by Amanda Higgin
Xanda and I sit in armchairs, chatting across a café table as the rain drizzles down the window beside us.
The café is humid from drying coats, but we have been here long enough to have warmed up.
“I’ve finally gotten into Hamilton,” I offer in a momentary quiet.
“Congratulations!” Xanda smiles. “Took you a while.”
For those not aware, the Broadway phenomenon Hamilton presents the life of US founding father Alexander Hamilton – who worked up from destitution in the Caribbean to becoming the first Secretary of the Treasury – as a hip-hop musical. The brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda, it opened in February 2015 and was recently nominated for a record 16 Tony awards, winning 11.
“Yeah, it did. I’m a bit behind the times!”
“It makes a change from the usual revolutionary spiel, don’t you think?”
“Yeah – you’d never see Marius and Cosette rapping!”
She laughs. “True, but that’s not really what I meant.”
“I meant that it actually shows the hard work that you have to put in to make change happen. Everywhere else, revolution is a quick fix – think of The Hunger Games or Divergent. It’s not realistic, but it is addictive. Everyone wants to think they can change the world just like that. But in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel presents all the hours Hamilton puts in – there’s even a song for it!” She starts singing ‘Non-Stop’, one of my favourite pieces from the show, drawing a look from the next table: “How do you write like you’re running out of time?”
“I agree that Hamilton shows the work needed for a revolution,” I say, “but you can’t really say that’s unusual. Suzanne Collins deliberately shows the sacrifices that Katniss has to make, and the PTSD she suffers.”
“It’s true that Katniss has a hard time of revolution,” Xanda considers, “but the change is still ridiculously fast. She just walks in, becomes the Mockingjay and saves the world. Every action is dramatic. In Hamilton, you get a sense of the mundane effort put in by writing essays into the night, negotiating with his rivals, whatever. It isn’t exciting, but it’s all necessary to make the revolution a success.”
“If Hamilton is really so different, why didn’t I notice it?”
“The perils of montage!” Xanda says. “It’s like in sports movies: everyone knows that to succeed in sport you have to train until it burns and then repeat the next day, but films condense those months of tough training into a montage no longer than Eye of the Tiger. The viewer leaves with the impression that the team’s success was a quick fix, when really the montage conceals the hard work. It’s the same problem in Hamilton, however much Lin-Manuel tries to emphasise Hamilton’s effort. It takes him six months to write 51 essays, but to the audience that’s just one verse of the song. That’s, what, 30 seconds?”
“Being realistic, though, nobody wants to watch sweaty men do sit-ups for half a movie’s runtime. And I definitely wouldn’t be listening to Hamilton on loop if half of the soundtrack was him writing essays on the Constitution, especially if he read them out loud. It wouldn’t be entertaining.”
“No,” she concedes, “but that’s the point. If you want to see real change it’s not entertaining; it’s hard work. You don’t get quick fixes in everyday life. The change is in the seemingly pointless moments that nobody sees: the persistence and training. How’s your training going, by the way?”
“Brilliantly…” I say sheepishly. Xanda raised an eyebrow. “I’ll have you know I did three press-ups last week.”
“Was that one monumental effort, three days of training or an almost daily achievement of half a press-up?”
“Whatever,” I sigh. “I need a montage!”