It’s happened, Internet.
I knew I couldn’t escape it forever. And this weekend, having an unusual amount of free time, I broke down.
And bought the Hamilton Cast Recording.
Why have I waited so long, you ask? This is post-viral, post-Tony’s, post-any reasonable amount of time to catch up on the cultural phenomenon that is “Hamilton.” And that’s exactly the problem, of course–when something is so big and so loved, I worry that if I don’t like it either something’s wrong with me or with all of culture and neither of those are worth the angst so let’s just put it off.
But, I am relieved to admit, I quite liked it.
And somewhere in my fourth listen-through, as I danced and sang and cried, it occurred to me that “Hamilton” has some thematic similarities to another favorite cultural institution of mine: the 1984 movie “Amadeus”.
Genius, and its bystander. Raw ambition and its consequences. Frenzied creative output against the march of time, culminating in an early death.
And obviously, fantastic music.
One idea I want to explore is what smarter people than I have termed “the lie of the individual”. By this I don’t mean an exploration of free will and the subsequent realization that we are all slaves to biology, sociology, etc.
No, rather I mean that both stories explore the idea of individual genius, whether or not it’s deserved, and how it inter-plays with the ensemble.
Both Hamilton and Mozart are portrayed as high achievers with broad-reaching, desperate needs for things to go their way. Take on state debt. Write an opera in German. They both push their agendas on people high above their social station, barely comprehending the consequences of the waves they are making until it is too late.
Both Aaron Burr and Salieri narrate their respective stories as the good man looking up the great one–not ‘good’ in the moral sense, as they are both, arguably, murderers, but rather in reference to competence. Burr is a decent politician, Hamilton is a great one. Selieri is a decent composer, Mozart is the historical archetype of genius.
Now, as much as I loved “Hamilton”, I would argue that the Salieri/Mozart relationship is better explored than the Burr/Hamilton relationship, but it comes at a price. Every step along the way in “Amadeus” we see the knife twist in Salieri, every new composition, favor from the crown, and, finally, note on the page deepening his helpless, disbelieving rage. What we gain in focusing on the duet between the men, we lose in understanding Mozart’s impressions on the other people in his life. Sure, there’s his wife, but she’s only in a few scenes and no one else beyond her speaks to Salieri, our narrator and story-frame, about the complicated, troubled man-child who is Mozart.
“Hamilton” lacks this intimate protagonist/antagonist relationship for one simple reason: it gives stage time to more characters. Eliza, Angelica, Washington, and more revolve around Hamilton, showing the fallout of his schemes and dealings on a wider scale. While great compositions can come from one person–as in Mozart’s case–great nation-building can’t, and the necessity of the narrative drives the play to focus more on the ensemble.
Now the fact of the matter, which I think “Hamilton” underscores more effectively, is that, as Donne says, no man is an island, and people don’t spring full-formed into the world. For all of his frenzied reading and writing, Hamilton wouldn’t have gotten to his heights if Washington hadn’t taken a chance on him. Mozart wouldn’t have gotten the fame and recognition if not for his father and the King showing interest in his work and development.”Hamilton” as a work is better suited to asking questions about individuality and success, being the “American Musical” that it is, but Amadeus also asks us question the value of a short, meteoric life for a longer (hopefully less guilt-wracked), modest life. In this, I’m tempted to compare Salieri more to Eliza than Burr–both long out-live our protagonists, both accomplish great, if less flashy things in their lives, and both slip more quietly into the annals of history, to be later rediscovered thanks to those who lived like matches–burning out hot and fast.
Am I nuts? Either way, go watch “Amadeus” and listen to “Hamilton”.