So you didn’t get tickets to the great behemoth from Broadway…or you have to wait five or six months to use your tickets? If you’re a theater fan, take advantage of all the great shows that have recently opened on stages large and small. I’ve been having a great time checking out the new productions. Here are my favorites so far.
The Last Wife at Timeline Theatre
This is the story of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr. Wait, don’t check her Wikipedia page yet. The new Timeline production will give you some insights, both fact and fantasy, into her life as a feminist before her time. Kate was a woman of intellect and strength who carried out a sort of “school for queens” in Henry’s household. She was grooming his two daughters, Mary and Bess, for their ascensions to the throne. That’s right. Bloody Mary and the Virgin Queen.
The play by Kate Hennig, a Canadian theater artist and playwright, premiered last year at Stratford, Ontario, and this is its first US production. It’s a very good production indeed with fine acting and a crisp, smart script, plus modern dress and decidedly modern language. The Last Wife runs into December. Here’s my review.
Man in the Ring at Court Theatre
Don’t avoid this play because you think it’s about boxing and you hate boxing. Well, yes, it is about boxing but so much more. It’s about one moment that changed the life of the great Emile Griffith, a talented hat designer, entertainer, bisexual and an impressive fighter. You won’t see any punches in this play. Charles Newell’s direction, plus stage design and lighting, reimagine the fight scenes. Body percussion is used very cleverly to simulate fights and create tension. But brain damage and “dementia pugilistica” are part of the story.
Man in the Ring is a moving, even haunting journey through the life of one man, played as his older self by Allen Gilmore, one of Chicago’s finest actors, and as the young fighter by Kamal Angelo Bolden.
The play has a very short run for some reason. It just opened last weekend and closes October 16. Check out my review and then call the box office.
Life Sucks at Lookingglass Theatre
Yes, this is another reinterpretation of Uncle Vanya. It’s getting so Chekhov is reimagined almost as often as Shakespeare (and the Russian’s oeuvre is much smaller, so how far can this go?). This is Aaron Posner’s retelling of the Uncle Vanya story in modern dress and language, set at someone’s country home somewhere east of here. If you saw Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird at Sideshow Theatre last year, you will immediately want to see this too. Bird was a retelling of The Seagull and it was delightfully smart and funny (my 2015 review). Life Sucks (an accurate summary of any Chekhov play) is warmer and sweeter but equally delightful.
My review describes the play like this.
Life Sucks is Posner’s sort-of adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, that often-performed masterpiece in which members of the rural bourgeoisie loll about, falling in love with the wrong people and longing to change their miserable lives. What is the play about? Love, longing and loss, as the characters tell us in their prologue. The basic elements of the human condition.
The Lookingglass production and staging are excellent and the performances are terrific, especially those by Chicago favorites such as Philip R. Smith, Barbara Robertson plus Eddie Jemison, Penelope Walker and Chaon Cross. The play runs thru November 6.
True West at Shattered Globe Theatre
Sam Shepard is one of my favorite playwrights and Steppenwolf Theatre has staged some masterful productions of his work, including their seminal production of True West, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. I remember that production vividly so I went into this performance with some trepidation. But Shattered Globe does an excellent job in staging this violent and vivid play and almost grabs the Shepard dynamite. Lee is the older, bolder, meaner brother and Austin is the quieter writer — and then both brothers change.
The story of two brothers of course reminded me of my own two sons. There’s a different dynamic in a family, I think, when there are more than two brothers. So my review begins this way.
Anyone who had rowdy brothers or raised a pair of sons will feel a chill of recognition at some point during Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of True West, Sam Shepard’s classic play of brotherly rivalry.
The duality of emotion lies in wait in every aspect of our tense two hours with brothers Lee (Joseph Wiens) and Austin (Kevin Viol). They compete and collaborate, love and hate, drink and work, reminisce and prevaricate.
True West runs until October 22 at Theater Wit on Belmont.
