A Musical About Getting Things Done: Friday Chatting About HAMILTON
Ester: Once but I cried like a 13-year-old hearing Les Mis for the first time. Or a 15-year-old hearing Rent. In fact, it struck me as a kind of a cross between Les Mis and Rent—only, you know, possibly better. Hard to judge after only one listen. And you?
Nicole: I’ve listened to Act 1 three times, and I’m saving Act 2. For something. I don’t know what. Probably a time when I can listen to it carefully.
It’s hard to find a full hour to just sit and listen to something! However, I’ve found that packing up all my stuff is a good opportunity to listen to new music.
Ester: Yes, absolutely. Chores! I listen to podcasts while on foot and while in the kitchen doing mindless things. Then if I get really into the podcast I start bringing my phone with me everywhere, even the bathroom, and at that point it becomes a little weird. I’ve been so into the Charles Manson series on the “You Must Remember This” podcast that I turned it off when I got into the shower and as soon as I got out, I pressed “play” again even before I reached for a towel.
But it’s really Hamilton that’s gotten into my head, especially since you shared the crowd-sourced lyrics. I was an American History major and yet there are still plenty of details I either forgot or never learned!
Nicole: I’m going with “never learned” for me. I do have to say, since you mentioned Rent earlier, that I was exposed to Rent when I was way too young to appreciate it. Like, eleven years old. My friend and I got the CD and libretto, and we were childishly laughing at words like “squeegee man.” It was not my best moment, as a person.
We also laughed at Elton John, btw. We would say “OH GOD IT LOOKS LIKE DANIEL” and just bust out laughing.
Ester: Wait, Elton John, the singer? Which Daniel? I’m confused. And did you ever go back into Rent or was that it for you?
Nicole: Oh no, I got into Rent in college, like one should. And Daniel! You know, the one who’s coming tonight on a plane. Elton John songs have ridiculous lyrics. Hold me closer, tiny dancer.
Ester: I have no idea what you’re talking about! Was this a CD? I swear my first real exposure to Elton John was via Moulin Rouge.
Nicole: It could have been a CD. That would have been the typical experience. Instead we had a copy of “The Elton John Songbook.” Piano and lyrics. I had so many weird songbooks growing up. There was, like, a 1960s songbook that my mom had, and my sister and I would sing “Cherish is the word I use to describe” and then just scream “YOU OOOH OOH OOH OOH OOH OOH.”
Ester: Whoa. I definitely had the songbook for the maudlin Barbra Streisand song “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” but that may have been it. Anyway! Why is the Internet so crazy about Hamilton, do you suppose?
Nicole: 1) because it’s good 2) because it’s enthusiastic 3) because it’s something good we can be enthusiastic about 4) because it is wonderful to see representation on Broadway 5) because the concept is just so amazing.
Why do you think?
Ester: I think that sums it up nicely. We’re not allergic to history, as a country; we just like it presented in an entertaining, engaging way. Witness the success of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Wolf Hall in all its forms. Outlander and even The Godfather, in their way, are historically-informed; Gone With The Wind is still one of the most popular movies ever and that was revisionist history but the fact that it was based on real events was part of its populist appeal.
The HBO “John Adams” was even popular, and that was objectively stodgy compared to Hamilton.
Nicole: Ester, my heart is aching because there are new episodes of “Downton Abbey” in the world right now and I can’t see them if I want to wait and watch the show legally. But Hamilton is way smarter than “Downton.”
You know what I really like about it? That they sing the word “work” like, 200,000 times. They sing “work” about as often as those Rent kids sing “rent.” This is a musical about getting things done. Or, at least, the first act is.
Ester: In the second act, there’s a lot about work-life balance. Seriously! That made my heart ache. The kids in Rent talk a good game but they don’t create much. And the revolutionaries in Les Mis — what did they accomplish, in the end? Hamilton gets total bonus points because, you’re right, these characters aren’t just inspiring, they also make things happen. Like the characters in Wolf Hall. Someone should write some smart-ass songs for Thomas Cromwell. I’d pay money to see that.
Nicole: There is in fact a musical called Henry VIII: The Musical, and it is labeled “The Best Tudor Musical For Schools!”
Ester: Okay but. Come on.
Hamilton could easily be kitschy if the quality weren’t stellar. But there’s too much talent and energy and sincerity behind it for that.
Nicole: I’m not sure hip hop can be kitsch. I think there should be another word for hackneyed hip hop. I feel like I ought to make an Iggy Azaela joke here.
But yeah, it works because it had talent and time—I’m still stuck on the time everyone put into this, to make sure it was perfect. I envy the idea of spending years going deep into a project.
Ester: I feel the same way about the Ferrante books, which have also thoroughly taken over the Internet. Put together, the four novels take up a huge amount of space; they represent an overwhelming investment of time, energy, inspiration, and work, and I’m in awe of them. They’re a lot angrier than I’d say Hamilton is. There’s a kind of stymied revolutionary spirit in them, a fury at the way the class system can leave a stain on kids from poor, violent neighborhoods even if they do manage to make good and get out.
Nicole: I’ve got library holds on all of the Ferrante books, so I have to wait to read them. But my copy of Outlander just came in, thanks to your recommendation! I’m like, “Is she the outlander, or is the sexy guy the outlander? NO WAIT: they’re both outlanders.”
I have read zero pages of this book; it just downloaded this morning.
Ester: I’m laughing. Don’t worry, the book doesn’t traffic in subtlety; everything will become clear. But I’m excited to talk Ferrante with you once you read the books. They’re some of the best books I’ve ever encountered on class and the long-term effects of poverty.
Purportedly they’re novels but they seem to be based on the pseudonymous author’s real-life experience growing up in grim, post-WWII Italy.
Nicole: I am so excited to talk Ferrante too. There are so many fascinating pieces of art and culture in the world right now that I can hardly stand it. There isn’t enough time to read or see them all.
Ester: That’s true. I smiled ruefully at Andy Samberg’s Emmy sketch where he spends a year in a bunker trying to watch a year’s worth of TV shows. Imagine if he had to care about music, podcasts, books, and movies too. I try to make my peace with the fact that some really cool, novel things are going to pass me by, but it’s hard.
The way Instagram makes me feel inferior in terms of other people’s experiences—meals, vacations—Twitter makes me feel inferior in terms of other people’s cultural consumption. I know that there’s no single individual on Twitter who can consume everything, but the overall effect of my feed is to conjure up this well-educated, well-informed pop oversoul with which I can never keep up.
Nicole: Well, as Elton John put it: I don’t have much money, but boy if I did / I’d buy a big house where we both could live and just consume media all day long.
Ester: I know that one! It was in Moulin Rouge!