Dramaturgical Notes on “Hamilton”

I follow in the tradition of the great A.C. Bradley in presenting here some odd notes on Hamilton I thought up while watching the filmed version a couple of weeks ago. I have adored Hamilton since 2016 or so, and I got there by way of The Knack’s “My Sharona,” which has always been to me a timeless song, worth it, at the very least, for the clinic of a solo Berton Averre puts on. (Odd addendum: apparently Quincy Jones was inspired by this song to include a rock-and-roll song on Thriller, an inspiration which became “Beat It”. If you haven’t watched Quincy on Netflix, it is well worth your time.)

One day, I had the song going on Spotify and it finished, and the next song thought up by the engine to play for me was “My Shot,” off the Hamilton soundtrack. And it worked! I used to come home after going out and sit and listen to “Guns and Ships” or “Right Hand Man,” or the “Cabinet Battles”. Anyway, thoughts on a few items in Hamilton:

– So much of the action in the play is about events which did not occur. Instead, Miranda manages to make plot, and drama, and development out of the internal conflicts of the characters as they choose not to take actions. The most clear example of this is “Burn,” where Elizabeth Hamilton chooses not to publish her letters defending herself following the publication of the Reynolds Pamphlet.

Burn Lyrics - Phillipa Soo | Genius Lyrics
(A still from “Burn” from the filmed production of Hamilton.)

In fact, “We Know” comes from a similar place. It involves a meeting between Hamilton, now disgraced and out of power, and the Democratic-Republican triumvirate of Jefferson, Madison, and Burr over their accusations of the former’s improper financial transactions while Secretary of the Treasury. The outcome is that the trio won’t go public with their (inaccurate) accusations.

We Know | Hamilton Wiki | Fandom
(A still during “We Know” from the filmed production of Hamilton.)

“It’s Quiet Uptown” is not too far off from this mode, in that it concerns the Hamiltons’ retreat from public life, which, again, is a non-event. In the first act, the conceit of “Satisfied,” where Angelica Schuyler gets to imagine her romance with Alexander, is in keeping with this trend and is probably the part of the musical where it is most explicated. And lastly, “The Room Where It Happens” is a twist on this – it is about a very real event, the Compromise of 1790, but from the perspective of a character who wasn’t there. More on that song next.

– In the back half of “Room Where It Happens,” the musical’s most obvious showstopper (now famous enough to provide the title for the administration memoir of John Bolton), Hamilton appears to Burr mid-solo.

(A selection from “Room Where It Happens”. Source: Genius)

The whole song is off-kilter insofar as a “unity of place” is concerned, as there’s an earlier digression where Jefferson and Madison discuss their plans for the upcoming meeting. But when those asides occur, the characters do not interact with Burr, who acts as a kind of master of ceremonies, spotlighting them and spinning the camera back to himself to keep the action going. I’m sure this will sound as cliché as I think, but in this way, it’s sort of reminiscent of Rashomon, as we get to hear the event told by those who were there in different ways, but never see the truth of it ourselves.

Film Club: Rashomon and the Notion of Truth in Akira Kurosawa's ...
(Rashomon, 1950. Dir. Akira Kurosawa)

At any rate, when Hamilton appears, he and Burr get to interact and discuss Hamilton’s plans. Burr’s movements through the musical are worthy of more interrogation – in particular, the question of why he’s present for “Washington on Your Side,” is a good one, and I believe even briefly acknowledged in a double-take Daveed Diggs (as Jefferson) sneaks in before the song starts – but that he and Hamilton would begin speaking randomly following this pivotal meeting is at least curious. What’s more, they don’t do the exchange of greetings which is a motif of all the other times they meet and speak, as in “Right Hand Man,” “The Story of Tonight (Reprise)”, “Non-Stop,” “The Election of 1800,” and “Ten Duel Commandments.”

(A selection from “Ten Duel Commandments”. Source: Genius)

My conspiratorial interpretation of this elision is that Hamilton does not, in fact, speak to Burr here. Instead, what’s presented is Burr’s theorized recollections of what Hamilton would say in such a conversation. Burr dwells on Hamilton’s thoughts and words and deeds, most obviously in “Wait For It,” so that the action of the play would involve Burr projecting Hamilton before him to explain his choices is not too far beyond the pale. A Genius commenter with a similar theory also noted that Hamilton’s speech in this song is darker, more “fire and brimstone” indeed than in most other songs. What to make of this? Little, but it is fun to hazard a guess at.

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