Blew Us All Away: April 22nd, 2018, St. Louis, MO

FOX

Nicole, our great friend Janet, and I journeyed to St. Louis’ Fabulous Fox Theater (our view pictured above) to take in the musical Hamilton. I’d gotten tickets for us in August–by a slim margin–and at times we’d forgotten, however temporarily, that we were even going.

We have a history with the Fox. Nicole and I had seen Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and The Strangers, and Tom Waits there; Nicole, her late mother Lynda, and I had seen The Book of Mormon there; and Nicole, Janet, and I had previously witnessed an incandescent Leonard Cohen show there (part of his first “comeback from financial disaster” tour). It’s a magnificent venue that you can stare at fruitfully for almost as long as you can the acts that play there.

We have a history with oblivious fellow showgoers. The closest I have come to getting into fights as an adult have been at “big shows.” I once challenged a blaring chatterbox to step outside during a sit-down Robert Cray show in the ’90s. I once almost had to back up my best friend when he threatened to kick the ass of a couple of obnoxious frat boys at a Chuck Berry show, same decade. In New Orleans recently, we once had an entire, intimate, mostly acoustic John Boutte performance blotted out by two morons discussing their cars while standing a foot in front of us. We have even had two-count-’em-two jazz performances nearly ruined for us by local school district brass who a) clearly had been comped their tickets; b) clearly didn’t give a shit about jazz; and c) thought they were the show (in the words of Albert Ayler: “They thought it was about them.”) We are asshole magnets.

I have a history with musicals. Across four decades, almost every student I’ve ever taught who’s been involved in theater has been a delightful student of English and citizen of the classroom. In return, I have treated them to my less-than-complimentary view of musical theater. I just don’t like it. The general view of humanity it traffics in is in great conflict with my own. Though I am very white, I am not a fan of whitebread, and there is considerable whitebread in this world. Indeed, I love music–that doesn’t need to be proved–but I like grit with my grease, and, though it may be through lack of deep exposure, I have found grit sorely lacking in the musicals I have forced myself to attend (usually to support my students). I will admit to enjoying Mary Poppins when I saw it in New York City as the New Amsterdam Theater, but I was mostly impressed by the theater technology that was in play, and I often found my mind wandering to the space’s past on 42nd Street. I deeply enjoyed The Book of Mormon, but nine-tenths of that enjoyment was the humor, and the other tenth the audacity of the show’s very existence.

Well, The Fox delivered the goods on this day. I’ll get to that in a minute, but suffice it to say that historical trend continues unabated. I/we sat next to a friendly older lady and her fellow older ladies who unfortunately proceeded to hum the tail end of most of the songs’ lines very loudly, cluck and sigh during “powerful moments,” take forever unwrapping snacks during the few hushed scenes (why must one EAT during a performance like this?), and engage in living-room-volume discussions with her cronies. We tolerated it during the first half of the show, Nicole, who’d been so friendly to her prior to its beginning, sitting next to her; I swapped seats with Nicole, and, at Janet’s urging and after one lady dove right in with the clatter three minutes into the second half’s resumption, I tersely said between gritted teeth, “Do you mind not talking during the show?” That fixed that; however, she was also marinated in a foul perfume, and I was distracted by the whole episode, so I took me awhile to regain my focus. Consider that history however coincidentally continued.

The musical? Well, obviously, I had good reason to believe that this musical would hold my attention. I’ve been retired from public school teaching for a bit, but I was talking to students about the potential of this production from the day I read about it–which was while I was still teaching public school. It’s been awhile, long enough for the furor to die down (somewhat), but I’ve not heard a jaundiced take on Hamilton yet. I’d also bought the recording of the show’s songs and listened to it in its entirety three absorbing and enjoyable times–that was enough, until I actually saw it, if I were ever able. So, again, I had very good reason to be thinking positively, but–it was a musical.