This essay was adapted from one of my readings at Kill Your Darlings, our live lit and improv series. This was from the night celebrated as Art (one of the cultural categories on thirdcoastreview.com).
How do you define art? This question has always plagued me.
I know what art is. It’s a visual representation of life or some emotion or some experience. Not exactly tangible. That’s why it’s hard to define art.
There are dictionary definitions. “Something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or expresses important ideas or feelings.“ But that’s crazy because art doesn’t have to be beautiful.
Then there are people who think only they can define art. The know-nothings who say, “That’s not art” or “My kid could have done that with his crayons (or clay)” about any piece of art that isn’t representational. Or that they don’t understand.
If a sculpture isn’t a man on a horse, then it’s not art.
If a painting isn’t fruit on a table, or people dressed up and posing, then it’s not art.
Public art is very often the object of this opinion: That’s not art.
When our Picasso was unveiled in Daley Center in 1967, it was met with jokes, nicknames and worse. And this was before the internet. The late columnist Mike Royko said people could see
“it was nothing but a big, homely metal thing. Some soaring lines, yes. Interesting design, I’m sure. But the fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like a giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect. It has eyes that are pitiless, cold, mean.
“But why not? Everybody said it had the spirit of Chicago.
“Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone, the police scandals, the settlers who took the Indians but good. Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible.”
Royko concludes this way. “It is all there in that Picasso thing. The I Will spirit of Chicago. The I will get you before you will get me spirit.”
People insisted on knowing that the Picasso looked like something. Anything. A woman. A dog. Something real. Don’t show me that abstract crap.
Now we love it, however. You can believe the Picasso will be wearing a Cubs cap soon – if the Cubs get into the World Series.
There have been similar reactions to other abstract public art.
There was “Tilted Arc,” the Richard Serra sculpture on the Federal Plaza in New York.
The sculpture was a massive arc of steel that bisected the plaza. Serra attributed meaning to it in the context of the government agencies and workers in that public building. People hated it. They hated the way it looked. They hated the way it slashed through the plaza and made them detour around it on their way to their offices.
I had a similar artistic experience last weekend when I was visiting Greensboro, North Carolina.
There’s a new piece of public art in a new downtown city park. It’s called “Where We Met” by Janet Echelman. It’s made of net and wire and is meant to honor the local textile industry and its workers and the networks of roads and rails that supported the industry for the many years it thrived.
While I was hanging around taking photos and watching my grandsons play, I heard people’s comments. “Huh? Why is that art?” “It’s just a bunch of net. The city paid a million bucks for that?”
And so it goes. The Picasso survives and thrives. The Serra was the subject of such controversy that it was removed from the plaza, despite the artist’s objections. We’ll see how the Echelman survives in Greensboro.
Yasmina Reza wrote a play that sums up the whole question. It’s titled, appropriately, “Art.” It’s about three friends. Serge buys a very expensive painting by a fashionable artist and invites Marc and Yvan over to see it. It’s a large canvas, painted completely white with white diagonal lines.
The friends’ reactions—laughter, anger, sarcasm—affect their relationships with each other. It ends up (spoiler alert) with Serge offering Marc a bright blue marker and inviting him to draw on the “canvas.” Marc draws a blue diagonal and then a little skier with a woolly hat. In the final scene, the two of them are carefully cleaning the painting.
An old friend of mine used to say, “Art is what the artist says it is.” And I believe he’s right.
If I define myself as an artist, then what I create is art. If I pile garbage in the middle of a gallery, it’s an installation. And there’s a label on it that says it’s art. If I smear the garbage on a canvas, it’s a painting. It’s art because I’m an artist and I say it’s art. And when I’m well known, people will pay big money for that painting. Because I’m an artist and I say it’s art.
And that’s the best answer to my question: What is art?
