Whenever political anxiety gets me so on edge that freezing my phone into a block of ice and joining the back-to-the-land movement start to seem like reasonable decisions, I put on an episode of The West Wing, and let Leo, Toby, Josh, C.J., Sam, and President Bartlet take the wheel. The West Wing is—and always was—a liberal fantasy, and an imperfect one at that. Aaron Sorkin wrote some jokes into the first couple seasons that now read plainly as workplace harassment. Beloved characters disappear without warning or explanation. There is an entire episode that is just an extremely boring “live” “broadcast” of a fake presidential debate.
But none of that matters when W.G. “Snuffy” Walden’s score swells over the opening credits, filling me with patriotic fervor for a fictional administration where public servants are good at their jobs, understand the life-and-death stakes of running a country, and harbor appropriate discomfort with the power entrusted to them. Electoral College aside (because fuck that relic of slavery!), I am a true believer in the Democratic process and the imperfect, ongoing American experiment. I believe in civic engagement the way some people believe in the eucharist. Because when public policy is working the way it should, it has the power to make people’s lives better in material, measurable ways. It can be transformative. At present, it’s been hijacked. I need to be reminded that this wasn’t always the case, and won’t be forever.
I share my appreciation for Sorkin’s long-departed TV show in part because Lin-Manuel Miranda has cited it as an inspiration for his American history hip-hop musical Hamilton, whose touring production has just arrived in Portland. But mostly, I bring it up because, even though the play’s been running for two years, and it might give you FOMO to know you’re watching its second touring cast, and the cheap-ticket lottery odds are not in anyone’s favor, one of the best reasons to see something like Hamilton right now is that it brings that essential West Wing feeling, that reminder of the promise of America. Only moreso, because it’s about our founding fathers, and none of them are played by old white guys. This feels like a big, ebullient “fuck you” to the racist assholes currently mistaking misspelled bigotry for public policy while they enter and exit (and exit, and exit) the highest office in the land.
But Hamilton is also much more than that. It’s one thing to know that representation matters. It’s another to experience it in the form of Ta’rea Campbell’s rapping genius as Angelica Schuyler, Marcus Choi’s gravitas-filled performance as George Washington, and even Nik Walker’s Aaron Burr, who made me like Aaron Burr, eventual murderer of Alexander Hamilton, more than Aaron Burr perhaps deserves. Though it’s set in the distant past, Hamilton looks like the political future—at least the one I hope for—where those in power accurately reflect the people they represent.
In this regard, Hamilton exceeds its outsized hype, but I knew going in that it wouldn’t be perfect. In his review for the New Yorker, Hilton Als writes that Miranda “doesn’t have much feeling for his female characters; for the most part, they’re plot points in silk.” For the most part, I’m inclined to agree, especially in the case of Eliza Hamilton (Shoba Narayan), who helped Alexander publish The Federalist Papers and opened the first private orphanage in New York City, but here is reduced to empty descriptors like “trusting” and “kind,” sings a song literally called “Helpless,” and does things like tell Alexander to go to bed rather than stay up working, a scenario straight out of a nagging-wife-and-indolent-husband sitcom that doesn’t jibe with the real-life Eliza’s role in nurturing and preserving Alexander’s work.
A woman tending to her husband’s legacy and helping out with his nation-making behind the scenes may not seem particularly fascinating, but it too is the story of America. As another play, The History Boys, puts it, “History is women following behind with the bucket.” Hamilton largely erases the bucket and the feminine labor it represents. So when I hear Angelica Schuyler say, “when I meet Thomas Jefferson / I’mma compel him to include women in the sequel!” in “The Schuyler Sisters,” I can’t help but think we’re still working on it, long after the American Revolution.
There are also a few moments where things teeter over into Schoolhouse Rock! territory, but you know what? I gleefully tapped my toes to Ween’s cover of “The Shot Heard Round the World” all the way through 11th grade AP US History, and when the showtunes equivalent is good, it’s excellent, particularly on songs like “The Room Where It Happens,” whose chief sentiment—that the particulars of history are often decided behind closed doors, in rooms that exclude people without power—remains troublingly relevant.
If that piques your interest, find a way to see Hamilton. Representation matters, and even with its flaws, Miranda’s vision of the early United States will make you feel a lot better about being an American. But I do have one caveat: If you’re crabby about musicals—like the majority of my deeply cynical coworkers—or don’t like being in big crowds of people who are all having a lot of big feelings, sit this one out. I can say from experience now that I’ve seen it: Folks who show up to Hamilton really love Hamilton. Let them enjoy it.