The Ecstatic Experience: “Hamilton,” “Hair,” and “Oklahoma!”
By Laurie WinerJune 12, 2016
Photo by Bruce Glikas, © Broadway.com
IN THE MIDDLE of my growing up, in the suburbs of Baltimore during the waning years of the Vietnam War, a musical called Hair happened. Hair was as much a national fetish as Oklahoma! was before it and as Hamilton is today. All three shows produced rabid fans and absurd ticket shortages, and for strikingly similar reasons. Oklahoma! opened on Wednesday, March 31, 1943; one week later it was sold out for the next four years. No one had ever seen anything like it. Here is a sign that greeted patrons in the lobby of the St. James, the theater where one would go to see Oklahoma!:
Oklahoma! held up a mirror that Americans found both flattering and comforting. For lovers enduring separation, Curly and Laurey — a high-spirited cowboy and a sharp-tongued rancher’s daughter — were models of what they would and could be, as soon as they were together again. Later, composer Richard Rodgers pinpointed the show’s appeal, saying: “People said to themselves, in effect, ‘If this is what our country looked and sounded like at the turn of the century, perhaps once this war is over we can again return to this kind of buoyant, optimistic life.’” In the story of a territory becoming a state, Americans found a reminder of how much they loved the life they were fighting for. By depicting it so joyfully, the show summoned the best in the American spirit to help people through to the other side of the war.
Hamilton also summons our best impulses. As star, book writer, composer, and lyricist of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has been allotted almost an alarming share of the creative gene pool. Judging from the annotated lyrics in the book Hamilton: The Revolution, he is also a superb critic. You’d have to go back to George M. Cohan to find his predecessor in the theater, and perhaps not even there.
It is an understatement to say that Miranda addresses race and social justice in a way that puts people at ease. The show is an ecstatic experience, and the cast recording has become something of an obsession among fans; Miranda said that so many audience members know the show by heart that “sometimes the front row is like a bunch of human teleprompters.”
This feeling of wanting to marry a recording — the original cast album, a product invented in response to Oklahoma! madness — is for some young people a new sensation, but we old hands recognize it. During the falling-in-love period, the score takes up so much room in our emotional hardware that we cannot stray far from thoughts of it. After exploring favorite parts, we begin to hear new things. Songs or passages that had escaped us unlock their treasures, which turn out to be as necessary to the whole as the rest. The experience is larger than loving a pop album — cast recordings contain whole worlds, oceans of story, thought, and character as big and as deep as a novel (or opera, but with better narratives). Nothing beats the high of story and melody combined, thanks to the shortcuts music takes to the fathomless depths, or is it heights, of perception.
The world may not have been a more dangerous place circa 1968, but it certainly felt that way, even in Pikesville, a largely safe, virtually all Jewish suburb in Baltimore. Life in our modest shingled house (including the requisite basement with stereo system and collection of original cast albums) was probably not much different from middle-class households all over the country. Every single day came to a close with black-and-white footage from overseas, TV news reports that I watched either with my mother or my friends, most of whom had, as I did, an older brother or brothers with draft numbers. No amount of Laugh-In or Johnny Carson could erase our constant anxiety, compounded closer to home by curfews and inner-city upheaval. On the radio, the dreaded words “national guard” told us that downtown, where my father had a men’s clothing store, was also a kind of war zone.
My overwhelming memory from the TV news of the time is of terrified Vietnamese villagers, elderly farmers weeping while American servicemen torch their huts, barefooted children running and looking wildly for safety. We watched aghast because we clearly saw the humanity of the people we were fighting. We saw, no matter what the president was telling us about the deepening shadow of Communist China, that war was obscene and wrong and, even more than that, we couldn’t help but think, avoidable. We watched with a special revulsion because the next day could bring news that someone we loved would be shipped off to those very scenes, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. Parents then seemed not at all intent on keeping the horror of the world from their children as they do today. Every girl in my class wore a silver bracelet with the name of a POW engraved on it and the date he went MIA.
My brother Tommy was determined that he would not go to war. He had a plan to get a discharge for being mentally unfit. I guess he preferred that to jail or Canada, and he may have had a romantic attachment to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. My father, in the merchant marine in World War II, could only see how Tommy’s choice might wreck his future, if he was to have one, and the two of them were almost at each other’s throats. From my room I heard the yelling downstairs. My usually gentle brother brought his fist down so hard that he cracked the heavy glass top of the kitchen table. I never saw that much anger and passion in the house before or since. The table was replaced with a formica one.