However–you do not need me to explain this to you–it wasn’t whitebread in the least (the closest it came was satirically, during King George’s songs–which had bite, too–and formally, during a few of Eliza Hamilton’s songs). It mostly vibrated with funk and rhythm and spine-straightening beats, and you probably already know Biggie and Mobb Deep get sampled (very meaningfully). The density of the lyrics (in their delivery and in their meaning) brought, ahem, Shakespeare to mind; they were challenging, and worth it, and probably what was forcing those older ladies into racket. And the worldview? Well, was it Varese or someone like that who said that pure pleasure was counterrevolutionary? I have always, in my darkest moments of thought, believed that, but Hamilton is as close as I have ever come to experiencing purely pleasurably art that could be argued to be pro-revolution. Yeah, maybe, if being forced to scope back to our beginnings from where we are now, consider the genius and flaws of this currently shaky experiment, and begin re-shaping it somehow can be called a kind of revolt. Maybe, maybe not. I was a little too stunned by the show to be thinking clearly.

Though the ensemble cast was very fine, Chris De’Sean Lee’s strutting, incorrigible, and scabrously brilliant Thomas Jefferson struck me as the standout performance; he was also delightful playing Lafayette in the first half. Lee was magnetic, exciting, unpredictable, and I’d love to see more of his work; in the Playbill, he “gives every bit of glory to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” but his inspiration seemed to be coming from darker, more mischievous places. I suppose 2018 is too late to be listing my favorite songs. I don’t follow the flow of Hamiltonology, so I don’t know if these are incredibly obvious choices are not, but I was thrilled to hear “Ten Duel Commandments Twice,” I loved the layers of “My Shot,” I admired the way the idea of “Wait for It” was threaded through the entirety of the musical, and who doesn’t want to in “The Room Where It Happens”? The soundtrack CD is in my truck for the coming week.

I also was surprised to connect very personally to Hamilton. The conflict between contemplation and action, between hanging back and jumping in, has been an urgent one all my life–maybe it is for everyone. Also, the persistent questions Hamilton faces about why he writes like there’s no tomorrow? I am of the opinion that of that we are not guaranteed, and though I am no genius polymath like Hamilton was, I approach each day in much the same way. Most important, Miranda’s view of Hamilton as being much less calculating than his fellow revolutionaries and operators was very attractive to me. I’ll need to read Chernow’s book to confirm that that matches his reality, but that’s also, for various reasons, how I’ve chosen to roll, for better or worse. I received a bit of validation from this work of art.

Thus, my mottled history with musicals (if you consider my fairly recent experience with The Book of Mormon) seems to be clearing up, if you will. Hamilton will be back to the Gateway City in 2019, and I might just pony up again. I might be back, and so well might you.

Short-shrift Division:

Of course, we listened to music on the way over to St. Louis and back.

Tracey Thorn: big surprise, that. “Sister,” it was.

Jinx Lennon: another big surprise, that. “Grow A Pair,” it was.

Laurie Anderson: her Hurricane Sandy record with Kronos Quartet, and an old chestnut!

Lou Reed: no surprise after Laurie, and anyway I was craving a taste of New York after Hamilton–this seemed a natural choice…

One thought on “Blew Us All Away: April 22nd, 2018, St. Louis, MO

  1. Your essay hits on so many commonalities with my own experience and thoughts that it seems unprofitable to a reader to begin my own comments. However, I feel that you always champion writing for writing’s sakes, something I haven’t begun to fill my quota with, so here goes. . ..

    One difference: I attended the performance at the Fox a week and a half ago, but with considerably more pre-exposure to it than you had. Some songs—what are there, 46 of them, I think—I have listened to over 100 times, others 50, none less than 20 times. (“My Shot” had made such an impression on me that I learned each word, could mimic every cadence, and had ideas in my head about what the actors would be doing during each stanza. I had seen video of Lin Miranda sing it standing in a line with the other players doing highlights of the play in front of the Obama team at the White House in March 2016, but I knew there had to be a lot going on during the actual scene).

    My daughter and I had very high expectations. It seems like a cliché, and it seems de riguer that I had bought season tickets this year for the main reason to reserve two very goods center seats for my daughter , 16, and me at Hamilton. I appreciate that my long -time girlfriend Kathy recognized that this is something I really wanted for the two of us “real” Hamil-philes and that it was nigh impossible to find an extra ticket for herself. Side note: I went into the season of 6 six shows with some wariness as to whether I would enjoy the other productions at least within at least a measure of the treasure of Hamilton. I have to say that Kathy and I did the enjoy the theatre experience almost to the full potential. Starting off with “The Bodyguard”–an empty plot but some solid songs and performances– to a revue of Gloria Estafan hits, to the reliable “King and I”, next to a wonderfully unexpected and uplifting “The Color Purple”, with only the “Book of Mormon” to come later this season, I was always happy to look up the music afterwards and hear it again for some nice re-pleasures. We were also big fans of the dancing in each of the shows, especially in the Estafan jukebox show. But, as I hope to describe, none of the dancing or sets, or flow could compare to the Hamilton production.

