Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, March 04, 2016

The Hamilton Trip

I nearly sabotaged our New York trip from the start by stepping on the scale the day before we left to discover that I'd lost two pounds. You'd think I'd be happy about this, but as the last time I stepped on the scale was two weeks ago, the day I started a rigorously dull diet (for reasons I will write about in another post) that cuts out everything awesome you might eat and replaces it with animal protein, nuts, and vegetation, and as everyone else I'd known on the same diet had shed pounds in the double digits, I had good evidence for hoping for at least a modest five pound loss in two weeks. I did not set my sights higher than five pounds, so that I might be pleasantly surprised. I was not pleasantly surprised. Two weeks without sugar, without dairy, without grains, without legumes, without alcohol, and I was down the same amount as Darwin was the morning after his Friday fast.

I spent the day choked by a fine mist of anger and wounded vanity and pride, which made it a particularly bad day to go to with Darwin to the mall looking for a dress to wear to the theater for Hamilton. Anyone who doubts the reality of original sin should try pulling himself out of a bad mood by the power of reason alone. I knew that it was irrational to be angry about such an ephemeral thing. I knew that it was not Darwin's fault, and that when he said nice and complimentary things he was not merely trying to butter me up because my itty bitty feelings were hurt. I knew that in the grand scheme of things, this was the most minute of crosses, and that if something tragic were to happen right then, I would be jolted out of my mood. And yet I could not by my own efforts make myself be happy, and my energies were expended in biting my tongue so that I would not say something I would regret later. It was a very silent, unfulfilling trip.

We went to confession and Mass that afternoon, which supplied all my deficiencies, and it struck me that our trip was probably going to be wonderful if the devil was agitating so hard against it at the outset.

We spent Sunday afternoon and Monday morning at my brother's house in New Jersey, visiting with his two little boys and, in a fortuitous coincidence, with my sister and her three little girls, up from Maryland. These are my two farthest-flung siblings, whom I don't get to see often enough, and yet I find that providence often gives me unexpected opportunities to see the people I long to see. This was a trip of joyful meetings: a sudden reunion with three dear college friends, and a last-minute plan to finally meet, in person, an artist I'd corresponded with, who found the blog when he was doing research for his doctoral dissertation on same specific type of Polish theater I'd written about in my thesis.

We took the train in from Jersey to Penn Station, a trip that afforded an Ohio rube like me many fine opportunities to ogle the scenery, and walked to our hotel, a swanky affair, recommended by the WSJ (natch), located between the Empire State Building and the Flatiron district. Let me tell you that, for women, at least, there are there are levels and levels: on the top tier you have your expensive New York types traveling for business, tailored in impeccable black, your blown-out bleached blonds and ropy women of a certain age with skin preserved like leather, and at the bottom tier you have your maternal tourist on an anniversary splurge, wearing comfortable Skechers and a pink scarf. There are many ways to be unique in mid-town Manhattan, but perhaps the best way to stand out among is to wear color.

I'd already decided to go off my diet for the vacation, because I'm not going to New York City without eating a damn croissant, so on Monday evening we went to Beecher's Handmade Cheese. There we sat tucked in a corner of a cellar and shared samplers of cheese and charcuterie and grinned across the table at each other like crazy kids. Back at the hotel, we decided to keep up the streak of doing things just because we could, and walked up nine flights of beautiful marble stairs to our room. Well worth doing once!

The reason we chose our hotel was because it has a library bar, which is exactly what it says on the tin: a library in which you can sit in comfy chairs and order very delicious drinks.

We sat right here, on the couch under the staircase, right by the French section, where I read Love in Twelfth Century France, and Darwin read Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914, a book he'd been hoping to read for a while.

The library was curated for the hotel by a gentleman who runs a bookstore, if I recall correctly what the hostess told us, but it's a bit disingenuous of the marketing people to make much of the two stories and the imported French staircase, since you can't climb the staircase and look at the second-story books because there's only a catwalk up there. There are shelves and shelves of lovely books up there which no one will read because no one can access. That makes me melancholy, but I suppose it's all the same as we were the only ones reading in the library bar anyway.

