"That's True": Hamilton and The Creative Process

[Mild spoilers ahoy.]

On Friday night I was lucky enough (that is, very lucky) to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton at The Public Theater. It won’t surprise anyone who’s been following the general response to Hamilton to hear that I loved the play. It was beautifully written, staged, and performed—and not only a beautiful show but an important one, a triumph of innovation and representation as much as virtuosity. I came out of the experience thinking about the creative life, about reading and writing and riffing and sampling and putting it together, and knowing when—and how—to strike out in a completely new direction.

From my own writing practice, I’ve learned that fictional biography is necessarily a genre of appreciation.* To play within a historical human life and knead it into a neat two-act structure is only possible if the artist has a deep fascination and respect for their subject(s). This rings true in every line of Hamilton—I felt it particularly in the fact that the show imagines Aaron Burr as complexly as it does Alexander Hamilton, a feat rarely performed even by supposedly objective historical texts. Perhaps even more powerful is the gleeful attitude that pervades Hamilton—there’s a moment in the show when, after a particularly obscure chestnut of historical trivia, Miranda snaps to face the audience and punctuates with “that’s true.” This nano-pause in the action, when Miranda’s excitement over telling the story is strong enough to erupt through the story itself, is a sharp moment of joy that electrified the air in the room. It's an odd choice of favorite moment in a show that outdoes itself at every turn, but it seems to be mine. This is one of the reasons that Hamilton feels like a tribute to the art of paying tribute, a love letter to admiration itself. This is the needle we try to thread every time we work in fictional biography: to turn our respect for another person’s work into something wholly new.

Hamilton is very much a show about this relationship between writer and reader, actor and observer, creator and fan. This is the central tension between Hamilton and Burr, but the dichotomy is not always external. Throughout the show the written word holds a truer power than any single character, and Hamilton is at its mercy almost as often as he is its master. He reads as much as he writes.

The fabric of the show is in harmony with this theme. I happened to see Les Misérables on Broadway the day after I saw Hamilton (I tend to see theater in batches, a relic of the not-too-distant era when I was only ever a visitor in New York and needed to be efficient in stuffing my head and heart full of culture.) It was impossible not to see the conversation happening between Hamilton and Les Miz—the tragic revolutionaries; the epic scope; the honor and violence and love and a lifelong rivalry boiling down to different philosophies of morality. Leaving the theater after Les Miz, my girlfriend remarked that it felt like the fossilized ancestor of Hamilton, or else like Hamilton was its hyper-evolved time-traveling descendent. Shared DNA, wildly transformed.

This got me thinking about other works I saw Hamilton dancing across, playing with, paying tribute to, transcending. I heard riffs on everything from top forty to Rodgers & Hammerstein to classic hip hop to My Brother, My Brother and Me. Andy Blankenbuehler’s excellent choreography sometimes evoked the bullet-time camerawork of The Matrix or the visual remixing common in music videos—Hamilton contained some of the most cinematic dream ballets I’ve ever seen, including those in actual films. Jesus Christ Superstar was there, in Leslie Odom, Jr.’s Aaron Burr narrating the story of his fallen rival. The relationship with 1776 is inevitable, but Hamilton is among much else a reclamation of America’s history from exactly that kind of squeaky-clean, staid, marginalizing narrative. The most direct 1776 reference comes when Miranda covers the John Adams administration in a few seconds of stage time, with Hamilton dropping several reams of critical commentary with a thud, a flash of red light, and the words “sit down, John, you fat mother—.” At another point Phillipa Soo’s Eliza Hamilton sings about reclaiming agency: “I put myself back in the narrative.” This is part of Hamilton’s work, broadening the perception of the American story and the people who tell it.

A few days after the show, I find myself thinking most about it in connection with Sunday in the Park with George, since Hamilton is surely destined to join it as a musical tribute to the power and burden of the creative process. There’s a repeated refrain of characters commenting that Hamilton writes like he’s running out of time, like he needs it to survive—this is a man who won and lost everything he ever had by writing. It is both the cause of and the solution to all his problems, and yet he never seems to make the choice to write. He simply must. He writes in St. Croix until it gets him to America, and he writes in America until it gets him both immortalized and killed.

One of the recurring themes of Hamilton is first voiced by Eliza and her sisters, an insistence that characters look around and see how lucky they are—specifically, to be living in New York City. I’m humming along and feeling that resonate in me this week, remembering lingering by the stage door and getting to meet artists doing radically important work that inspires me. Any discussion of New York City and the creative life immediately triggers the infamous debate of “MFA vs. NYC”—whether ’tis nobler to head to a verdant, peaceful graduate program or to write in and of the pure grime of experience, supposedly nowhere purer than in New York. I’ve never felt interested in weighing in on this issue, and I guess I still don’t—at least not in the form of a prescription or recipe for leading a creative life. People who want to make art will make art, wherever they are and however they pay the bills. But with Hamilton I’m beginning to see what living in New York City is doing for me, who I’m becoming here and what it has already done for my creative drive. It’s the same thing it did for Hamilton, and for the actors, writers, and artists who are telling his story at The Public. Just to be an audience member here is to be inspired to create. At every level of experiencing Hamilton I felt reminded to take my shot.  

 


*Full disclosure: in graduate school I wrote a short story about Alexander Hamilton and his death. Forthcoming from Split Lip Magazine in July, thank you for asking. (Update: and here it is!)