    All year, Hamilton included, we have dad very good luck with our experiences at the Fox, vis a vis those around us. I had an aisle seat, center section and up about 30 rows from the stage. Kathy is short and so had to contend with hair buns and articulating head bobbing some of the time, but I could usually see just fine. Beforehand, we always mill around the Fox for 30 minutes, taking in the various displays upstairs, ride the red padded and human-attended elevator, watch the organist for a minute or two etc. It’s disappointing that the Grand Center doesn’t have more going on before the production outside the theatre or across the street in the park, or even offer more than three restaurants nearby within walking distance. Those three restaurants are usually two crowded to entice us to take a chance on them and miss getting seated.

    Getting, finally, to the show. . . 46 songs, no other additional lines of dialogue, a couple actors playing duel rows, a live orchestra. I never caught anyone missing an original word or misplace an emphasis, or take a stutter step, or rotate at the wrong speed on the spinning turntable of a floor. I just don’t think I saw anything go wrong. And they had the audience just rapt the whole time. The dancing was hard and hip and swooshy and balanced on the edge of falling over. There were some blue lines and one–word lines that delivered some of the heartiest laughs from the audience, (“Fuuuu…ck” , “France”, “Damn”), a response rivaled by the hilarity that the expectation of fun a spiteful King George wrought.

    My daughter’s favorite scene was the Battle of Yorktown, because of how it was just an omnibus of action, dancing, conflict resolution (the War kind of conflict resolution, not the easiest kind!). I loved “My Shot”, smacking my head, duh, when I saw that it incorporated the drinking of some shots. Also–all the sliding, jumping off of tables, purple and green overcoats, every damn rap battle, every motif (“legacy” was another, “talk less, smile more: and “flying above your station” another) and especially the line that bordered on Emineminism– “if they ain’t going to listen to disciplined dissidents this is the difference, this kid is out!”. And I love that prodigiously useful spinning wheel on the floor that in turn catapulted people along or showed us both sides of shooting duel, or just managed to display every damn character posing in something physically demanding or impossible fashion.

    My daughter and I were grinning stupidly at each other after most every song. Then, too quickly, onto the next song and scene. The flow worked so well. I had never put together how one song just merrily punches right into scenery for the next song (Eg in the middle of “Aaron Burr, Sir”, there is much bravado and drinking, where Hamilton turns on Burr and tells him he needs to stand for something. “Who are you, who are you” the others ask the new guy, which compels seamlessly the rolling into the 6 minute sockdolager “My Shot.”

    Phil you spoke of the big themes, like being a counterrevolutionary, and how that resonated with you. I don’t have those same notions patently or subconsciously, but I do know that I love the style of the songs and the dancing and the idea of actors of different races playing luminaries in our history. I wouldn’t recognize a Mobb Deep song, but I’ve been told enough times now that the little piano riff in my favorite song, “My Shot” is a sample of it. If that’s true, then, I’m sure I could be a fan of that 90’s song should I ever hear it.

    One last thing about that song. The last verse, beginning with “I imagine death so much if feels more like a memory. . . “ it builds with the backbeat of a galloping horse or battle drum, that verse which brings in thoughts of mortality (“never thought I’d live past 20”), biblical movements like Moses and his followers, the relatively mundane straightening out the country’s finances, and passionately smashing existing notions, thinking long-term past misery and sacrifice —to me this is the core of the play all wrapped up in two minutes. Not that you’d want or need a song that acts as a precis though—you still need all those wonderful motifs, and rap battles, and the King gamboling about showering confessional pamphlets about.

    “Very inspiring” seems like an insipid summary of my viewpoint, but “Hamilton” was just that to me. Now, nowhere close to writing like I’m running out of time, I’m stopping nonetheless, as I fear this is all that a reader might indulge. Thank you Phil for your blog entry and your polymathic talents!

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