(I here post the ingredients for the New York Sour, so that we can try to recreate it here when I'm back on alcohol: bourbon, lemon, mulled wine, egg whites.)

Tuesday morning we went to the Met Museum and saw a lovely exhibit of the paintings of Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, a portraitiste of great charm and skill. I was struck by the beautiful way she captured the eyes of her sitters. Here is her little daughter, painted cleverly both in profile and full-face:

Here, a bacchante whose eyes are so distinctive and alive that I felt that they must have been painted from life:

This portrait glows, with a color scheme that surprised me and yet is completely intuitive:

This Russian countess's face was so beautiful that I stared and stared, and then had to laugh when I read Vigee-Le Brun's account of the woman:

'As VigĂ©e Le Brun recalled Countess Skavronskaya (1761–1829): “She was utterly idle all day, she had no education, and her conversation was quite empty. But in spite of all that, thanks to her lovely face and her angelic sweetness, she had an incomparable charm.”'

 Vigee-Le Brun's career spanned from pre-Revolutionary France, where she painted Marie-Antoinette several times, to shortly before her death in 1842. Several of her sitters were English, and I dearly wished that she might have painted a portrait of Jane Austen.

We could have spent hours more in the Met, but while there we saw another unexpected friend who reminded us why we were in town:

My problem of what to wear to Hamilton was solved by my friend Emily, a fellow Steubenville drama grad now living the dream with her own production company, Turn to Flesh, which specializes in producing modern verse dramas). Emily is exactly the sort of muse a reluctant shopper like me needs; she whisked me around, seized about twenty dresses, and made me try them on until I found one that I liked. Which I did, a black gauzy tea-length number, and of which I have no pictures of because Darwin and I are the world's worst selfie takers.

If there was anything that was worth being almost late to Hamilton, it was having dinner with such excellent friends: Emily, and Lisa, who was almost my bridesmaid, and Christina. Having all been in the drama department back in the day, we spoke the same language and were able to pick up exactly where we left off (especially after drinking most of a bottle of Champagne that was discarded in the hall, still unopened, with the remnants of someone's room service order).

"I used you as an example of the corporal works of mercy for my sixth-grade religion class," I told Lisa.

Lisa's response conveyed that she was unsure when she had ever done anything that sixth-graders should emulate.

"You remember when my parents got divorced, and I went looking for you because your parents were divorced too, and since I couldn't find you I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and get ready for bed. And then I ran into you there and you asked what was up, and I started crying with my mouth full of toothpaste and slobbered it all over your shoulder, and you didn't mind at all but just let me cry until I could tell you what the problem was."

"Oh, pshaw," said Lisa. "That's hardly the worst thing I've ever had on me."

(What she did was, while I was still wailing incoherently on her shoulder, she checked my left hand to see if I still had my engagement ring on, and said, "Well, it's not that, anyway.")

And then it was 6:35, and it was time to hightail it over to


(Darwin has written a good review here, and I'll try not to repeat too much of what he's said. As he said, this is a detailed review for people who know the album by heart and want to know what's happening on stage.)

tl;dr: Groundbreaking new musical with catchy hiphop tunes and wordplay that sticks in your head. Lin-Manuel Miranda is heartbreakingly vulnerable as Hamilton. Ah, what eyes. Special mention goes to Daveed Diggs, who's ten times larger than life in his double role as Lafayette/Jefferson, but the whole cast is fabulous. Hamilton's life story, from his difficult childhood on Nevis to his famous duel with Aaron Burr, is told to great effect by using Burr as the narrator and studied counterpoint to Hamilton's flamboyant drive to succeed. The show trucks along at Hamilton's own breathless pace -- it's fitting that the last word is "time", because that's what Hamilton was always racing against.


The lady sitting next to me in the crowded theater was not really impressed to be there, unlike most of the crowd. She flipped through her program and played games on her phone. Her friend, seated a few rows down, called up to her, and she shrugged and said she didn't know much about the show and she hoped it was going to be worth it.

