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‘Hamilton’ and the end of irony

September 21, 2015 The Washington Post



This show has been floating on a golden river of unstinting praise of the kind that some parents never even bestow on their children. It’s insane. When you are a young writer dreaming of your first review, even in your wildest fits of optimism, you never imagine notices so uniformly glowing as the ones Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” has received.

But I don’t think many people have noticed what makes it so zeitgeisty. The reason “Hamilton” is making such a big splash is not just because it is terrific (it is) — diverse, lyrically brilliant, dense, emotional, erudite, cool. It’s because it’s earnest.

Watching it and, now, listening to it, I am struck by its almost complete lack of irony.

No one steps out of it and winks. The one time Miranda (who wrote the show and stars as Hamilton) breaks character is to tell you a fun fact he learned from the historical record about one of Martha Washington’s tomcats. This musical has no chill.

Contrast it to other historical musicals, which tend to be either earnest and melodramatic, yes-we-know-we-look-silly-but-didn’t-you-come-here-to-weep? to the exclusion of all cool (“Les Miserables,” “Ragtime”) or utterly ironic, can’t-believe-it’s-a-musical (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”).

“Hamilton” is both cool and earnest. It’s the antidote to irony.

But it’s not just when viewed from outside that “Hamilton” is a paean to what happens when you stop worrying what people will think. This is also a theme of the show itself. (Spoiler alert? Can you spoil something based on 200-year-old history?) The character Hamilton himself is all exuberance, passion, dedication. He does not care about his image: He cares about his legacy. He has no time to worry about how he is being perceived — often disastrously so. The one time he stops to take stock of how he will look to others ends badly, in Weehawken.

Contrast Hamilton (as the musical frequently asks you to do) to Aaron Burr, the slinking Salieri-Javert who watches Hamilton ascend. Burr is all caution, all maintaining his image. Burr notices how he looks to people. Burr, if he lived today, would curate his Instagram carefully. His watchword is “wait for it.” “Talk less,” he tells Hamilton. “Smile more.”

“Don’t let them know what you’re against and what you’re for.”

This is Burr’s political instinct talking, too, but it’s also his life philosophy — a philosophy the show takes a stand against. You have to let people know what you’re for, or you will waste your whole life waiting for the right moment, the right lighting, the assurance you’re not going to look like an idiot: an assurance that, in most lives, never comes.

“How can anybody accomplish anything immortal,” the “great bad poet” Ogden Nash once wrote, “when they realize they look pretty funny doing it and have to stop to chortle?”

The answer, in “Hamilton,” is simple: You stop caring how you look. You do it.

“Hamilton” is cool because it, yes, looks cool and is cool, but it has wasted no time trying to act as if it does not care, and it (and we) are better for it.

Irony has held us in its stifling tendrils long enough. We’ve exhausted so much effort trying to look like we’re not making an effort.

If its creator were Generation Z (please, Lord, just a few more years before they take the culture from us!), I would say that it was the ultimate in Gen Z creativity. It’s not image-conscious. It’s genuinely passionate. And this is the source of its cool.

The only way to survive in the aftermath of the monoculture, when everyone is famous not for 15 minutes but to 15 people, is to be, earnestly and unmistakably, yourself. People now are constantly curating our own constellations of personal stars, never mind what MTV has to suggest. If you are 100 people’s ninth favorite thing, to borrow a phrase from another musical, you will not survive. The ones who make it are the ones who are nine people’s favorite thing.

Be yourself, in all your glorious weirdness, with all the risk of looking stupid that entails.

If you worry about looking stupid, you will never find your people. If you waste time not making the one thing you would die if you didn’t make, you will die all the same. Life is too short not to be yourself — especially if yourself is Alexander Hamilton. Yes, that sentiment is probably available as an awful driftwood plaque at Anthropologie, but that doesn’t make it less true.

We no longer have time or room or inclination for things we only somewhat like. The Internet exists. It has everything. There are not enough hours in the day to watch “Two and a Half Men.” We used to, before we were able to tell what people were reading and clicking and following, settle for a sort of tepid average innocuous art that might possibly appeal to lots of people but was no one’s cult. But only the cult classics survive now.

A musical is a perfect format to drive this revelation home. It’s a high-wire act: all suspension of disbelief that people are singing and dancing. You have to forget how silly it might look so that you can appreciate how cool it does look.

“There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth,” Cynthia Heimel wrote, in one of my favorite quotes ever. “So what the hell? Leap.”

“Hamilton leaps” — and lands. This is its genius.

It is unabashedly dorky. It’s not a “nerd” in quotes. In fact, it never wears air-quotes at all. It is a musical with a capital M, packed densely and lovingly with references — not because making a musical of a historical biography would be silly and ironic, but because that is the perfect format for telling this story.

This is new.

If the success of “Hamilton” signals anything, it is that irony is dead. We have exhausted its creative potential. Making things with quotation marks around them is exhausting. Standing at one remove is over. Put your air-quotes away. You won’t need them anymore.

In fact, put aside everything you ever did to look like you didn’t care. Look what you can make if you stop wasting that time. Look at “Hamilton.”

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