Kill Your Darlings, a traditional piece of writing advice*, is the title of the live lit series I’m participating in, along with other Third Coast Review colleagues and a crew of other writers and performers. We’re having a great time with it – and it’s consuming a huge amount of my time.
Kill Your Darlings: A Live Lit/Improv Mashup is the full title and we’re performing for the next six Wednesday nights at ComedySportz Theater on Belmont. We have writers and actors who read their own stories, plus improv players and sometimes live music. Each night has a theme based on one of our website’s cultural categories. And we’ll have a celebrity guest reader each week.
Kill Your Darlings: A Live Lit/Improv Mashup
7pm Wednesday, August 10, is Food Night
Csz Theater, 929 W. Belmont
Hear me read a story about potato pancakes
and my Jewish/non-Jewish heritage
I hope you’ll come out and see us this Wednesday and any Wednesday thru September 14. For each night, I’m writing a new personal story (something like a blog essay), baring my soul in some cases, editing, refining, rehearsing and refining it. I mention this as sort of an explanation why I haven’t been writing for Nancy Bishop’s Journal very much lately.
(Of course, I’m still editor in chief and theater critic for Third Coast Review. Check out my recent reviews on the Stages page. I’ve recently reviewed War Paint; Between Riverside and Crazy; Byhalia, Mississippi; Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys; and Einstein’s Gift. I also enjoyed interviewing and writing a feature on Ron Keaton, the actor who starred in Churchill and, along with Kurt Johns, has formed a new theater company, SoloChicago.)
* What does “kill your darlings” mean? Slate magazine tried to track down the original source a few years ago when a film of the same title came out about Allen Ginsberg as a young writer. Basically, the advice means “get rid of your most precious and especially self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your literary work.”
So the idea for this live-lit series is that we each resurrect various darlings we’ve killed in the past and turn them into new, sharply written stories. And a few of mine actually do include or were inspired by something I wrote in the past but never published.
Here are the stories I’ll be telling for the next six weeks. Opening night was last Wednesday and I told the story about my film addiction and my favorite film directors, focusing on Guy Maddin, the Canadian film director who made films you never heard of. The Darlings, our improv team, performed along with me. I was on a DVD and they paused me now and then to comment on my “lecture.”
- August 10. The theme is Food. My story is “Potato Pancakes—and Why They’re Not Latkes.” Monica Eng, the WBEZ food editor, will be guest reader.
- August 17, Music Night. My story is “How I Became a Bruce Springsteen Fan and How It Governs My Life.” My friend, June Sawyers, who has written a couple of dozen books on pop music topics, will be the guest reader.
- August 24. The theme is Stages and I’m curating the night. The concept will be how social media and the comment community are affecting theater reviews. My story will be about the uproar around the Steppenwolf for Young Adults play, This Is Modern Art, which I reviewed last year with my 17-year-old grandson. Kerry Reid, theater critic for the Tribune, will be the guest reader.
- August 31. The theme is Beyond, beyond now, beginnings and endings. My story for this night is about my divorcee love life — it includes a long poem. My son Steve will accompany me with an improvised solo on the tenor saxophone. The guest reader will be Ian Belknap of the Write Club.
- September 7 is Art night. I haven’t decided what I’m going to write for this night yet. I may even skip the reading, but of course I’ll attend.
- September 14 is Lit night and appropriately, it will be set in a Chicago saloon. NU prof Bill Savage, the guest reader, will critique our readings in real time. My story is about my obsession with the Spanish Civil War.
Perhaps life will get back to normal after that. Although I’m not sure what my normal is any more.
If you’ve been following my blog, you might have noticed that I’m not posting as frequently as in the past, when I was pretty reliable about posting an essay once a week. My new job as editor and publisher of Third Coast Review is taking up more of my time than I thought it would. That’s not a complaint–because it’s fun and it’s gratifying to see our site grow with so many terrific writers contributing. I’m writing theater reviews there, of course, as well as spending time on editing and admin duties. In addition, we have great articles under Music, Food, Lit, Art and Screens. To pick just a few:
We review 826Chi’s new children’s book, The Monster Gasped, OMG!
