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”.
7 thoughts on “Hamilton, Amadeus, and the Lie of the Individual”
Completely agree with the similarities you note. I was thinking the same as I watched Hamilton. Great piece.
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Good one! Although the rediscovery of Salieri won’t bring much joy to the world, he was a man only for his time in relation to Mozart who is a man for all times.
Hi!! Thanks for writing this – you’ve put down so many of my thoughts and with so much more nuance than I could have 😛 The filmed version came out two days ago and the similarity between Burr and Salieri really hit me when Hamilton gives Jefferson his endorsement. Right after that, in red lighting, Burr sings “I want to be a part of the room where it happens, the room where it happens.” That’s when I realised that Burr and Salieri essentially want the same thing – to be a part of history, and the ‘glory’ of it. But, you’re right of course, in that the musical Hamilton and Amadeus seek to do separate things – the latter is based entirely on the dichotomy between its main characters, which the former doesn’t care much for.
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Note that 2016 National Theatre (UK) production of Amadeus will be streamed on YouTube as part of the National Theatre at Home series Between July 16, 2020 and July 23, 2020. See https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/nt-at-home-amadeus
Oh, I’m so annoyed at missing out on watching that – how did I not spot it was on?
Thank you for a really interesting article!
So – many moons ago my school drama class studied “Amadeus”, and I’ve always loved it; I was lucky enough to be invited by a friend to see the London production of “Hamilton” last year.
Admittedly, it took me a while to pick up on the apparent similarities between the Salieri/Mozart and Burr/Hamilton character dynamics – a factor in this may have been related to the difference between studying and performing excerpts from a play in school versus going to the theatre with a friend who very kindly plied us both with a not-inconsiderable amount of booze.
The current pandemic situation has meant that I’ve had an awful lot of time stuck indoors, giving me a perfect excuse to listen to the “Hamilton” soundtrack and watch the Disney+ recording several times, and I’ve been thinking about this aspect a lot. Based on my reading, I know for certain that Lin-Manuel Miranda appears to be a huge fan of “Amadeus”, so it’s logical that the Salieri/Mozart dynamic influenced his writing (as probably did the Judas/Jesus dichotomy in “Jesus Christ Superstar”, but that’s another topic).
NB. I’m talking about the fictitious characters in the following, not the historical figures…
You definitely put your finger on the crux of the matter when you point out that both Mozart and Hamilton are driven by desperation, to which I’d add (if it’s OK) my view that a central tragic arc in both stories is that Salieri and Burr respectively are unable to see that this is the case. At the outset of both stories, Salieri has – in spite of his relatively humble background – risen to the rank of Imperial Court Composer, solidly backed by several powerful figures within the aristocracy, and Burr is not only the scion and heir to one of the most respected families in New York society, but he is also feted as the youngest man to graduate from Princeton. Neither man ever seems to realise that the objects of their resentment are compelled to give the best of themselves because they have little or nothing to fall back on; to lose everything would mean literally losing everything (Yes, Mozart had a relatively privileged background – but every aspect of his life was dictated by his father and the Archbishop of Salzburg).
One difference I find really interesting is that unlike Salieri, who seems to genuinely believe his talents are poor compared to those of Mozart, Burr is presented as being Hamilton’s intellectual equal; they were both considered prodigies – and with clear justification. It’s not lack of ability or potential which holds Burr back (as he sees it), rather the weight of his family legacy has compelled him to be conspicuously cautious in everything he says and does. When Burr volunteers himself as a candidate to be Washington’s aide, it’s likely that he really has studied tactics thoroughly and can make a real contribution – but he is dismissed in favour of Hamilton because the latter’s gamble in removing the cannons paid off. This obviously and understandably wounds Burr, but the other side of the coin is that Burr’s social status and skills mean that he does not need Washington’s patronage to attain rank and command, whereas Hamilton very much does.
I hope you’ll pardon me for disagreeing with one aspect of your piece – and it’s obviously subjective – the way I always read “Amadeus” was that during his lifetime, Mozart genuinely struggled to gain favour with the Emperor and his court, illustrated by the “Too many notes” scene and the Emperor yawning during “Figaro”. Salieri’s works are considered the more popular at the time and he certainly has more influence at court. His rage stems not from lack of recognition, rather his fury is directed at God for bestowing musical genius upon a profane man-child in spite of Salieri’s piety and diligence.
If it’s OK, I’ll also have to respectfully disagree with the Salieri/Eliza comparison – that said, it’s interesting and I’d have to think more… Again, it’s been a long time, but as I remember it Salieri’s motivation in claiming responsibility for Mozart’s death is a last-ditch attempt to gain infamy and a legacy in a way his music could not by becoming, as Burr does, “the villain in your story”.
The movie “Amadeus” differs from the original play in many ways – and I literally just had to dig out my old copy to check – but there is actually a close parallel between Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and Constanze Weber Mozart, in that they both become the fiercest champions of their late husbands’ works and legacies – and in doing so probably did at least as much to cement the legacies of Alexander Hamilton and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as the men themselves did – if not more.
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It is interesting to note that the two lived at nearly the exact same time in history.