Grace on Broadway: The Power of Hamilton

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Grace on Broadway: The Power of <i>Hamilton</i>

Last night I did the unimaginable. I bought a ticket to Hamilton for $13 above face value. I understand if your first reaction is one of seething hatred. Leave the random Thursday miracles to kids with cancer and not magazine editors who’ve already had several lifetime’s worth of memorable encounters with art. If it makes you feel better, I missed the first two songs while I followed the strange gentleman who materialized holding business cards like they were tickets into a nearby building to complete the purchase after the curtain had been raised. I felt no little relief when the ticket scanner waved me through to my first-row balcony seat.

I’m a casual theater-goer who’s seen maybe 10 shows on Broadway in my lifetime, but my obsession with the soundtrack to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play is anything but casual. I’d initially dismissed the hype last year after listening to a few songs in the office while working and talking and not paying much attention. But I couldn’t ignore the growing chatter among friends who all of the sudden couldn’t be in the same room without steering every damned conversation back to a historical hip-hop musical—one they hadn’t even yet seen. Finally on a family road trip, I convinced my skeptical wife to give the album a listen. We thought our son was asleep in the back, but he’d woken up and was surprisingly engaged in the story. We got to our destination midway through the second act and they both made me start over on our way home.

That was in February, and a look at my Spotify history would show why I wake up each morning with a different Hamilton song stuck in my head. At least two of my three kids may be as obsessed as me, and my oldest daughter can rap all of “My Shot” with no accompaniment. The five of us are rarely this unanimous on a piece of music.

But there’s the soundtrack, and there’s the play. It set a record for Tony nominations this week with 16, and the biggest question is which featured actor will beat his castmates (my money is on Daveed Diggs, who is great on the album, but who simply takes over the stage in the second act with his physical manifestation of Thomas Jefferson). I’d come to know the music so well, I was almost caught off guard by the fact that I’d only been experiencing half of a whole. The songs that swell my emotions daily were doubly powerful on stage. It was funnier. Jonathan Groff was the only missing original cast member, but his replacement as King George, Rory O’Malley, brought so much more humor to the role than could possibly be translated to an audio file. And Phillipa Soo’s beatboxing during young Phillip Hamilton’s poetry recital is priceless.

It was also much sadder. There’s a single song missing from the soundtrack—a reprise of part of “The Story of Tonight,” which had my tear ducts on full alert. And Phillipa Soo’s scream of despair still haunts me this morning.

There’s one moment, though, which I loved on record but which became something wholly other on stage. At the end of “It’s Quiet Uptown,” Eliza, whose overwhelming grief can be directly pinned on her husband’s failings, takes Hamilton’s hand in her own without a word. “Forgiveness,” sings the chorus, like a choir of the heavenly host. It’s an act of grace in the most religious sense of that word, an undeserved pardon in the face of devastating failings. It has only one other equal in pop culture I can think of: the scene in another musical, Les Miserables, after Jean Valjean repays the kindness of Bishop Myriel by stealing his silver. When he’s caught, the bishop tells the police that the silver was a gift and hands the thief a pair of candlesticks as well.

The love behind both of those acts gets me every time. In Hamilton, it happens amidst “unimaginable” grief, and the audience needs to be rescued by Jefferson and Madison’s perfect response: “Can we get back to politics?” “Please?” But the moment lingers long after curtain call, and leaves me ruminating on a concept that’s at the heart of several world religions. In Christianity, it’s by grace that we have been saved from our own sin. In the Hindu devotional Yoga Vasistha, grace or kripa is the only means to escape the bondage of our own karma. In Islam, Abu Hurairah quotes the prophet Muhammed: “None amongst you can get into Paradise by virtue of his deeds alone … not even I, but that Allah should wrap me in his grace and mercy.”

But why should grace be the provenance of the Divine alone? We live in a culture that operates more on schadenfruede than any pervasive form of grace. Public shaming has made quite a comeback since the days of tar and feathers. But usually those most in need of grace are those closest to us. When friends or family make horrible mistakes, we can ask what it looks like to offer grace. There’s a difference, of course, between forgiveness and co-dependence or allowing abuse to continue. There are times when we need to look out for our own physical and emotional safety. But there are also times that we could be more generous with those who’ve failed us or failed themselves. Grace is unearned and undeserved and sometimes the best gift in the world. It’s a powerful theme for a Broadway play, and one that pervades Hamilton. Hamilton himself could be a vicious political rival, but the play instills a deep sympathy for even its “villain,” Aaron Burr. Lin-Manuel Miranda lays bare the flaws of many of our nation’s founders, but their stories are treated with dignity, especially the main character who was at the center of our nation’s first sex scandal.

Forgiveness. Can you imagine?

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