Fads take time to filter into Kansas from the coasts, so that’s my excuse for being late to the raucous block party that is the Broadway show Hamilton. I’d heard about it, of course, but sometimes when I hear a lot of people gushing about the “new great thing” I avoid that thing just to be contrary.

We’ve all been burned before, jumping onto a passing bandwagon only to find out the movie or book or album doesn’t live up to the hype. I mean, I was friends with a lot of theater nerds in high school. I was more a choir nerd myself, but I was what you might call theater-adjacent. And those theater friends would go nuts periodically over new Broadway hits (Rent, Avenue Q, Wicked, just to name a few), and while I always enjoyed those shows when I finally got around to seeing them when they toured through my town, none of them changed my life, you know? They were fun diversions, but my interest ended at the close of the final curtain.*

So it wasn’t until my sister-in-law Belinda told me the Hamilton cast album was available free on Amazon Prime streaming that I finally caved and decided to see what all the fuss was about. Free, after all, is a risk I can afford to take.

I was totally blown away.

(Of course. Like everyone.)

Hamilton is unlike anything I have ever heard before. That’s why it’s brilliant, and that’s why it’s such a success. It starts with a great story (love triangles! intrigue! politics! duels!) and puts it over the top with killer songwriting. Lin-Manuel Miranda is, without doubt, a creative genius, and I love few things more than watching talented people do what they do best. So of course I love Hamilton and daydream about the day when it goes on a national tour. (I’m too much of a realist to even entertain the thought of getting tickets to see it on Broadway. Not gonna happen.)

Since I’m not able to see the show just yet, I had to channel my enthusiasm some other way, so I decided to read the 800-page biography of Alexander Hamilton written by Ron Chernow that inspired Miranda to write the musical. I was feeling optimistic, so I decided to listen to the audio version—all 37 hours of it. It took just over three weeks, and I loved every minute of it.

Chernow’s biography is a meticulously researched scholarly analysis that reads as addictively as a supermarket tabloid. Part of that is due to Hamilton himself and his fascinating life, but credit is also due to Chernow for his ability to tell Hamilton’s story in a consistently clear and propulsive way. You’ll know from the outset that Hamilton was killed in a duel by his sometime-friend and rival Aaron Burr, but the scene when the fateful meeting takes place is as breathless and compelling as fiction. Hamilton also got into some hot water in his personal life that makes for delightfully gossipy reading, which I always love. It’s easy to see why Miranda was engrossed enough by Hamilton’s life story to write a musical about it.

I never thought I’d say this, but 37 hours of audio book just wasn’t enough for me—I needed more Hamilton in my life. So I ordered a copy of Hamilton: The Revolution by LMM himself—in print this time, because I wanted to see the photos. Although don’t think I haven’t considered buying the audio version too, so I can hear him read it in his own voice. (I know I’m fangirling so hard, but I can’t help it. If loving Hamilton is wrong, I don’t want to be right!)

Hamilton: The Revolution, which tells the story of the musical from its inception through its current Broadway run, has just the kind of fun, conversational tone I was hoping for. It makes you feel like an insider, which is exactly what fans like me who aren't going to get within a thousand miles of New York City are clamoring for. You want to feel like Hamilton is your musical, too, even though you're limited to blasting the cast album and binging on #Ham4Ham videos on YouTube.

I also loved learning the inspiration behind each song. Listening to them after reading the book was like a brand-new experience. I had no idea the show was so full of Easter eggs for both hip-hop and musical theater fans. LMM is clearly a man of diverse tastes and talents, and he brought it all to the table when he wrote Hamilton. Everything is relevant, everything fits in. It's magic.

So if you've resisted Hamilton fever so far, it's time to give in. Give the cast album a listen. I promise, you'll be sold by the time the last battle of the Revolution is won. (And that's before intermission.)

 

*I must admit, I may have been too quick to dismiss Rent and its influence on me, because I watched the #Ham4Ham video of LMM singing “What You Own” and when the camera panned over after the first verse and Adam Pascal started singing, I had what I can only describe as “a moment.” I've watched that video several times, and it gives me a lot of feelings to see the worlds of those two shows colliding.

Just in case you aren’t quite as obsessed with book news as I am, Harper Lee, author of the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird, released a second novel yesterday. That’s right, the woman who has for years been famously reclusive, refused to grant interviews, and publicly stated she would never publish another novel now has a second spine with her name on it in libraries and bookstores: Go Set a Watchman.

There’s been some controversy surrounding the publication of GSAW pretty much from the moment it was announced. The primary concern is that publishing the book might not be in line with Harper Lee’s wishes—after all, she is nearly 90 years old, lives in a nursing home, and by most accounts is almost completely deaf. It also seems suspicious to many in the reading public that her attorney supposedly found the manuscript of GSAW just months after Lee’s sister and protector, Alice, passed away.

