Hamilton in San Diego, Opening Night

We took the family to see Hamilton, the mega-hit musical about the life and times of one of America’s founding fathers. We have two season tickets to the San Diego Civic Theatre (which we bought specifically to see Hamilton), and we bought two more tickets during the subscriber-only early purchase period. It’s a good thing we got our tickets when we did, because the run was quickly sold out.

Our season ticket seats are in the mezzanine, and the two additional seats were a few rows from the back wall of the balcony. But here’s an easy way to get front-row views from any unobstructed seat in the house: binoculars!

From where we sat, binoculars were essential given the number of people on stage through most of the show – without them, it would have been very, very hard to tell which one of them was singing. It even might have become hard to identify characters after costume changes.note 1 With binoculars, the view was like being suspended somewhere above the third row of orchestra seats, well forward of the loge.

Hamilton is 99% through-sung, like Phantom of the Opera (or, indeed, opera itself). The energy was electrifying from start to finish, and the relentless forward thrust made it feel shorter than its run time. The show has its setpiece villain (a greasily feline Aaron Burr) and setpiece fool (a delightfully megalomaniacal King George III). And, like Shakespeare’s history plays, Hamilton takes egregious liberties with actual events, including what I’d consider the disservice of depicting Hamilton as sitting out much of the Revolutionary War as a writer for General George Washington, when in fact he was a respected combat commander well before Washington rose to power.note 2

It’s all in good fun, though, and there are clever nods to everything from Pirates of Penzance to Macbeth. The historical Hamilton would have known Shakespeare, of course, but not Gilbert & Sullivan.

I enjoyed the colorblind casting, which sent its own message about today’s America. After all, even history plays reflect more the times in which they are performed than the times in which they are set.

I also appreciated the bringing to light some of Hamilton’s many flaws. In this era of omnipresent media, today’s leaders seem to fall far short of the bar set by our idolized (and idealized) forefathers. It reminded me that men of power, at least, haven’t changed much.

Finally, I loved the bringing to life an era of vast possibility. It was truly a New World. The sheer, manic optimism that created this nation is beyond comprehension.note 3 Yet, possibilities still exist to remake the nation anew. If Hamilton turns just one more high school student into a historian or political leader, that’s a great result. As an aside, my older son, a high school senior and an early Hamilton devotee, insists that his A in history was due more to to Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter than anything else. So there you go.

Which neatly brings me to my bigger point: Nations are built on mythology, not history. By creating a uniquely American history play, Lin-Manuel Miranda has woven himself into the very fabric of the United States, past, present, and future. His mythological Alexander Hamilton co-exists with the historical Alexander Hamilton in the same uneasy way Shakespeare’s heroic Henry V co-exists with the historical, and much less-likeable, Henry V. In both cases, one is a living work of fiction, the other is a dead rich white guy from the ruling elite.

And therein lies the rub. We’re still basically telling the story of the American white elite. By contrast, the musical Allegiance told the story of ordinary American families of Japanese descent who were rounded up en masse and shipped off to remote camps during World War II.note 4 My family had the privilege of seeing its world premiere at The Old Globe in San Diego in 2012; it reached Broadway three years later. Yet, despite the backing and presence of charismatic TV/movie/meme star George Takei, the show received mixed reviews and closed after its initial four-month run. Other recent plays about the historical experiences of American minorities, such as Alfredo Ramos’ The Last Angry Brown Hat, about Chicano political awakening in the 1960s and ’70s, just haven’t gotten the mass traction.

Here’s a case in point: Miranda’s previous award-winning musical, In the Heights, is set in modern-day New York City, in a predominately Hispanic-American neighborhood. But it relies on a deus ex machina in the form of a winning lottery ticket to bring its story to a happy ending. The idea that anyone can get lucky is apparently more salable than the idea that ethnic minorities can get ahead through their own intelligence, talent, and drive.

Here’s another case in point: in Hamilton, the line “Immigrants – we get the job done” is met with “applause and cheers every single night.”note 5 It’s arguably the play’s Big Idea. Yet, it appears nowhere on the licensed merchandise. You can buy “My shot” mugs, A. Ham and A. Burr baseball caps, and logo sweatshirts. But the commercial side doesn’t follow the script. Instead it reveals the truth about America today: people may applaud the sentiment, but they won’t bring it into their homes and they won’t wear it in public.note 6

In 1927, Jerome Kerr and Oscar Hammerstein II delivered a breakthough message about racial prejudice through Show Boat, a frilly song-and-dance musical set during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. 31 years later, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun showed a generation of theater-goers a slice of the mid-century urban Black American experience, confronting issues of ethnic identity and entrenched socioeconomic racism. Today, in Hamilton, perhaps color-blind casting and a few verbal zingers represent the limit of what can become a mega-hit American history play.

So, like all good history plays, Hamilton shows us how far we’ve come. And how far we still have to go.