How chicken wings changed Julia’s life and made her decide to be a chef.
Caravan Palace at the House of Blues: It’s a blend of swing, gypsy jazz and electronic music.
Whether I’m reviewing or not, I’m an inveterate theatergoer. I’ve seen several good shows recently and I wanted to let you know about them so you can catch them too.
Constellations at Steppenwolf Theatre thru July 3
This is a beautifully written and performed play, a love story about an unlikely pair of lovers. Nick Payne’s Constellations is told in bits and pieces, brief scenes that roll out, double back and repeat themselves, sometimes in the same information and the same language, sometimes not. It shows the power of memory and miscommunication in our relationships. It’s a very nonlinear story that gels into a sweet and poignant story. To make it even more interesting, one of the pair is a theoretical physicist and the other a beekeeper. So some of the dialogue detours into discussions of time, atoms and space, and the lives of bees. The play runs 80 minutes. Check out my review.
Spinning by Irish Theatre thru July 3
Deirdre Kinahan’s play Spinning at Irish Theatre Company is the story of how one man grasped for happiness, had it and lost it but finds it difficult to understand how or why his actions were involved. Dan Waller, a fine Chicago actor, plays this role in a compelling fashion, along with three women in his life (four actually, but his child does not appear on stage). My review comments that the struggles of single parenthood and the dread of losing a child are what cause the worlds of Conor (Waller) and Susan (Jodi Kingsley) to spin out of control. The play runs 75 minutes at the Den Theatre.
Both of these productions are the currently fashionable under-90-minute variety and are staged with minimal scenic designs and no props.
Hauptmann at City Lit Theater thru July 10
Bruno Richard Hauptmann tells his own story with a supporting cast of six actors playing multiple parts in Hauptmann at City Lit Theater in Edgewater. It’s the other “trial of the century” (the first one being the Leopold-Loeb trial in Chicago in the 1920s). An excellent production, it’s the 30th anniversary staging of this play by John Logan, which originated in the same location and was directed by the same director. My review says “Although you know the outcome of the play before it starts, director Terry McCabe creates a tense and engrossing version of the story of the man who may have been executed for a crime he did not commit. Hauptmann, a German immigrant, was almost certainly denied a fair trial in 1930s America, between two wars against Germany.” Hauptmann runs thru July 10 and I recommend it.
Tapped, a Treasonous Musical Comedy by Forth Story Productions thru July 3
I rarely see a play that’s really bad and that’s mostly because I screen out the ones I suspect will be amateurish. I often see great theater at our huge array of storefront theaters–often as good or better than what you can see at the big Equity houses. With that as a preface, I’ll have to say that Tapped was bad. Amateurish, yes; clichéd and stereotyped, yes; and way too long, yes! To be fair, there are some funny lines, an occasional clever song and at least one great dancer. But all in all, it’s a play that should never have been staged at Theater Wit. I wanted biting political satire on our surveillance society and I got this. My review.
Haymarket, the Anarchist’s Songbook at Underscore Theatre
This was a terrific production (and I hope it’s remounted) drawn from Chicago history with original music performed by talented actor/musicians. It tells the story leading up to the Haymarket riot when Chicago working men and women rallied to call for an eight-hour workday and better working conditions at Haymarket Square at Desplaines and Randolph streets. I’m sorry to say that the play, staged at the new Edge Theatre in Edgewater, closed last weekend. My review.
It’s finally spring and it’s only May. We still have plenty of theater openings and I’m reviewing some films too. Here are a few of the current storefront stage offerings, providing perspectives on historical events. They’re all interesting for various reasons, even when they’re not four-star productions.