Hair, for me, will be forever linked with my understanding that the war was related to the two social revolutions shaking even my little world at Pikesville Junior High: sex and drugs. Forced to confront the possibility of their own televised demise, teenagers became prematurely obsessed with the meaning of life and were busy squeezing years of rumination into a moment the size of a tab of acid.
You can hear the difference listening to the original cast recording of Hair beside that of Diane Paulus’s spirited 2009 Broadway revival. Paulus’s singers are technically superior to anyone in the 1968 production. They enhance the melodies with guttural moans and decorative Whitney Houston–like frills, adornments meant to help audiences feel the pain of the characters’ situations. No such help was necessary in 1968; the original recording is remarkably free of decoration.
While Hair’s score (by composer Galt MacDermot) will not be mistaken for authentic rock (and neither will Hamilton be mistaken for N.W.A), it has beauty and some unearthly harmonies that seem to graze the very cosmos for meaning. The Hair lyrics, written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, though, are among the most awkward and childish ever featured in a hit of this magnitude. This stanza, which describes what the coming age of Aquarius might bring, crowds jarringly inelegant syllables into too-short melodic lines:
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation
Not to mention that the idea sounds like something from a pamphlet picked up in Sunshine Rainflower’s head shop. In fact “Aquarius” was an international hit, a Grammy winner, and the number-two song of 1969, according to Billboard. But such is the power of Hair that it bestows meaning even on its most banal components. For instance a lyric from “Good Morning Starshine”:
Gliddy gloop gloopy
Nibby nobby nooby
La la la lo lo
only underscores the fact that the near-children we were sending to war were unprepared for killing or dying, and that their need for senseless pleasure was a completely reasonable one. Director Tom O’Horgan said he saw Hair as an opportunity to create “a theater form whose demeanor, language, clothing, dance, and even its name accurately reflect a social epoch in full explosion.” Consider what the show — that is to say, the antiwar movement — was up against: a ruling majority inculcated in the necessity of armed combat after having won the granddaddy of justifiable conflagrations, World War II. For them, to question the necessity of the Vietnam War was to tug at threads that threatened to unravel the entire fabric of society.
The only way to counter such a staunch belief in war — and give perspective to the ungodly amount of bodily devastation we saw on TV and that was considered in the musical itself — was to view the situation from a great height, a vantage point going all the way up to the stars. Hair opens up there, famously starting with:
When the moon is in the seventh house
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
It turns out that the moon is in the seventh house once a day and Jupiter is frequently aligned with Mars, but no matter. The song takes you where you need to be to get clarity on the mess below. As Hair nears its end, it once again rockets you skyward, with “Walking In Space,” a drug-fueled epiphany about existence in which the young cast arrives at the Ur-question of war protest:
All the clouds are cumuloft
Walking in space
Oh my God your skin is soft
I love your face
How dare they try to end this beauty?
How dare they try to end this beauty?
In its time, Hair seemed to offer a path out of an impossible situation. “Walking In Space” ends with another statement profound enough to sustain a double-double repetition:
Our eyes are open; our eyes are open.
Our eyes are open; our eyes are open.
In effect, Hair said, the old way of thinking no longer works; we envision — and demand — another way of living.
Hamilton says precisely the same to its eager young audience members, the ones who line up eight hours ahead of curtain for the chance of snagging a canceled ticket. I asked two 19-year-old friends, one white, one African American, why they were waiting so long. “Genius,” said the black kid. “History,” said the white.
Hamilton is obviously concerned with the past, both in terms of its literal story and also the history of musical theater and hip hop (the score is studded with homage to Hammerstein, W. S. Gilbert, Alan Jay Lerner, Alain Boublil, as well as to Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., DMX, and Kendrick Lamar and many others). But its secret elixir is borrowed from Hair and Oklahoma! — the audience senses immediately, before any narrative begins, that the show they are watching is about themselves at this moment in time. Miranda’s idea to cast the Founding Fathers as mixed-race, African-American, and Latino men is brilliant, in retrospect a simple and obvious concept that forges a link between past and present. That link is cemented of course by Miranda’s facility for hip-hop rhythms and rhymes, for songs in which the words come fast and powerful, blowing away the thick dust of history.