With barely any warning the opening chords sound, and there's Leslie Odom, Jr. in a brown coat, asking, "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman..." I don't have to describe the opening number for you because of course you've all seen the clip from the Grammys, but I will say that a lot of the choreography that seems very strange does make more sense when seen as a whole. The show is made to be seen in its entirety, not as filmed closeups, and indeed, when you're trying to focus on the main characters, the dancers provide a lot of background energy without calling undue attention to themselves.

Anthony Ramos was not on as Laurens/Phillip the night we watched, and though the understudy was quite good, I missed Ramos's distinctive energy as Laurens.

In Aaron Burr, Sir, Burr is actually walking away from Hamilton, and Hamilton chases him down saying, "You're an orphan! Of course!" This is characteristic of Hamilton throughout the whole show: this bounciness, this lack of cool, in complete opposition to Burr, who tries never to get excited about anything. Hamilton can barely be still. At first his energy is boyish and impetuous, but as the show goes on and he's under more and more stress, he's a loose cannon, barely under control.

Lafayette, Mulligan, and Laurens are just good fun. Daveed Diggs is simply having a good time on stage: Lafayette is the one always pushing for another drink, a loose goofy presence. Mulligan's sexual innuendo seems a lot milder in person. He and Lafayette keep up the beat by pounding the table during the opening raps ("high school raps", Lin-Manuel Miranda called them), while Burr watches from the side. The tavern setting is full of the chorus, listening, pouring drinks, or just observing -- throughout the show, there's often at least one person watching the action  Hamilton hangs back hesitantly, wanting to get involved, jumping in to speak his piece to kick off My Shot.

My Shot is huge, of course. Hamilton is speaking his piece, wowing the three guys and the people listening in the tavern, and Burr is kicked back in a chair, reading. When he tells them, "Geniuses, lower your voices!" he moves over to sit with them, pouring everyone a drink to settle them down. There is a real feeling of camaraderie, and you can see how easily it could have been the five friends instead of the four. But soon the rest of them are out in the streets whipping up the crowds ("Rise up!), and Burr hangs back again.

There's no downtime in this show, barely any time for applause. My Shot moves right into The Story of Tonight, as if the guys were stopping back in the tavern again. On the album Laurens sings "Raise a glass to freedom/ Something they can never take away/ No matter what they tell you", but in the show, Hamilton picks up the line from "Something they can never take away" and sings it wistfully downstage, as if he doesn't feel like he's part of the group yet. Laurens pulls him back in with "Raise a glass to the four of us", and from that point in Hamilton is one of the boys for keeps.

Farmer Refuted involves Hamilton and Samuel Seabury literally tussling over who gets to stand on the soapbox, and Burr literally trying to hold Hamilton back. Seabury is dressed as a Anglican cleric in one of those old fashioned long neckerchief, which was particularly funny because it was so specific. Hamilton's energies are still unharnessed, and you see the first hints here of how much he enjoys talking trash at people, a tendency that comes to fruition in the cabinet battles.

You've heard a lot about King George's walk. It's there, a careful, mincing step where each foot is placed directly in front of the other. It was amusing but not slay-me hysterical. What was commanding, however, was how Jonathan Groff sang the whole song standing almost completely still, and he ran the entire theater while doing it. Even from the mezzanine you could see his fixed stare. He looked like a guy going insane, which isn't far off the historical mark. When he did break, it was striking: first, when he wails the high notes and suddenly drops his head soulfully toward his shoulder; second, at "No, don't change the subject!", where he suddenly tosses back the ermine cloak he's been wrapped in until now and starts issuing commands in an increasingly unhinged way.

While George Washington was pounding out the high-energy "Right Hand Man", I was startled by a glow next to me, and turned to see the lady reading the New Yorker review of Hamilton during the show. "But you can see it for yourself if you'd just look at the stage!" I thought.

