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Posts Tagged ‘Broadway’

hamilton book mug

Last week, on my way to the kitchen at work, I passed by a colleague’s office and heard – or thought I heard – a familiar snippet of music. When I walked back by a few minutes later, I stuck my head in the door. “Is that Hamilton?”

My colleague looked up with a grin. “I cannot stop listening to this musical,” he confessed.

I laughed, and made a confession of my own: I downloaded the soundtrack at the end of May. And I can’t stop listening either.

If you’re a Broadway fan – or a hip-hop fan, a Twitter user, or someone who pays attention to trends in pop culture – you don’t need me to tell you about Hamilton, the smash musical about the life of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton that has taken the world by storm. If you (somehow) haven’t heard about it by now, I am both amazed (how?) and here to tell you: it is incredible.

My friend Valerie, she of the impeccable taste in TV shows (and the person responsible for introducing me to Harry Potter), raved about Hamilton when she saw it in New York last summer. I’d heard about it all over the Internet, especially since the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a prolific and highly entertaining Twitter user, and since I have a lot of friends who share my love of Broadway musicals. But I’m not really a hip-hop fan – or I didn’t think I was – and so I shrugged off the show’s popularity for a while, thinking it wasn’t for me.

As you may have guessed, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’ve been living with Hamilton for three months now, and I mean that literally: I have memorized nearly the entire first act and significant chunks of the second. The songs run through my head from the time I wake up in the morning until I go to bed at night. I listened to it for hours walking around NYC last weekend, and I entered (and lost) the lottery to see the show three times. My consolation prize was the small but fascinating Hamilton exhibit at the New York Public Library.

hamilton exhibit nypl

I’ve spent days listening to the whole cast album and also replaying three- and four-song sets over and over again, marveling at the multiple layers of history, politics, love and ambition that intertwine to form the show’s narrative. My ear has become attuned to the vocal nuances of Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Christopher Jackson, Renée Elise Goldsberry and the rest of the original Broadway cast, who perform on the album. I watched the TV broadcast of the Tonys just so I could see the cast perform live. (I cried.) And I am ridiculously proud that I can rap (almost) as fast as Daveed Diggs, who spits rapid-fire lyrics as the Marquis de Lafayette. (“I never pegged you for a rapper,” my husband said recently. Trust me: I didn’t either.)

Hamilton has generated a lot of ink (online and off) about its origins, its racially diverse cast, its mind-blowingly complex marriage of musical forms, its unflinchingly honest take on the story of a nation that continues to struggle with its own complicated history. My friend Alissa Wilkinson wrote a fantastic piece for Books & Culture about the show, and there are hundreds of other articles out there. I’ve struggled, myself, to explain what keeps me coming back to it – and the answer, like the show, has multiple layers.

Like any great narrative, Hamilton contains multitudes: love, ambition, honor, jealousy, revenge, the bloody founding of a nation and its messy first few years of self-governance. But it’s also a wonderfully particular human story. Miranda’s lyrics bring Hamilton, George Washington, Aaron Burr, the Schuyler sisters and other characters to vivid, precise, colorful life.

Instead of marble busts or engraved portraits on our currency, these are people: flawed, hopeful, impulsive, gloriously brave. They fall in love; they wrestle their own demons (and fight with each other, sometimes fatally). They aim to give their children a better life than the one they had. They grapple with big ideas: independence, friendship, legacy. They do their best to build something that will outlive them. They are towering historical figures, and they are also us. Their story, especially for Americans, is ours.

During these crazy, turbulent months of job changes and moving, I’ve had Hamilton in my earbuds and in my head almost constantly. I haven’t been this obsessed with a musical since I fell in love with Les Misérables back in high school. In addition to asking important questions and sparking much-needed conversations, this show tells a damn good story. And it is so much fun.

Have you listened to Hamilton? (Or read the book about the show, above?) I’m always up for geeking out with fellow Hamilfans.

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buddha book stack

I’ve been running hither and yon this month: starting a new job, packing up my apartment, hopping down to Texas for a quick visit with my family. Here, the books that are keeping me (moderately) sane:

I Shot the Buddha, Colin Cotterill
Dr. Siri Paiboun, retired coroner of Laos, and his wife, Madam Daeng, stumble onto a mystery when their friend Noo, a Buddhist monk, disappears. A slightly wacky mystery with quirky, entertaining characters and occasional paranormal elements, set in 1970s Laos (a brand-new location for me). To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 2).

The Atomic Weight of Love, Elizabeth J. Church
Meridian Wallace, an aspiring ornithologist, moves to Los Alamos, N.M., with her scientist husband as he works on a top-secret government project (the atomic bomb). Over several decades, Meri wrestles with her own choices and the realities of womanhood and marriage, while observing a certain group of crows in a nearby canyon. Church’s writing is gorgeous and I loved Meri’s narrative voice. Beautiful.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
This book needs no introduction from me; I’m late to the game here, but very glad I finally read it. Coates writes a searing indictment of the way black people have been treated in this country since its inception, in the form of a letter to his son. Powerful and thought-provoking.

