It has been the theatrical event of the season.
It has not yet arrived on Broadway, nor in Europe.
But the Public Theater in New York’s East Village, under the hand of the legendary Oskar Eustis, has been full every night, with tickets sold on the black market for ten times their price. The Public can now brag that through its doors have passed, in the space of two months, the most iconic faces of New York, Washington and Hollywood, from Madonna to Robert De Niro, from Michael Bloomberg to Paul McCartney, from Michelle Obama to the whole Clinton clan.
Hamilton, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and directed by Thomas Kail, is the most breathtaking show of its kind that the world has seen in a long time. It ended its world premiere run at the Public on May 3, and is scheduled to open on Broadway on July 13.
As the title suggests, Hamilton is a musical comedy on the life and work of Alexander Hamilton, probably the most misunderstood of the American founders.
Joining him on stage are incarnations of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Aaron Burr and the others who brought about the first political revolution of modern times.
Together they generate two hours of spirited theater during which we are treated to a recreation of what we too easily forget was also the first successful war of national liberation of the contemporary age.
The signal originality of the play, however, lies in the interpretation it offers of the characters, particularly the one for whom the piece is named.
Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton is a very young man, the bastard son of immigrants, newly arrived from the Caribbean, hungry, penniless.
On stage, Hamilton’s fellow « founding fathers » are shorn of their powdered wigs, tailcoats and the air of starchy solemnity in which tradition has cloaked them.
Here they have a high-strung, hair-trigger romanticism that makes them transatlantic Byrons come home to roost in Missolonghi.
They have a will to make history, or even, as the Europeans later will say, to break it in two and to lay siege to heaven.
They thirst after glory, true glory, the kind that haunted Saint Justin and the original Bonaparte, the kind that makes you dream of writing your name on the pediment of the nation you are building.
They are also, whatever has been said, at war with one another.
They tear into each other, quarreling like novices feeling their way through a fog with no compass, certain of nothing, faced with impossibly murky choices on which life and death depend.
It is an irrational, unhinged time that pitches the protagonists into furious battles in which, when none will yield, when no tradition or acquired wisdom will help them decide between two competing notions of government and two different forms of union, they find no better solution than to repair to New Jersey, where dueling is legal, to settle the matter with guns.
In short, there reigns over the stage a feeling of revolt, of the beginning of the world, of irreverence and of freedom.
It is a malambo of hotheads, most of whom are played by African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Latinos. Fitting, because wasn’t the new England — born from the old and supposedly freed of its sins — the work of immigrants, migrants and what they would call ‘illegal aliens’?
And is it accidental that this sound and fury, this national story that was unintelligible at the time to its very authors, this mad adventure from which Miranda’s play tries to coax the hidden meaning, is set in a universe of hip-hop, rap and rock?
Imagine a debate about federalism or the need (or lack of need) for a central bank accompanied by the sounds of reggae.
Cabinet meetings to a Mobb Deep beat.
A life imagined in the manner of Plutarch finding its inner melody by harmonizing with the dissonances of murdered rapper Tupac Shakur.
Or Brand Nubian chanting the founders’ brotherhood in arms with Lafayette.
Or the final duel with Burr, which ended in the death of Hamilton, recounted in words punctuated by Christopher Wallace, alias the Notorious B.I.G., another young rapper shot in the back and killed, like Shakur, in his mid-twenties.
Shakespeare, Oskar Eustis explains, used the same technique in his early works.
He used the voices of the street to build his pentameters, then, with those pentameters and their iambics, told England its own story, which was still unformed.
And that is what Miranda has done with his Hamilton.
But he does it in the other direction, so to speak, by causing the hum and rumble of today’s streets to be heard as if it were the true sound of the human voice in Hamilton’s day.
Readers will have grasped by now that the show is directed at a country in which the election of a black president has not kept police officers such as Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson from being cleared.
Readers will have guessed what the show might say to those Americans who no longer have the faintest idea of the exceptionalism of their distant forebears and who, dumbfounded and afraid, perceive, in Ferguson and Baltimore, the return of the demon of the race riots of the last century.
Young people may leave the theater after this Hamilton thinking to themselves that those were America’s best hours, when illustrious pioneers bearing a resemblance to the Notorious B.I.G. were inventing a turbulent, but ideal, America.
And, who knows, perhaps the gift of this piece of theater — the gift of impassioned, committed speech as only great theater can deliver it — will be to whisper in ears of those young people the idea that perhaps the time has come to reinvent what others have allowed to sink into heedless nihilism.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy