually – it was really impressive, if you were the sort to pay attention to it.

Eventually the house lights dimmed and the show started.

It.  Was.  Fantastic.

The touring company cast was very good, though I did have to keep reminding myself that they weren’t doing it wrong, just differently from the cast recording.  The actor who played George III was a natural ham – he looked like a cross between Craig Ferguson and the bald eagle on the Muppet Show and clearly thought he was Rowan Atkinson – and he knew how to play a crowd.  The actress playing Angelica Schuyler captured much of the intensity of the original, and the actress playing her sister Eliza did so as well, especially in the last song.  My favorite actor, though, was the one who played both Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, mostly because he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.  But they were all incredibly talented.

There is a part toward the end of the first act when Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette meet just before the Battle of Yorktown to renew their friendship and plan for the upcoming fight.  Neither was born in what would become the US, and only one would stay after the war, but they fought for their ideals – for our ideals – and were critical to this country’s very existence.  “Immigrants,” they sing.  “We get the job done.”  The audience hollered and applauded that line, a reminder in our present cowardly age that this country has always extended a welcome to immigrants and refugees and is both poorer and less secure when it forgets that simple fact.

I’m guessing that happens a lot at these performances, nowadays.  They vamped for a while, and then moved on with the song.  Somehow, it made me feel better about this country.

It was surprising to me how many of the scenes played out much as I’d imagined them.  Not all, and not entirely, but within tolerance, many of them.  “Blow Us All Away,” at the end of the first act and one of my favorite songs, was almost exactly as I’d pictured.  I will admit that Jefferson’s electric purple coat was a surprise, though.

It was a long drive back to Our Little Town, and we got in around 1am.  Friday morning came fast and hard, and to be honest the day was a bit of a lost cause in many ways.  

But it was worth it.


LucyInDisguise said...

In high school, our history instructor spent an entire week on the rock opera JC Superstar. I became enamored with both the music & the story (despite the fact that I am an Atheist).

When the movie debuted in the Salty Town, I was the third person thru the door on opening night. It was and remains a favorite.

But, when the Original Cast came to play at the Capitol Theater in Salt Lake, I was incredibly and weirdly fortunate enough to be walking by the ticket booth when the tickets went on sale. (One of those really incredibly weird events where the tickets actually went on sale the day before the date they were supposed to due to a typo in the Salt Lake Tribune. Ahhh, actually, to be slightly more accurate: the tickets went on sale at the correct time and day, but nearly everyone else was late due to that typo.)

Eight rows back in the center of the house.

An experience I will never forget.


David said...

Now that does sound like a fantastic experience! I've long loved that musical. It pays to walk by theaters. :)

We put on JCS during my senior year of college (I ran a spotlight for it), because we actually had the cast to do pull it off. We had some very polite picketers from the campus evangelical community, who mostly handed out pamphlets urging people to read the Bible, but otherwise it was uneventful that way. Somewhere I have an old VHS tape of it. I wonder if it still works.

I'm curious how your teacher presented that in class - as a different take on the time period the play is set in, or as a reflection of the US at the time?

LucyInDisguise said...

Actually, neither.

James Witucki was a maverick. (Ultimately got fired for his refusal wear a tie ... sound familiar?) He noted that many religious folk were portraying JCS as sacrilegious without actually listening to the lyrics. Jim wanted his students to learn how not to judge art too quickly. We also studied Woodstock, and the music there of, and spent a substantial period of time on the Viet Nam war, and the protests, and (try to marry these two up ...) how it compared to other periods of protest, such as Jesus and the Pharisees.

That study led me to sit down and actually study the Bible (Old and New) as well as other religious texts over the years. Jim taught me that before one can judge, you better damn well understand both sides well enough to debate and make ones point.

Granted, the portrayal of Simon Zealot and Herod in JCS (the movie) were a bit over the top, but the story JCS told hewed very close to the story in the New Testament. Rice was, actually, a genius with those lyrics, in my humble opinion. Many times I've had to drag out the book to show some uneducated, uninformed christian that yes, Jesus really did say the "poor will always be with you" (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7).

I now find myself intrigued with Hamilton; I've heard much about the production, but almost none of the music. I'd really prefer to change the order this time around and see the production, then peruse the music, then, hopefully, eventually, the movie. Probably won't work out that way, but I can hope.

As to that other part, I've had you helping me to study "the books" on that part of our history for some time, now. If I have not adequately expressed my gratitude for that, allow me to heap on another layer.


David said...

Ah - you've told me about Mr. Witucki before. He sounds like one hell of a teacher. I can see those protest periods married up pretty evenly, actually. The early 1st century CE was a pretty tumultuous time in that part of the world. Monty Python's "Life of Brian" did a nice job of catching that, even if the film really hasn't held up well today. I'm impressed that he would create a lesson plan like that for a high school class - for any class, actually. That's a really fascinating way to teach it.

