On Sunday, I saw Hamilton in Chicago. I'm not quite sure of the full extent of what I learned from the experience, but it's lingering in my mind, and it's making me think.
I've listened to Hamilton a lot. Not as much as some, but more than others. I'm a mid-grade Hamilfan. I can't sing all the lyrics of "My Shot," but I can do a good job with "You'll Be Back." For me, Hamilton has been a solitary experience, usually while wearing headphones, sometimes in the car. But theatre, by its very nature, is a communal experience. You experience it with others, with both those you know and those you don't.
Seeing Hamilton live has had a massive effect on how I see the show and has shaped the way I originally heard specific songs. Songs that I usually would skip, such as "That Would Be Enough," are now essential. My wife rested her hand on my knee at the lyric "I relish being your wife," and that did it. The song's meaning changed. It became personal. Now, it's not simply a song about Hamilton and Eliza, it's also about Chris and Rachael. It's about us. And you have to believe that Lin Manuel Miranda inserted much of himself in there as well. Moments of the show feel vulnerable, too vulnerable to not be personal.
Another observation. There was this survey going around on my Facebook about musicals. It asked people to list the musical they loved, hated, thought was overrated, thought was underrated, and more. A lot of my friends filled it out, seemingly angry that their friends would put things considered to be solely entertaining or trite or fluff. God forbid if someone were to enjoy Cats. Some friends never filled it out, afraid of someone passing judgement on their tastes or their intelligence for what they love. It's crazy, man.
What does that have to do with Hamilton? The audience on Sunday laughed a lot. And cried a lot. The show shifts on a wide, emotional spectrum. Also, the show is both low art and high art. It's entertaining and smart. It's playing in two worlds at once: hip hop and musical theatre. Those two traditions are at odds with each other at times, but they allow for something new to be created. To adapt a Hamilton lyric, theatre is wide enough for entertainment and emotion. A piece of theatre is wide enough for comedy and drama. An audience is wide enough for laughing and crying. We forget that. We forget that high art and low art don't have to be mutually exclusive.
If we make art that is not simply for ourselves, but of ourselves, then the success of something like Hamilton isn't surprising. It's not that Hamilton rewrote the rules of theatre. The rules of theatre have mostly been the same: write what you know, bare yourself onstage, be vulnerable, and tell a good story. Instead of doing things "traditionally," Lin Manuel Miranda did things his way. He was true to himself and the way that he expressed himself. It's the authenticity of expression that grabs me every time.
Be true to yourself. Be true to the way you express yourself. Don't jump on bandwagons. Express yourself with authenticity and heart. Open wounds. Give a sly smile. Put it on stage. Allow your audience to laugh. Allow them to cry. Allow yourself to laugh. Allow yourself to cry.
One more thing. An hour or so before I saw Hamilton, I saw news on Facebook that my theatre professor, steven marc weiss, had died. steven's first year at my undergraduate college was my senior year. I didn't know what to make of him at first. steven was one of the very few people who called me Christopher instead of Chris. (I’m not capitalizing his name because he wrote in all lowercase. Once he was asked why, his answer? “I’m pretentious.”)
I often spoke to steven about animation and cartoons; he spoke to me of German art films and classical music. He impressed me with his knowledge and artistic integrity. I remember going to his house for the first time and walking into a small dining room that had built in bookshelves on each wall, floor or ceiling. They were filled with CDs of classical music, organized by composer, then by conductor. He surrounded himself with what he loved. I always saw him as superior in a way, but he saw me as an equal. Me with all my low art tendencies. The world is wide enough for me and steven. And he knew that. He relished that. He supported that. He supported me. And I'm going to miss him.
Here's a portion of an email from steven that I received in 2011. I'm so grateful to him.
"you remain, for me, one of the special "elite" among coe's theatre alums, one whose dedication to his craft is virtually limitless, who cherishes ensemble and puts his work before himself. for me, you are the embodiment of stanislavsky's charge to "love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art," and i shall always respect you for that!