At 36, Miranda comes from a generation of writers unwilling to contemplate American identity minus the economic and moral calculus of the Native American genocide, slavery, and global imperialism. Let us remember that Oklahoma! — set in Indian Territory — features zero Native Americans. The two enmities acknowledged in that show are a comic one between the cowman and the farmer and a deadly serious one between a damaged man who feels alienated from the American dream and everyone around him (a theme that Hammerstein’s protégé Stephen Sondheim took up some 50 years later in Assassins). Hammerstein in fact was a leading progressive of the 20th century, writing about race and nationalism in, most notably, Show Boat (1927), South Pacific (1949), and The King and I (1951), works groundbreaking in their time and still moving, though many — not just African Americans and Thai Americans — might take issue with certain aspects of those shows today.
Though preceded by decades of what we used to call nontraditional casting (most of which now feels like throat clearing), Hamilton seems something bold and new, as did Oklahoma! in 1943. Oklahoma!’s uncluttered opening — an old woman churning butter and a lone cowboy singing a cappella while strolling along in a contemplative and optimistic mood — was so low key it was startling. “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” seemed to sweep away not only wartime dread but decades of sensation-overload and narrative nonsense that had largely been the Broadway musical.
No one was expecting this show with no stars to succeed. Its producer the Theatre Guild struggled to find investors and even to get audiences in the seats for that first performance. True, Richard Rodgers had been a favorite son of theater and a popular song writer for almost two decades, but his new partner Hammerstein was coming off a dozen laborious years in which he had been unable to produce work of any consequence. Oklahoma! was a herald — of the end of Hammerstein’s slump, of a people refinding their optimism, and of the musical establishing a central place in the emotional life of the country (a place it relinquished in the early 1960s and resumed maybe when Hamilton happened). The investor class was wary of it it, but once the show opened, with the words “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’,” it flew right into the hearts of the audience.
Also like Hamilton, Oklahoma! expresses ideas about what constitutes the American character, about what goes into the making of a successful person, someone who accomplishes things and creates goodwill. Curly, the lone cowboy, is a person who wakes up and seeks out beauty. He is funny, kind, and generous, tough when he needs to be, and he knows how to enjoy himself. He is alive and open to the world. Jud, his nemesis, is a bitter farmhand who tends to stay by himself in his lonely room. Convinced he’s not getting his share for some reason that has nothing to do with his own behavior, he nurses a murderous almost free-floating rage. Jud is inherently undemocratic, obsessed with what others think — in his dream of what life should look like, he imagines that “I’m better than that smart aleck cowhand / who thinks he is better than me.”
Likewise, Miranda’s Hamilton lives more fully than his frenemy Aaron Burr. Hamilton says what he thinks; Burr prefers that no one know him. Hamilton feels and acts on his passion; Burr keeps his passions private where they fester. After suffering several major political setbacks and seeing Hamilton endorse Thomas Jefferson instead of him as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1800, Burr demands satisfaction from Hamilton. He decides Hamilton is the cause of his troubles. Hamilton is killed, but Burr destroys his own life.
Like that first song in Oklahoma!, Hamilton’s opening is a wake-up call to its audience. How does Miranda inject urgency into a number that carries so much expositional weight about the protagonist’s Dickensian childhood that it should sink like a rock? Why does the audience feel collectively, 10 seconds in, that it will die unless it immediately hears the story of this person from the 18th century it dimly remembers from history class? By all the rules of narrative, this number should not be blindingly compelling and raise the hairs on the skin of every person in the theater, including the ushers (I asked a few) who have seen it hundreds of times.
Miranda starts the show with a question that seizes both sides of the audience, the young ones finding their way and the older ones who consider themselves keepers of culture:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
A hero and a scholar — in the show’s fourth line, Hamilton unites the middle class’s reverence for education with the rapper’s need for peacocking and wordplay. In this confluence of values lies the show’s master stroke — the idea that mad word skills, whether inspired by Thomas Paine or Busta Rhymes, are not only a way to express oneself but are a path to actual power.
Miranda tranforms political debate into deliriously witty and riveting rap battles. His hero always wins them. When Jefferson opposes the establishment of a national bank, asking why the prosperous (slaveholding) commonwealth of Virginia should assume the debts of other states, Hamilton responds:
A civics lesson from a slaver? Hey, neighbor
Your debts are paid cause you don’t pay for labor.
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.”
Yeah, keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting.
Hamilton sees literacy as a means of survival. His reaction when, as a young orphan, his cousin and only caretaker commits suicide, is to start “retreatin’ and readin’ every treatise on the shelf.” Late in life and looking back, he says:
I wrote my way out of hell
I wrote my way to revolution […]
And in the face of ignorance and resistance,
I wrote financial systems into existence.
And when my prayers to God were met with indifference
I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance.