To Catch a Cheat, Varian Johnson
The gang from The Great Greene Heist is back, and this time they’re on a mission to stop a blackmail plot. A smart, funny middle-grade novel with highly entertaining characters (and pretty believable teenage bickering). Like Ocean’s 12 for teens, with lots of computer hacking.

Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
Hamilton has taken the country by storm – count me among its legions of fans. The “Hamiltome” combines the show’s complete libretto with stunning color photos and richly layered essays about Hamilton’s origins, its cast and crew, and the conversations it is sparking. A treat from start to finish.

Finding Audrey, Sophie Kinsella
Audrey is struggling with serious anxiety after a bullying incident at school. With the help of her therapist, her wacky family and her brother’s friend Linus, she gradually finds her way out of the dark. Sweet, poignant and often hilarious (Audrey’s mom is particularly funny). My sister loves Kinsella, but this – her first YA novel – is the only one of her books I’ve read. Recommended by Anne.

Ashes of Fiery Weather, Kathleen Donohoe
The O’Reilly men have been firefighters in Brooklyn for decades – which means the O’Reilly women know a thing or two about grief and sacrifice. A sweeping family saga, told from the perspectives of seven different women, moving back and forth in time. Well written and powerful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 30).

The Book of Lost and Found, Lucy Foley
I picked up this novel (Foley’s debut) after loving her second book, The Invitation. This story follows Kate, the daughter of an orphaned ballerina, and her quest to discover more about her mother’s history. Foley weaves together art, love, war and self-sacrifice. Beautifully told (and now I want to go to Corsica, where the book is partly set).

Outrun the Moon, Stacey Lee
Mercy Wong isn’t like most girls in Chinatown: her “bossy cheeks” mark her as a woman of action. She talks her way into an exclusive boarding school, hoping to gain important business connections. But the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 changes everything. A fast-paced story with an engaging heroine and wonderful supporting characters (I loved Mercy’s friend Francesca). I also enjoyed Lee’s debut, Under a Painted Sky.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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We saw The Fantasticks on our trip to NYC in early October. It’s one of the longest-running shows around, but I’d never seen it and wasn’t familiar with the music. After seeing it, though, I bought the soundtrack, and have been humming “Try to Remember,” the theme song, ever since.

Image from Wikipedia

The Fantasticks is a small-scale show, with a cast of eight (and one of the roles is a mute). The “set” is a curtain, plus a cardboard circle that serves as sun and moon, and a trunk to conceal two traveling bums/actors who pop up when needed. On one level, the story is simply a charming take on the star-crossed young lovers trope. (There’s a wall between their houses, but it turns out their fathers put it up to encourage them to fall in love. Reverse psychology!)

The plot includes a staged abduction (which allows the young “Romeo” to be a hero), several arguments, and plenty of bumbling fun from the traveling actors. The narrator, El Gallo, as wickedly handsome and wryly humorous as Captain Jack Sparrow, spends half his time addressing the audience and half his time acting as chief bandit/architect of the love story.

Part of me is tempted to dismiss The Fantasticks as merely a frothy, whimsical, sparkling piece of musical theatre. There’s a lot of exaggeration and then lampooning of musical-theatre stereotypes (the young lovers, in particular, are so wide-eyed they’re a bit annoying). The dads are highly amusing, with their sly wit and irritable tempers. There’s only a little “real” violence, and all’s well that ends well. Simple, right?

Not quite. The plot’s deeper meaning has nothing at all to do with falling in love, or reverse psychology, or the questionable morality of staging your daughter’s fake abduction. It hides in plain sight, and it only comes to light near the end, when the narrator explains why he pulled the puppet strings to separate the young lovers for a while:

There is a curious paradox that no one can explain:
Who understands the secret of the reaping of the grain?
Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain,
or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?

I do not know the answer; I merely know it’s true.
I hurt them for that reason, and myself a little bit too.

El Gallo would never admit it, but he’s a little sad to end up alone, as he has been the whole time. He’s a romantic but lonely figure, riding off into the sunset. However, he’s stumbled on a bit of wisdom, which reappears in the final song and takes on a new gravity after the lines above: “without a hurt, the heart is hollow.”

While I don’t believe in a narrator (or anyone else) pulling my strings like a puppet, I do believe this: sorrow can deepen us, make us into better, braver and more compassionate people. When I was a college student grieving the loss of a friend who had died suddenly in a car crash, one of my professors put it this way: sorrow digs a well inside us.

The young lovers, before their struggle, were sweet but shallow: they needed the separation to make them appreciate one another, and to draw on their own reserves of courage and strength. (After they’re reunited, El Gallo urges the fathers not to take down the wall. One set of obstacles is gone, but others will remain.)

The Fantasticks isn’t a morality tale, and it would be dangerous to view it as a blueprint for life. But these lines about grief and love have lodged in my heart, and I think the show needs this bittersweet reminder. There must always be some darkness to balance the light, a bit of grief to balance out the joy – even in the world of musical fantasy, where anything can happen.

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