“Hamilton,” the musical biography of both Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and the country he helped invent, is such a work. And as Disney Plus starts streaming a filmed version of the “Hamilton” stage show, the source of the work’s power is clear. “Hamilton” is a show for every moment because it’s about the uneven progress of personal and social change. You can watch “Hamilton” in exultation and in despair, or — now that a pandemic has put much of daily life on hold even as a movement against racism promises sweeping change — both.
“Hamilton” has already thrived through political whiplash. The first glimmer of the show was a song creator Lin-Manuel Miranda performed for the Obama family in 2009. When “Hamilton” premiered at the Public Theater in 2015, Miranda’s reimagining of the past rhymed with the present. He cast nonwhite actors as Founding Fathers and Mothers, at a time when the Obama administration had finally, hundreds of years later, made that inclusive vision real. And Miranda did so, as critic Soraya Nadia McDonald points out in the Undefeated, when the tea party movement was using Revolutionary imagery to try to discredit President Barack Obama and attack his agenda.
Then, after Donald Trump was elected president, the “Hamilton” applause line “Immigrants: We get the job done!” morphed into a defiant rallying cry, and the promise that its young revolutionary characters made to one another — “Tomorrow there’ll be more of us” — became a mantra for the long game. The sheer catchiness of “Hamilton” lyrics even overcame the show’s political valence: Arch-conservative John Bolton borrowed from it in titling his memoir “The Room Where It Happened.”
“Hamilton” is a show obsessed with time — making the most of it, having too little of it; the moments when change seems to come all at once, the eras when progress is far out of reach.
Hamilton himself, played by Miranda in the original production, represents the breakneck hurry to usher in a new world. He’s “young, scrappy and hungry,” works “nonstop” and argues his opponents into the ground. Hamilton making his case for a military command, blazing through drafts of the Federalist papers or dreaming up the Bank of the United States sounds a lot like the front lines of a protest at a crucial moment. Yes, there might be danger, but the possibility of exhilarating change is right there if you have the audacity to reach for it.
Not every moment is like that, though. Sometimes you win a revolutionary war or lose an election and have to reckon with what comes next, whether it’s the slower, more modest work of institution-building or years of playing defense. Part of the genius of “Hamilton” is that it offers audiences more than Hamilton’s frustration with these fallow periods: The show also presents alternatives to his haste.
Though Hamilton is the show’s main character, two of its greatest heroes are his wife, Eliza, and his surrogate father, George Washington. Both recognize, as Hamilton himself cannot, that no one person can bring a new country and a new way of governing into existence, and that no single lifetime will be long enough to witness the fulfillment of the American ideal. Rather than becoming frantic or despairing, they take the long view, accomplishing what they can and recognizing what they cannot.
Washington resigns after two terms because “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on / It outlives me when I’m gone.” And after Hamilton is killed in his duel with Aaron Burr, Eliza recognizes that “The Lord, in his kindness / He gives me what you always wanted / He gives me more time.” While even the five decades she is granted aren’t enough to fulfill all of Hamilton’s dreams, Eliza does all that she possibly can with them.
In our own fraught moment, all of us are hoping for more time and struggling with our inability to make the most of the days that have been allotted us. Again, “Hamilton” has wisdom to offer: an argument that what seem to be fallow periods can be time to heal and grow. In “It’s Quiet Uptown,” the Hamilton family retreats after a terrible tragedy. The once-unstoppable hero spends “hours in the garden / I walk alone to the store” and discovers that “it’s quiet uptown / I never liked the quiet before.”
The quiet won’t last forever, and however urgent the demands of the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation and the world, that vision won’t be recognized overnight. Change is going to come. And “Hamilton” will endure because it can teach us how to alternately seize the moment and savor it.