And he was absolutely correct - people are quick to judge without understanding, and if you can understand the other side (or better, argue it more effectively than they can), you can make your point far more effectively. So long as people are willing to listen, of course. Not a guarantee these days. I don't think our protesters had ever seen JCS, though the guy who wrote the pamphlet had. Mostly the pamphlet said, "the original was better," and I think that's within the realm of reasonable even if I had my own opinion on the matter. When Kim and I saw "The Book of Mormon" a few years ago the Playbill had a huge ad in it from the Mormon Church that basically said, "Enjoy the show, but the original was better," and I thought, "Well played, Mormons, well played."

I'm glad you found those history books useful! If I come across more that I think are particularly compelling I'll be sure to let you know.

I find it bizarre that even the most uninformed Christian would not be familiar with that particular saying, though not, in retrospect, surprising.

If you have plans to see Hamilton (and as you can tell, I highly recommend it), I would definitely listen to the music first. It's very lyrically dense (it has something like 3x the number of words as most musicals) and it comes at you very quickly sometimes. If you don't have at least some familiarity with the music when you walk in, you'll probably miss things. They stick pretty close to the history, so it's not like there are spoilers to avoid. ;)

LucyInDisguise said...

::sarcasm:: I can do lyrically dense. Kool. & his gang. (I actually survived disco.) ::sarcasm::

Have to see if I can grab the CD off amazon. Hmmm. $19.00. Mayhap's awhile later when the price drops a bit. I do still have principles. (Still won't pay menu price for a Whopper™ - it ain't quite worth $2.50, but I will do the 2 fur $5.)


David said...

You can listen to the whole thing on YouTube, actually.

Click here!

Now you can afford nearly 8 Whoppers, though probably not the medical care you'll need if you try that all at once. ;)

LucyInDisguise said...

Ahhh, younger days ...


Ewan said...


We saw Hamilton this weekend in NYC - brief commentary here: - as a surprise gift for our boys' scholastic excellence. [Actually, not really - just a surprise gift - but it was the weekend after high school report cards and much better when following a 98 average than it would have been if we were mad about a poor card!]

I have heard several complaints that there are a few too many liberties taken with the actual history - especially in Act II - so am glad to hear your opinion otherwise; both the original Chernow and the Hamiltome are on my reading pile..

..and one of the side-benefits of such trips is several hours of time to talk with my wife in the car :). On the way back, that was dominated by discussion of what we thought Hamilton and contemporaries would think of today's (US) government; one place where we discovered a lack of knowledge was around thinking on state-funded education. Was this considered a norm at the time? Any thoughts about how the founding fathers et al. would regard e.g. Medicare or Social Security?

David said...

Cool! I'm glad you saw it! I can't access your FB post - unless it's public (which I'm not sure you want), I likely won't be able to. But that was a great gift and I hope your boys enjoyed it too. :) Congratulations to them on such good grades!

They did take some liberties with the history, of course - for dramatic purposes if nothing else (Philip Schuyler actually had two sons, not zero as Angelica claimed, for example. Lin-Manual Miranda explains most of the deviances and the reasons for them in Hamilton: The Revolution.) I was careful to specify "within the tolerances of a Broadway musical." But Chernow was a consultant to the play, so he didn't let them stray too far, and the vast bulk of it was passably accurate. Cabinet Battle #1, for example - the song I usually play for my classes - is pretty good that way, if incomplete as a 3.5-minute song would be trying to capture that epic clash.

What I loved about the history parts of the play were the casual allusions that few non-historians probably caught. When Burr sings, "My grandfather was fire and brimstone preacher," for example, he's referring to Jonathan Edwards - perhaps THE fire and brimstone preacher in American history (read "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sometime...). When George III sings, "When you're gone, I'll go mad," well, he actually did. I love little references like that.

The Founders would probably have had little truck with Medicare or Social Security, for any number of reasons. For one thing, few people lived that long to be worried about such things. And for another those weren't things they would have thought within the purview of government at all, let alone the federal government. Fortunately, they were well aware that times change and wrote the Constitution broadly enough to include 19th-century German notions such as Social Security when they came up. They certainly had no difficulties with the idea of an individual mandate for health insurance - John Adams signed one of those into law for sailors in the 1790s.

Public schools, however, were something that many of the Founders felt were needed. For my dissertation I read every newspaper published in Philadelphia (then the capital) between 1787 and 1801, and in an age of vitriolic rhetoric and viciously partisan press, perhaps the one thing Federalists and Democratic Republicans agreed on was the need for public schools. As Benjamin Franklin Bache - the editor of the Aurora and General Advertiser and named after his grandfather - put it in 1792, "Let the education of children become a common charge. If a man has property and no children, still he should be taxed to pay for the education of other men's children. The more knowledge, the safer his property. It is better protection than armies."

David said...

I just found the most amazing website. If you want the full lyrics of Hamilton complete with historical annotations (some of them by Miranda himself), you need to check out the Genius site here.

It has consumed more of my time than I could afford, really, but I regret nothing.

David said...

Make sure you click on the lyrics - each phrase opens out to new annotations!