A Splintered Soul by Arla Productions at Stage 773 thru May 29
This is the emotional story of Polish Holocaust survivors in 1947 San Francisco. They were able to survive the death camps by doing what was necessary and now live with survivors’ guilt and other traumas. The play revolves around a rabbi, who was a freedom fighter in Poland, and now meets with survivors to help them deal with their memories and to persuade the local Jewish community that those memories should not be forgotten. The rabbi is forcefully played by Craig Spidle, a veteran Chicago actor. This play is beautifully staged, with fine directing and acting. It’s two-plus hours of good theater, except the script really goes too far in trying to include some bizarre and unlikely events. My review makes clear that the production wasn’t able to overcome the flaws in the plotline.
The House of Blue Leaves at Raven Theatre thru June 18
John Guare’s play about Pope Paul VI’s 1965 visit to New York is a sweet, sometimes silly, and ultimately tragic play. It’s a fine production by the always reliable Raven Theatre. The plot revolves around Artie Shaughnessy, a would-be singer-songwriter who works at the Bronx Zoo but has grand ambitions. The rest of the cast includes his depressed wife, his ditsy girlfriend, three nuns, a movie star, a movie producer and plenty of funny and explosive moments. My review says, “the circle of friends and family surrounding Artie immerses him in a series of ever more ridiculous events. Joann Montemurro’s skillful direction manages to keep the action credible, the accents believable, and the doom unpredictable.”
The Lion in Winter by Promethean Theatre Ensemble at the Athenaeum thru May 22
Promethean’s minimalist production of the James Goldman play about Henry II, his three sons, and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, may sound familiar. It’s best known as the 1968 film starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn as the royal pair. The dialogue is lively and witty and the plot hits contemporary notes, as well as reminding us of the Shakespearean dilemma where a king must divide up his property among three siblings. A fine production by a small theater company. My review.
How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients at Trap Door Theatre
This play by Matei Visniec is a great example of Trap Door’s serious and slyly bizarre productions that pick at the nonsensical scabs of politics and contemporary thought. The staging makes use of colorful, angular perspectives and highly physical performances to make this a delightful 75 minutes of theater. Set in 1953 before Stalin’s death, the famous writer Yuri Petrovski (who always is called by his full name, as in Russian literature) arrives at a mental hospital with the goal of using his stories to educate the mental patients about the glories of Communism. The story is played out in a ses\ries of scenarios that fall far short of being a linear storyline. No matter; you’re seeing a brilliant critique of Communism by a Romanian dissident who has lived most of his life as political refugee in France. The play closed April 30.
Bloody Haymarket at the Irish American Heritage Center thru May 28
Bloody Haymarket is a new production that portrays the dramatic events of May 1886, when speakers at a May Day rally in Haymarket Square demanded an eight-hour day and an end to the concentration of wealth in a few hands. A bomb went off during the rally and eight policemen were killed. Eight of the speakers were arrested and four of them were executed by hanging. The issues, of course, resonate today. The production dramatizes the participants, their stories, trial and public reaction with a cast of 21. I recommend this to you if you’re particularly interested in the Haymarket history, but I can’t recommend the quality of the production. Performances are on Saturday nights thru May 28.
For more info, listen to Third Coast Rewind, the first of our new podcast series, featuring interviews with the actors and creative team for Bloody Haymarket.
These days I’m doing most of my writing over at Third Coast Review. Check out our new site if you haven’t been there lately and sign up for our weekly newsletter (in the lefthand column) or the new-post feed (below the Events column on the right). We have lots of good content on the Chicago arts and culture scene. Even though I’m spending a lot of time as editor and publisher of Third Coast Review, I intend to maintain Nancy Bishop’s Journal as my personal blog, so forgive my occasional delays in posting. Today I want to tell you about some terrific theater that’s going on in Chicago right now–and a few that I want to remember.
