I reviewed Hamilton when it was in previews at the Public Theater last year; it’s since begun a successful run on Broadway and has become hugely popular, and a rather hard ticket to come by. It was excellent when I first saw it, and it’s even better now, with Eliza Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton’s wife, played by Phillipa Soo) having a more prominent role in its Broadway iteration. A song about the Whiskey Rebellion was changed from “One Last Ride” to “One Last Time,” emphasizing instead the peaceful transition of power as President Washington steps down, another improvement to the plot.
This performance is worth the effort and the expense. Why? The show will make you feel proud to be an American. Or make you wish you were part of this country. It’s a generous piece with a largely non-white cast…and, why shouldn’t George Washington be played by a black man? The father of our country belongs to us all…the immigrants, the newcomers, those whose ancestors came fleeing persecution or famine or war, those whose ancestors were brought here in chains. Those who were counted for representation and taxation purposes as three fifths of a person. Those who didn’t get the right to vote until 1920. We’re all here, and it’s all of our history. Kudos to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who makes his audience feel absolutely inspired by the determination, the brilliance, the passion of these revolutionaries…the stakes were high, the decisions momentous. They were flawed human beings who did tremendous things and didn’t always get it right. So seriously, if you can swing it, get tickets and go. You will be impressed by the idealism, the soaring rhetoric, and how much those thoughtful citizens changed the world.
But wait…you also ought to see The Crucible. This one will be an exercise for your moral imagination. It’s not a feel good play, but it’s an important one. I caught a preview a couple of weeks ago, and Arthur Miller’s classic play is now open on Broadway for a limited run (through July 17). The production is powerful, with Saoirse Ronan as the conniving Abigail Williams, Ben Whishaw as John Proctor, Sophie Okonedo as his wife, Elizabeth, and Ciaran Hinds as the Deputy Governor, fine actors all. About both a literal and a figurative witch-hunt, with the Salem witch trials a stand in for McCarthyism, it’s the flip side of Hamilton…a stern warning to our citizenry, not a celebration of our best. It’s not about the great men of history, but about regular people, quarrelsome and full of gossip. Some keep secrets. Some dislike the pastor. Some are envious of others’ good fortune and seek scapegoats. They have contract disputes over firewood; they sue each other over land rights. A few are opportunists. Some seek private vengeance. Many are moral cowards. Some are blinded by self-righteousness. Some, more clear-eyed, seek to reduce harm. Some become completely unhinged. And a few, a very few, are pure of heart. The story is absolutely chilling; there is no happy ending here. The hero, John Proctor, is an adulterer (like Alexander Hamilton, for that matter), racked by personal guilt, considering himself a damned soul. And yet, despite the mounting hysteria, he speaks truth to power.
Arthur Miller wrote in an essay in the New Yorker in 1996, “Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied.” The Crucible didn’t take with audiences right away, and received poor reviews when it opened on Broadway in 1953…but its second production became a hit, and the play found a domestic audience, and then a global audience. Sadly, this story of fanaticism, paranoia, and a repressive regime has resonated with people all over the world. A Chinese author, Nien Cheng, once told Miller that she could hardly believe that someone who had not experienced the Cultural Revolution had written it. Anyway, it’s no longer, if it ever was, a topical play of the 1950s…it’s a drama for all times and all places. Trumped-up hysteria can always be used for evil purposes, and humanity collectively needs to recognize it, to look it in the eye, and say, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org