The Helpless/Satisfied pairing was particularly fascinating. Darwin talked about how onstage, Eliza is a stronger presence and Angelica is not as dominant. One note that I found interesting was that in both numbers, we see Hamilton fidget slightly as he's introduced to Eliza, tucking his hair behind his ear as he says, "Your sister?" I'd almost thought it was a natural motion -- Miranda has long hair for the role, and perhaps a wisp had come loose -- but when it happened the second time in Satisfied, just after Angelica has sung about how Hamilton is looking for social status by courting a Schuyler sister, I realized it was the sign of Hamilton transferring his attentions from Angelica to Eliza, and how damning it must look to Angelica.

Hercules Mulligan carried a petite basket and threw flower petals during the wedding procession, which probably got one of the night's biggest laughs.

Ten Duel Commandments made a very effective use of the stage's double turntables, and when Washington shows up to bawl Hamilton out inside, Hamilton holds himself rigidly still, facing out, until he explodes in Washington's face. And when he goes home to Eliza, he is nearly weeping through her whole song.

The lady next to me was snoring so loudly that people were looking around to see what was going on.

Part of the problem with seeing a popular show is that everyone wants to luxuriate in their favorite moments, so when Lafayette starts in with his power rap in Guns and Ships, the crowd wanted to cheer for a minute. The timing doesn't allow for that, so Daveed Diggs just powered through, aided no doubt by the sound guys in the booth cranking his mike for a minute so that he could be heard over the applause. That guy knows how to bring the energy. He pulls Washington's letter summoning back Hamilton out of his hand and tosses it to one of the dancers to deliver, and when Hamilton comes back, Washington sings him History Has Its Eyes On You as a monologue.

The Battle of Yorktown is huge and explosive, shaking the theater each time the cannons go boom. That's one of my favorites on the album, and it's bigger and better in person. Hamilton sobs, shoulders shaking, as he hears the fallen foes singing The World Turned Upside Down, and he's tearful as he thinks of his son.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's framework for religion is Catholicism, and it crops up in strange places. In Dear Theodosia, Burr and Hamilton are down front in squares of light, looking down at the imaginary cradles of their infants, and as Hamilton sings, Burr sits and bows his head, and then makes the sign of the cross before "My father wasn't around". Burr was not notably religious, and as the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, he was no Catholic, so it made me blink, but it was an interesting character moment.

Non-Stop is the first time we see Hamilton in his new money green suit. He can't sit still, to the frustration of his wife, who just wants to see him and knows she can't change him. Hamilton's always got to be doing, though. His staging has him moving around almost constantly, gleefully chasing the future (especially when he preemptively nominates himself as Treasury Secretary). The act ends with five different motifs woven together in a driving polyphony, as Hamilton, Burr, Washington, Eliza, and Angelica sing their thematic lines over the chorus.

Washington: History has its eyes on you.
Burr: Why do you assume you're the smartest in the room?
Eliza: Isn't this enough?
Angelica: You will never be satisfied.
Hamilton: I am not throwing away my shot!

At intermission, the lady beside me chatted with her friend a few rows down.

"Isn't this great? I think it's great," said the friend.

"Eh, I don't know," said the lady in a Noo Yawk accent. "I'm trying to figure out, why is this show sold out for a year? I mean it's okay, but there are other shows on Broadway. Les Miz, Miss Saigon, even Wicked."

"You don't think it's great?"

"Eh. I have high standards. My friend Laura's husband wrote a play. I thought it was pretty good. He was trying to get it staged off-Broadway, but he couldn't get it going. Everything is money, you know?"

Act Two opens with Thomas Jefferson, and Daveed Diggs is the oiliest crowdpleaser ever. He wears this fantastic purple velvet suit, and the way he struts with his cane is a fair contender for commemoration by The Ministry of Silly Walks. His unctuousness and Hamilton's punchiness strike sparks, especially when Hamilton sends up Jeffferson's fancy walk by flapping around in a circle at "Whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello!" Madison is very much Jefferson's yes man here. Album listeners will be pleased to know what Jefferson describes Madison as "red in the face" because Madison had been having a coughing fit, and that when Hamilton tells him, "Madison, you mad as a hatter, so take your medicine!", he means it literally. He's having a bit too much fun ripping everyone a new one.