Notes


1. This is where I appreciate William Shakespeare’s audience-friendly craftsmanship in writing. Generally, his characters continue to be identified by name throughout the play. That really helps keep things straight. Go back up

2. The artillery company Alexander Hamilton raised – or, more accurately, stole from the British in a daring raid – in the summer of 1775 and commanded through 1776 evolved into the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment. It is still in active service. We make a big deal of George Washington crossing the Delaware River to attack a German garrison attached to the British at Trenton on Christmas Day 1776, but Hamilton was also there, sick as a dog but right up at the front, personally managing his big guns to support the assault and wreck the Crown forces’ counterattack. Go back up

3. Two excellent books that capture the exuberance of our founders and their outrageous vision are Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis and The Day the American Revolution Began by William H. Hallahan. Go back up

4. My grandfather was a Japanese-American businessman and entrepreneur who through the 1930s created the largest wholesale nursery in the West. As a result of his proven executive ability, he was among the first rounded up at gunpoint soon after Pearl Harbor, along with other civic leaders; his family was later relocated to Poston Camp I, where he later joined them. My mother spent her high school years in crude, shared barracks surrounded by barbed wire, gun towers, and armed soldiers. My father, too, was imprisoned as a high schooler; his family was sent to Heart Mountain in Montana. So, yeah, more than a bit of a connection there. That said, the American Revolution is a more universal theme than the experience of American ethnic minorities, and the team that wrote Allegiance, while incredibly talented, were no Lin-Manuel Miranda – who else is? Go back up

5. Rory O’Malley (who played King George III), quoted in “At Long Last, ‘Hamilton’: Megahit Musical Lands in San Diego This Weekend” by James Hebert, San Diego Union-Tribune, 3 Jan. 2018, Night+Day section, pp. 6–8. O’Malley went on to say that this line, and the audience’s consistent reaction to it, was his favorite part of the play. Go back up

6. I’ve fairly recently got up the guts to use my Executive Order 9066 canvas shopping bag from the Japanese American National Museum when I go to the grocery store. Only one person has ever commented on it, but it has gotten a few long looks. I would gladly wear an “Immigrant 3G – Still getting the job done” t-shirt, although I’m afraid it would also remind me that, compared to my grandfather, I’m something of a slacker. Go back up

Globe for All Twelfth Night

Every year, as part of its relatively new Globe for All program, The Old Globe performs a Shakespeare play for free at various community venues. Twelfth Night is the third Globe for All performance our family has seen.

The venue we attend, at the San Diego Central Library, uses the Shiley Special Events Suite on the 9th floor – the roof – of the downtown library. This floor is set up as a miniature campus, with individual buildings set in a open rooftop space. The Shiley Special Events Suite is a standalone structure with a back-of-the-house catering area fronted by a soaring open space with floor-to-ceiling windows providing panoramic views and lashings of natural afternoon light.

Because the performances use community spaces, the staging is created around the absence of a stage in the traditional sense. At the Central Library, the stage was set square in the middle of the room with rows of chairs on each of the four faces. Each corner was left open for entrances and exits. Props were arrayed on tables on three sides, with the fourth side having the prompt/call book, and all the costuming and prep took place in full view of the audience, although behind the opposite bank of seats.

Before the show started, the play’s director took the stage to do a quick warm-up/survey of the audience, including some fun audience participation bits to get people into the swing of Shakespearean language in performance.

For those unfamiliar with the plot of Twelfth Night, here’s a six-sentence version. Viola and Sebastian are twins of minor nobility, indistinguishable except that one is a woman and one is a man. They are separated in a shipwreck in which each thinks the other has died. Stranded in a hostile country, Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario and enters the service of the local Duke Orsino, who uses Cesario to deliver messages of love to Olivia, a local countess. Olivia refuses Orsino, but falls in love with Cesario, which is bad because not only is Cesario in fact Viola, but Viola has fallen in love with Orsino. A major subplot involves the gulling of Olivia’s arrogant steward Malvolio by her chambermaid and houseguests. Unbeknownst to anyone, Viola’s twin brother Sebastian arrives in town and much chaos ensures before the twins are reunited and the couples sort themselves into traditionally gender-appropriate pairs.

The play was done in modern dress, but the text was Shakespeare’s. The set was simple: two chaise longues with an elaborate drinks cart between them, a slightly extravagant patio chair, a brace of potted plants, a floor mat indicating water, and another floor mat indicating a boardwalk or perhaps a dock. Illyria was set on the U.S./Mexico border, a trenchant update.

To emphasize the bicultural nature of the story, several lines were spoken in Spanish, some throw-away lines and other key lines that were either understood in context or essentially restated in English. The musical interludes were particularly outstanding, making full use of several performers who could play guitar and sing as well as act. A few PG-rated lines and actions were included, but they were done in ways that put them more in the potty humor class; the small children in the audience were as tickled as the adults. And, in a fun revision, the fencing duel was rendered as a boxing mismatch between a towering but cowering Sir Andrew and a petite but reluctantly game Viola/Cesario.

Because the play was performed in daylight and in the round, the action and actors were far less isolated than in conventional stagings. Audience members in the first rows found themselves made part of the play as actors interacted with them, hid behind them, ran through them, or even asked for help with a particular prop, all of which made the story come even more to life.

If there was any loss it was that the streamlined interpretation gave short shrift, in varying degrees, to secondary characters: Malvolio became more bumptious, Sir Toby Belch more depraved, Sir Andrew more vapid, and Feste more yobbish, all as suited a performance focused on Olivia and Viola’s parallel journeys to love.

The great gain, in these Globe for All performances, is that they are followed by a question-and-answer period in which the audience can engage with the actors and the play.

The Globe for All program deserves kudos for bringing live Shakespeare into the community and making it free and easy for everyone to experience. Twelfth Night continues for five more performances, including two final shows on Sunday, November 19, at The Old Globe’s rehearsal space inside Balboa Park’s House of Charm. That’s the week San Diego schools are off for Thanksgiving break, so there’s no school the next day and no excuse for not taking the kids!