Seeing Hamilton reinforces what the Ancient Greeks knew about theater.
I knew every word of most of the songs, if not all of them. I knew all of the little inside references to other classics of musical theater and at least a fair number of the ones to the world of contemporary pop music. I knew the history, of course; I knew the story. But I wasn’t prepared for the effect that finally watching the staged version of Hamilton had on me.
I talked just last week about the way in which online offerings are not the same as seeing something in person, whether in a school classroom, or a concert, museum, or opera, so I knew that
my experience of Hamilton on a screen would be never be the same as sitting in a theater with an audience watching it live. That having been said, before I watched it on streaming, I had only listened to the original cast recording. I thought I knew all about it, all the ways it tells its story and makes its points. Turns out I was quite mistaken.
The experience of Hamilton is not only the music, even as revolutionary as a good bit of it is for Broadway. It’s not meant to be all about the music. But if you know it only that way, I realize now that you miss something just as important as the music.
All that having been said, the music is still central. I was talking with a friend of mine on Sunday and he had watched Hamilton the day before and his reaction was less enthusiastic than mine. For one thing, he said that he had a little bit of trouble following the story because he hadn’t realized coming in that Hamilton doesn’t have any dialogue. It’s all music. In this way it’s much more like an opera than a musical like, say, My Fair Lady, or Fiddler on the Roof. (So if you haven’t seen it yet, be advised that that’s what you’re going to experience. Don’t back off though.)
What struck me, what made it so powerful to see it for the first time was the experience of watching performers—who had done this live for months on end and who had interacted with each other countless times over the same material—breathe fresh life into something – a vivid quality that you don’t get when you listen to a studio recording over and over and over, no matter how much you like it. I saw the actors have reactions with each other while the music was going on, even while they were making it, and thereby saw the story with more depth. I saw them look at each other; I saw them frown or smile at each other; I saw subtle looks of affection, hatred, confusion, and jealousy pass between the characters on stage. It became a living human interaction that unfolded, not just a series of songs, as catchy as they are.
What you see when you see it on stage, as opposed to just listening to the music, is the humanity inherent in an unfolding story. You see just what the Greeks had known about theater 2500 years ago: art live has the power to show you the depth and the consequences of human emotion happening right in front of your eyes. Even if you’re singing along.