Interesting staging note: the microphones Jefferson and Hamilton use in the cabinet battles are presented to them in a wooden case, much like dueling pistols. And, confirming a theory of mine, in Cabinet Battle #2, when Jefferson demands, "Who provided those funds?" and Madison answers, "Uh, France", the reason Madison is so quiet and hesitant at that moment is because Jefferson shoves the microphone under his nose without notice, catching him off-guard.

Power is going to Hamilton's head, and when Washington warns him that he'll lose his job if he can't get his debt plan through Congress, we see Hamilton's spring wind tighter and tighter as he pushes himself to make the deal happen. He loses focus on his family, although he's delighted to see his son trying his hand at wordsmithing (yes, that's Eliza beatboxing over Phillip's fledgling rap). He allows himself to drift into an emotional affair with Angelica, which breaks him down so that he falls into an actual affair with Mariah Reynolds and into paying blackmail money to her husband. As Darwin noted, the staging of Say No To This was a good deal more G-rated than we would have imagined from only listening to the track -- tension between them is maintained mostly through distance. This is a valid staging, of course, but I felt like the sordidness of the whole affair didn't quite come through viscerally. Perhaps that's because there was a sub on for Mariah Reynolds the night we saw the show, so we didn't see the more honed performance of Jasmine Cephas Jones.

By Cabinet Battle #2 Hamilton is cracking under the stress and is dangerously unpredictable, ready to fly apart at the least provocation. He's antsy, pacing and prowling like a caged animal, and when he flies in Jefferson's face with, "You must be out of your God-damn mind!", it's explosive and dangerous. Everyone recoils because you just don't know what he's going to do next. Washington sees that Jefferson is biding his time until he can take advantage of Hamilton's strain (there's some good dark energy between Washington and Jefferson, two men who are managing their image much more tightly than Hamilton), but Hamilton can't be reined in. When he writes his pamphlet against John Adams ("Sit down, John, you fat motherbleeep!"), he drops this huge packet of paper from the balcony like a bomb as everyone runs screaming.

The chorus functions much like a Greek chorus, offering warnings that Hamilton doesn't heed, whether urging him to say no to Mariah Reynolds, or to wait instead of publishing the Reynolds pamphlet to clear his name of charges of speculation. (Jefferson's "My God!" when he realizes why Hamilton has been paying out hush money is even more hypocritically prissy than on the album.) Even King George, who watches most of the second act from the foreign vantage point of the balcony, gets in on the gloating over the the Reynolds pamphlet, tossing papers around with abandon. The whirling mass of pamphlets all over the stage is a reflection of the hurricane that brought Hamilton to America, only this time the hurricane is destroying him instead of giving him a new chance. The theme of papers changing hands is carried through to Burr pushing campaign tracts onto voters, but it reaches its high point when Eliza, who sings Burn sitting still as a statue, physically burns Hamilton's letters to her and watches them blaze in a tin bucket.

By this time the lady next to me was leaning forward, hands over her mouth, eyes wide open.

Eliza remains still and cold, wearing a long black coat. The only exception is the death of her son Philip. In a moment not on the album, she gives a heartrending scream when she realizes Philip is dead, slapping away Hamilton as he tries to take her hand. It's always bothered me that Hamilton doesn't actually apologize for his adultery, but as he's literally sobbing out Quiet Uptown, it's obvious how broken he is, and that all he has left to give to Eliza is his brokeness.  Here's Miranda's Catholicism coming through again: the sign of the cross at the church door, the grace too powerful to name, and although it's historically inaccurate, it's dramatically effective. When Eliza finally takes Hamilton's hand -- a small gesture; she's perfectly still otherwise -- he breaks down as they stand side by side, facing out.