Like the character played by Eminem in Curtis Hanson’s film 8 Mile (2002), Miranda’s Hamilton demolishes his foes with verbal brilliance; literacy is the tool he uses to pull himself out of an untenable life. Miranda’s song “My Shot” is close in form and function to 8 Mile’s “Lose Yourself” (in which Eminem raps, “You only get one shot / do not miss your chance to blow …”).
But where “Lose Yourself” is about an individual triumph, “My Shot” is about a country’s. Late in the song when the melody breaks open, Miranda connects Hamilton’s personal ambition to the universal human need for justice:
When you’re living on your knees
You rise up.
Tell your brother that he’s
Gotta rise up.
Tell your sister that she’s
Gotta rise up.
When are these colonies
Gonna rise up?
“My Shot” is the rare call for rising up that alienates virtually no one. No wonder so many politicians have flocked to the show. Hillary Clinton tweeted a quote from it, something Hamilton says of his opponents: “They have no plan; they just hate mine.” President Obama, who took his daughters to see it, gave the song “One Last Time” a nod during his final State of the Union address. He also said that loving Hamilton may be the only thing he and Dick Cheney have ever agreed on. Michelle Obama called the show “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my entire life.”
Our hero, as the lyrics remind us many times, is not only poor and an orphan but also an immigrant, from the Caribbean. Coming unconnected, from outside the colonies, Hamilton’s ambition and his perspicacity are unusually sharp, and he is as easy to identity with as Nicholas Nickleby. He has seen a lot of death, from poverty and disease. And it’s not hard to imagine how a young man of color, having watched the fates of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, will hear this lyric:
I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory
When’s it gonna get me?
In my sleep? Seven feet ahead of me?
If I see it comin’, do I run or do I let it be?
Is it like a beat without a melody?
See, I never thought I’d live past twenty
Where I come from some get half as many
Hamilton speaks directly to our transitional moment — that is, the transition from a white majority to a world where “minorities” are no longer that, where they no longer have to suffer everyday indignities and where they demand the same kind of safety and opportunity that white people take for granted. Hamilton regards this transition as exciting and invigorating, as full of possibility as was the founding of our country.
Miranda operates in two time zones — balancing a contemporary aesthetic with a respect for the sensibility of Hamilton’s day. One of the best things to come of this balance is the character of Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law. While Angelica’s public behavior, vis-à-vis her dialogue, remains proper, in line with the manners of her time, she reveals her radiant inner life, one completely recognizable to girls in leggings, in a song called “Satisfied,” in which Miranda gives us full access to her quick brain and searing emotions. He employs the musicalized monologue the way Shakespeare used cross-dressing to free Viola in Twelfth Night.
Hamilton is not a rags-to-riches story; it’s a rags-to-substance story, and a show that marries the values of what has been considered an underclass with those of the traditional theater-going audience. It speaks directly to the young in the audience, the ones who feel that the country’s future is in their hands and will be defined by what is in their souls. And Miranda reveals to them what is in their souls, the stuff they sense but maybe haven’t yet fully articulated — the feeling that the status quo is unsustainable and the future intolerable unless they act to protect the marginalized — recent immigrants, refugees from violence, the poor. This vision of a better world, so close to our grasp and yet always slipping away, is the same dream that seizes so many coming generations in so many countries in so many epochs.
What kind of impact does art such as Hamilton have, beyond the ecstatic experience? The example of Hair does not necessarily bode well. Since Vietnam we have lived through invasions of Panama, Grenada, and Libya, interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Pakistan, and elsewhere, two Iraq wars, and one in Afghanistan — it seems like the only thing that the antiwar movement taught us is how to keep war an abstraction, at least for families with no deployed loved ones. Ending the draft in 1973 was the best thing to happen to perpetual war since the invention of borders.
Nevertheless, Hair, Hamilton, and Oklahoma! offer ecstatic experiences despite, or perhaps because of, deep and fundamental conflicts in their stories and characters. That is the essential alchemy of musical theater, and it is a reason why musicals can be agents of social change. No essay, no treatise, no satire can alter brain chemistry in the way that this kind of musical theater experience does. As Oscar Hammerstein might say, believing in, or being transported to another world, is the first step to realizing that new world.
“Raise a glass to the four of us,” Hamilton and his three best buds sing, “tomorrow there’ll be more of us.” On that line, the actors look directly at the audience, and no one can miss their meaning.
Laurie Winer is at work on a book about Oscar Hammerstein II for Yale University Press.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Heidi Kim looks back on "Flower Drum Song" and Hollywood's brief foray in casting Asian American actors to play Asian American characters.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!