Arcadia at Writers Theatre thru May 1
Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece of conversation and complexity about chaos theory, Fermat’s Last Theorem and English gardens. The play is an excellent choice for Writers to open their new theater venue in Glencoe, designed by Studio Gang Architects. My review comments: “Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play that tracks characters from two eras, sometimes in the same scene at the same time, is a complex play interlaced with many intellectual games. The story, not a linear narrative, involves the clash between the rational and the romantic in art and science, as well as in life. Also important is the design of gardens, specifically the gardens of Sidley Park, the country house in Derbyshire, where the play is set.”
The new theater is stunning on the outside but disappointingly bland inside. That may change as more funds are spent on its completion. The main theater space is much larger than the previous venue and has excellent sightlines. But there was one problem. Several people I’ve talked to who attended the opening or another performance complained, as I did, about acoustics. When actors were performing with their backs to us, it was often difficult to hear them. It’s not clear whether this is a problem with the actors, which the director can address, or the acoustics of the venue itself.
The Life of Galileo at Remy Bumppo Theatre thru May 1
Another intellectual tour de force, Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo is set in the past but foretells the contemporary debates over faith and science. Shawn Douglass, who plays Galileo, my review notes, “convinces us he is a real man of pluses and minuses, not a cardboard historical figure. We live with him through the wrenching changes in his life, through his delight at making discoveries and teaching about them, his conflicts with the church about the Ptolemaic vs. Copernican views of the universe; and his miseries as an underpaid teacher. Most painfully, we watch him recant his beliefs in scientific truth so that he can continue his work, even though circumscribed by the edicts of the church. (He was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to house arrest.)”
It’s beautifully acted, staged and directed, I highly recommend this Remy Bumppo production.
Mary Page Marlowe at Steppenwolf Theatre thru May 29
This new play by Tracy Letts explores the life of one sort-of ordinary woman by showing scenes from her life played by six different actors. Letts’ concept is based on the fact that each of us sees ourselves as different people throughout our lives. My review is not quite finished but I’ll add a link here when it’s posted over at thirdcoastreview.com.
Updated 4/20: My review of Mary Page Marlowe is live now. My summary is not as positive as most others. I gave it a “somewhat recommended” on theatreinchicago.com. The play is well written with smart dialogue; many of the 11 scenes are successful. But the parts don’t add up to a gesamtkunstwerk, as my German-born art history professor used to say. It’s not a coherent, successful total work of art. It’s still worth seeing, however, because a Tracy Letts play is always worth seeing. I still can’t help it wonder if it would have worked better with a single actor playing the adult versions of MPM. If you see it, tell me what you think..
New Country by Fair Trade Productions at The Den Theatre thru May 14
Not a classic theater masterpiece, but a helluva lot of fun, this fast-paced comedy shows us a few hours in the life of a famous country music star and his retinue. To quote my review: “The play is set in a Nashville hotel room on the night of the bachelor party for country music star Justin (played by Michael Monroe Goodman, a musician-actor who starred in the Johnny Cash musical, Ring of Fire, and in Million Dollar Quartet). Justin is young, successful and arrogant and he doesn’t hesitate to let his managers know who’s boss. His beloved pig-farmer Uncle Jim arrives to join the celebration, full of country jokes, and accompanied by his blow-up sex toy, Wanda June.” You dan see whe this is going.
Blood Wedding at Lookingglass Theatre thru April 24
Director Daniel Ostling’s staging of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play has a few good performances but overall the production does not capture the mood that I think Lorca intended. This is partly because, as my review notes, “The original setting for Lorca’s script is rural Spain and his characters include mysterious figures such as the Moon and Death. Ostling’s decision to set his production in the more-realistic Depression-era U.S. diminishes the mythic nature of Lorca’s story. The subdued presentation, quite different from Lookingglass’ usual physical dramas, does not redeem it.” Nevertheless, this play is not often produced, so if you like Lorca’s writing, you still have a weekend to catch this show.