It's fast to the end from here. When Hamilton is on the balcony, back center, building up to his endorsement in the election of 1800, Burr and Jefferson are standing front on opposite sides of the stage, facing out, listening eagerly. Burr clearly expects to get Hamilton's nod, and when Hamilton endorses Jefferson and says that Burr has no beliefs, Burr's face is a mask of shock and anger, while Jefferson can't believe his ears. The final duel uses the familiar staging of the previous two duels, but the tension is maintained by giving us Burr's perspective of duel, so that Hamilton doesn't aim his pistol at the sky until after the moment of pause where he reflects on life, and death.

The show ends quietly, a cappella and on a final unison note, and then Eliza steps forward and gives a sudden choked gasp before the stage goes black. Is this her dying, finally being reunited with Hamilton after fifty years of widowhood? I wasn't sure, but it was an interesting, if slightly puzzling, choice.

The lady next to me surreptitiously wiped her eyes.


The trip home was easy and uneventful, a last bit of quiet before I got home to discover that my 22-year-old brother, in charge of the kids, had gone on Amazon and bought four thousand popsicle sticks and four glue guns and put everyone to work building a house.

And to find that we had a newly-minted ten-year-old.

And to find that even with walking fantastic amounts, a diet of eating whatever you want, especially when you arrive home on a tenth birthday, yields an increase of five pounds. No drama this time, because there's a time for doing awesome stuff, and a time for discipline and taking up one's daily cross and living the life of home. We're back.


Rob said...

I like this new travelogue direction for your blog. Where will you two be going next weekend?

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Oooh I love the Schuyler Sisters shirt.

I love reading all the details. Thanks for the awesome writeup.

So in Take a Break is Hamilton sitting in the balcony when Eliza calls for him to come downstairs? I don't know why my brain keeps wondering about that little bit of staging, but it's been nagging me for some reason.

bearing said...

I want to hear more about "Washington On Your Side." I adore the close harmonies of the male duet (there as in "Dear Theodosia") and I want a mental picture to go with it.

MrsDarwin said...

Rob: to DC, I wish!

Melanie: As Take a Break starts, Eliza and Philip are sitting at a spinet piano on the right side of the big turntable, which rotates during their lesson so that they end up on the left. Then Hamilton's desk is set on the right, so he's facing us while Eliza and Philip face upstage. Those are the two main areas, with Angelica up on the balcony most of the time, though she comes down to the bottom step while singing "The letter I received from you two weeks ago..." so that they're near each other, though she stays on the stairs. Hamilton is smiling to himself as he reads that part of her letter. So the "upstairs" is just his area of the stage, and both he and Eliza make a wide circle crossing to the other side or downstage to keep the "upstairs" and "downstairs" in perspective.

A staging note: Angelica and Eliza are often together when they're onstage, or on the same plane. They're never set against each other, which keeps the flirtation from being too icky.

Another balcony note: When Eliza and Philip are singing "Further down, further down" about Burr, they're up in the balcony reading a newspaper, and looking down the page for the rest of the article.

Erin: Washington on Your Side starts immediately after Cabinet Battle #2, of course, and it's just Burr and Jefferson on stage. This is the first time that Burr enters openly into partnership with Jefferson. Madison enters from the door Hamilton and Washington exited from on "Which I wrote!", shouting the line back offstage as if he was getting the last word in an argument. When Jefferson says, "I have to resign", both Madison and Burr are alarmed ("Somebody has to stand up...!"), but Madison sees where he's going ("You can't put it out from inside the house.") Daveed Diggs was having so much fun with "If Washington ain't going to listen to disciplined dissidents, this is the difference: this kid is out!" that the audience started cheering. With the whole "Oh!" section, they did have a few funny dance steps which I'd love to see again, and the dancers were joining in in the background.

I'd had a theory that Jefferson et. al. might be looking through papers to find dirt on Hamilton in this song and finally find something at "The emperor has no clothes", but actually, Jefferson is writing a resignation letter (on the back of a chorus member, I think?) and hands it over to be carried to Washington, who gets it and reads it at his desk which has been brought in. (The chorus does a lot of work moving things around in this show.)