by Frances Eccleston
from Signs of the Times No. 69 - Apr 2018
It was a theatre trip long in the planning. A couple of years ago our lovely and somewhat apolitical daughter Grace became immersed in a heavyweight political biography of Alexander Hamilton, the U.S. founding father whom history had forgotten.
The apparently dry volume was covered in her annotations and underlinings. How come? Grace had heard the cast album of the newest Broadway hit musical, Hamilton, and was captivated. She became an avid social media follower of everything connected to the show and its writer-director Lin-Manuel Miranda. She insisted we should see it as a family when it opened in London. And so it was we found ourselves in the Victoria Palace Theatre, part of a noticeably young and excited audience, who burst into screams of delight as Hamilton walked onstage for the first number.
Over the past year we had become aware of the plaudits that Miranda and his hip-hop musical had received - pretty much any award it’s possible to win, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama. We’d followed the political shenanigans - when Vice President Mike Pence went to see it on Broadway, one of the almost entirely black and minority-ethnic cast addressed him from the stage after the show, expressing the concern that he and his fellow actors had no place in the vision for America of the Trump administration. (Pence walked out of the theatre, to boos from the audience.) As the show began, foremost in my mind was the question of whether, as someone who came of age in the punk/new wave era but hasn’t listened to much pop music for the last decade or three, I wouldn’t be too musically staid to enjoy it.
What unfolded was a story told on a broad canvas: an orphan of prodigious talent, Hamilton arrives in New York as a penniless immigrant in the revolutionary 1770s, studies law and becomes George Washington’s right-hand man, both during the War of Independence and during Washington’s subsequent presidency, as the identity of the new nation of the United States of America is forged. A sex scandal leads to the unravelling of both Hamilton’s family life and his political career, and the implacable enmity of his political opponent Aaron Burr leads to his untimely death. It is the story of a brilliant man, told brilliantly, and yes, with a musical subtlety and panache that held even this fifty-something rapt for just under three hours.
Quickly I realized that for a story that speaks the language of politics, rap is a great idiom to choose. Rap is talkative, opinionated and argumentative. Miranda imagines a congressional debate about whether the US should join with France in fighting the British as a ‘rap battle’ in which Burr and Hamilton are each handed the mike in turn to make their case. The lightning fast speed and wit of rap conjure the febrile post-revolutionary era and the boundless, impulsive energy of Hamilton himself. Miranda’s skill is to vary his musical genre: King George III sings slightly off key in a parody of naff 1960s Britpop. In this story, colonialism isn’t just out of tune, it’s out of date. The songs that deal tenderly with Hamilton’s family life are expressed in soul and the music of contemporary musical theatre. But the rap is always there, ratcheting up the tension at key moments.
While Miranda utterly re-imagines the idiom of late 18th century U.S political life, he leaves its Christian worldview intact. The text is rich in biblical imagery. Washington, for example, as he prepares to leave office he quotes Isaiah:
I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree a moment alone in the shade
at home in this nation we’ve made.
The musical’s Christian ethos is likewise reflected in its thematic material. In Act 2, the theme of reconciliation becomes central when Eliza Hamilton’s forgiveness of her husband after their son’s death is the pivotal and redemptive act which frees her to become the bearer of Hamilton’s story after he dies. And the musical ends with Eliza expressing her hope and confidence of future reunion with Alexander after her own death. What could be a bleak ending is suffused with a religious sense of hope - there are echoes of Les Miserables here.
As Hamilton realises his end is close, two questions become ever more urgent. What will be Hamilton’s legacy? Who will tell the story? The beauty of the musical is that it is its own answer to these questions. Here is the story of the birth of the USA told as an inclusive celebration of the dynamic role of the immigrant and the outsider, told by its diverse young people to the diverse young people of the world, in the musical idiom they own.
Here is history as memory, recreated as good news in the present, a source of future hope and action. As Christians, we have an interest in the sacramental re-making of memory, of finding fresh ways to tell God’s life-giving story which both honour our inheritance and connect with the now.