Gone, but not forgotten:
Long Day’s Journey Into Night at Court Theatre
Eugene O’Neill wrote this sad and beautiful drama, modeled after his own family drama, in the 1940s but it was not published or produced until after his death in 1953. My review commented: “If O’Neill is the master of dysfunctional family plays, then Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the masterpiece of the genre. Recognized as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, the play won the Tony for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1957.” The Court production was beautifully acted and staged. Mary Beth Fisher and Harris Yulin played Mr. and Mrs. Tyrone. If you attended, your 3.5 hours was well spent theater time.
In a Little World of Our Own by Irish Theatre
The Gary Mitchell script is a political thriller, a day and night in the life of a Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The play is set in the late 1990s, just before the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, when an uneasy peace reigned in Belfast. Behind the family drama of three brothers is the political story of the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) fighters against the advocates of nonviolence. Matthew Isler gave an outstanding performance as a UDA hard man, always ready for a fight.
A Loss of Roses at Raven Theatre
William Inge’s play is not as sensually exciting as Picnic or as emotionally riveting as Come Back, Little Sheba, but the playwright does have a way of writing about solitary female characters. Raven’s production was well acted and directed, a quiet story of small town America in the 1930s, as my review said.
All photos courtesy of the respective theater companies.
Huge sigh of relief. I finally finished the 800+ page biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It’s the book that Lin-Manuel Miranda took on a beach vacation to Mexico. It inspired him, first of all, to write a song about our first Treasury secretary and perform it at the White House, and second, to create the Broadway extravaganza known as Hamilton: An American Musical.
In my original review of Hamilton, I predicted that Miranda would be named a MacArthur Fellow (better known as the MacArthur Genius Grant) and he was. Predicting that Hamilton will sweep the Tonys in June isn’t a very big bet.
I saw Hamilton when it opened on Broadway last September and fell madly in love with the show, with Miranda and with our ten-dollar Founding Father. Evidence of my madness?
- I’ve been listening to the cast album almost daily since it was released. I’m waiting impatiently for the script to be released.
- I’m looking forward to seeing Hamilton again, surely more than once, when it opens here in September. (At the dreadful Shubert/LaSalleBank/BankofAmerica/Private Bank Theatre.)
- I find myself hoarding $10 bills.
- I don’t want to hear about replacing A. Hamilton on the tenner. Replace that unsavory president Jackson on the $20 with a deserving female figure.
- His birthday and death date are six months apart on the 11th of January and July. They’re both in my calendar.
I have a pretty good background in American history and political science, but when I saw and thought more about Hamilton, I realized that I had been living with the Jeffersonian concept of American government. Journalism students (Mizzou J-School grad here) are educated to admire Jefferson in particular because of his views of the importance of press freedom and freedom of expression, and his role in drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I knew he owned slaves and I knew about the Sally Hemings thing, etc., but never mind. Reading the Hamilton/Federalist Party side of the story, you learn that Jefferson was a vicious opponent of Hamilton’s goals and fought for the agrarian way of life he preferred rather than the urban/mercantilist/manifacturing society that Hamilton fought for. (As an aside, Daveed Diggs is terrific as Jefferson in the Broadway cast.)
Reading Alexander Hamilton gave me a different perspective on American history and the founding decades of our country. Ron Chernow’s book, by the way, is highly readable and fascinating. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have read every last word and even devoured the 100 pages of notes. And Miranda’s hiphop operetta does not skimp on the details of Hamilton’s life, his brilliance and his foibles, and the controversies surrounding him. It is a full and complete lesson in American history, delivered with charm and infectious rhythm. The thing about hiphop that makes it work, Miranda says, is that it’s very dense, has more words per measure than most other forms of music. (Sort of Dylan and early Springsteen.)
Here are a few reasons why I’m a fangirl of A-dot-Hamilton.
- Hamilton is the avatar of the cliché known as the American dream; he rose from poverty and orphanhood to become an accomplished and powerful leader. Unlike most of the other Founding Fathers, he did not come from the moneyed, landed class.
He was born on a small island in the Caribbean, of unmarried parents, an absent father and a mother of questionable virtue. He came to the US as a teenager and made his way through college (Kings College, now Columbia University), to George Washington’s staff, to leadership on the battlefield in the Revolutionary War, and to Washington’s cabinet.
2. He produced all kinds of firsts in the early era of this country (despite opposition at every step of the way).
He was the first Secretary of the Treasury, stabilized the economy, designed our financial system, including the National Bank, the gold-based dollar, and the Mint; he established the principle that Congress had the constitutional powers to issue currency, regulate interstate commerce, tax luxury goods such as whiskey, and enact any other laws needed to support the provisions of the Constitution.
Basically, he fought for the concept and principles of the federal government. He created the Coast Guard, the Federalist Party and its newspaper, the New York Post. He used his incredible energy and persuasive abilities to work for the passage of the US Constitution, ensuring our country became a federal government, instead of a bunch of independent states. He was firm in his abolitionist views while his southern colleagues all owned slaves.
3. He was a brilliant thinker, speaker, opinionated and prolific writer, who turned out hundreds of letters, opinion pieces and essays and wrote 51 of the 85 articles in the Federalist Papers. And he was writing by hand with a quill pen and a bottle of ink, my friends. In case you think tapping a few tweets on your smartphone is work.
He often wrote political essays under pen names such as Cato, Publius and Phocion. He was probably the first blogger. (His handle today? @publiusny.)
He founded the New York Post, a Federalist newspaper, in the days when political parties specialized in publishing diatribes against the opposition in their own newspapers.
- Jefferson and Madison and their Republican party fought Hamilton and the Federalists at every step and President Adams banished him from the White House because he suspected him of conspiring with some of Adams’ cabinet officers. (He probably was.)
Chernow’s description of the bitterly fought election of 1800, by the way, is insightful to read and compare with the 2016 campaign. And they didn’t even have Twitter.
By the time Hamilton reached his late 40s, he was no longer a public persona (and he missed the limelight) but was a successful and sought-after lawyer in New York.
He had always had a tenuous relationship with Aaron Burr (who advised him, according to Miranda, to “speak less and smile more”), even though they occasionally appeared to be on friendly terms. Hamilton said negative things about Burr in private on a few occasions and these eventually brought Burr to challenge him to a duel. (An affair of honor, it was called. “Demanding satisfaction” was another way to put it.)
Hamilton, at age 49, was killed by Burr in the duel on July 11, 1804, in the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey. (The same place where Hamilton’s son Philip was killed in a duel three years earlier, upholding his father’s honor.) Burr shot directly at Hamilton and Hamilton either shot in the air or his gun went off by accident when Burr’s bullet hit Hamilton in the hip, destroying his internal organs.
“I’m not throwing away my shot,” Hamilton sings early in Act 1. “But yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / and I’m not throwing away my shot.” At the end, he did.
I’m not the only one who is bingeing on Hamilton. There’s new interest in historical sites such as the Grange, the Hamilton home north of Manhattan, and in the Hamilton burial site at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan.
Charlie Rose has featured members of the Hamilton crew several times, including this recent full-hour interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda filmed at his childhood home.
Finally, since March is Women’s History Month, I’ll close by noting that Hamilton’s exemplary wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, who stuck with him through all his battles and infidelities, lived 50 years after her husband’s death and died at age 97 in 1854. She worked for causes such as the establishment of orphanages and helped her friend Dolley Madison raise funds to construct the Washington Monument. She visited the White House and never gave up trying to salvage her husband’s reputation, which was attacked by his enemies after his death. Chernow devotes the first and last chapters of his book to Eliza Hamilton.
In 2009, Miranda performed the lead song about Hamilton at the White House. He said at the time he was working on a Hamilton “concept album.”