Further clouding matters is the fact that GSAW isn’t a novel totally separate from its predecessor. GSAW features a 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch, affectionately known by the nickname Scout in TKAM, returning to Maycomb, Alabama for a visit from her new home in New York City. Apparently GSAW was Lee’s first draft of what would eventually become TKAM. Her editor felt that the scenes in which Lee flashed back to Scout’s childhood in the 1930s were the most compelling, and advised her to do a rewrite with those years as the focus. Lee did so, and GSAW fell by the wayside, as first drafts tend to do.

So there’s the basic background for you: Lee published an amazing first novel to wide acclaim, and now, decades later, the first draft of that masterpiece is being published as a separate work.

(This should go without saying, but for clarity’s sake I feel compelled to pause here to state in no uncertain terms that the brilliance of TKAM is self-evident. Its deceptively simple language, the perspective of the delightfully innocent Scout, and the gut-punching depiction of the reality of racism make it one of the best books ever written by an American, period. If that doesn’t fill you with awe and wonder, I can’t help you. Go read Frederick Douglass or Toni Morrison until you are no longer a moron.)

So yeah, when I heard the news, I was pretty freakin’ excited. Call me insensitive, but no amount of situational shadiness could keep me from reading anything by Harper Lee. Whether she truly endorses the publication of GSAW or not, as soon as I heard the news I couldn’t wait to get my paws on it. Would it have perhaps been less gauche to wait to publish until after her death? Sure. But it’s in print now, there’s no going back, and if I had to choose between respecting a famous author’s wishes and having access to their work, I’d choose their work every time. Does it make me a terrible person if in this case I choose art over the artist? Eh, maybe it’s better not to plumb those depths.

I pre-ordered the book immediately. Then came the long wait for the release date. In the week or so leading up to it, Adam realized my anticipation was reaching fever pitch. Loving husband that he is, he kept threatening to read my copy before I got a chance. One time over dinner he casually mentioned that he might take a half day Tuesday so he could come home and read. He also threw out fake spoiler alerts, like, “Can you believe Boo Radley was Scout’s real dad all along?”

Having to work until 5:00 yesterday knowing the book was out there and available for reading nearly killed me. My sister-in-law sent me a picture of her copy of GSAW next to a kickass TKAM tote bag she got for free from her bookstore. Trapped at my desk, I kept thinking about all the people in the world who were currently reading the book while I wasn’t. It felt like the world was turning without me.

When I got home, Adam had kindly already retrieved the book from the mailbox, unboxed it, and displayed it in on an end table so I’d see it when I first came in the door. Normally the first thing I want to do upon arriving home is strip off my uncomfortable working gal clothes, but yesterday I barely managed to get my shoes in the closet. Apparently the promise of a new book makes the chub-squeezing of control top hosiery fade to background noise.

After a brief break to order takeout, it was back to the book. And thank the Lord it’s only 278 pages, because if I hadn’t been able to finish the book by bedtime, I think I would have had to call in sick today.

So what did I think? It’s really hard to say.

GSAW is a good book. It has the signature Harper Lee Southern wit. Adult Scout is exactly what you’d hope her to be—still irreverent, still a bit of a tomboy, still thinking sharply about what goes on in the world around her. Through some impassioned arguments Scout has with her family members, Lee makes some great points about racism.

Is it a masterpiece on par with TKAM, though? No. But is that so surprising? It’s a draft. The fact that Lee’s draft is publishable at all is a testament to her remarkable skill as a writer.

Thus, my take is that for maximum enjoyment, GSAW should be approached as an interesting historical artifact. Because that’s what it is.

In it, you can see the beginnings of what TKAM would become. There is a hilarious childhood scene with Scout, Jem and Dill which ends with Scout buck naked in front of a reverend. And there’s some great parallelism when grown-up Jean Louise goes to the courthouse and sits in the balcony, but instead of watching her father nobly defend a black man, she hears him publicly endorse segregation.

Oh yeah—did I forget to mention? The Atticus of GSAW is decidedly different from the Atticus of TKAM. He’s no longer an ardent supporter of civil rights. He argues for segregation based on that good old Southern value of states’ rights. It’s…weird. And a little troubling, when other aspects of his character are so instantly recognizable, like how slow he is to anger and his trademark dry humor.

Atticus’s stance is troubling to Jean Louise too, in the extreme. She’s always idolized her father, but now that she’s lived north of the Mason-Dixon, she finds her perspective has changed. Maybe her father isn’t the perfect man she always thought he was. GSAW is therefore about Jean Louise taking Atticus off his pedestal and becoming responsible for her own conscience.

GSAW is worth a read, especially for the many readers who loved TKAM. But going in with the right expectations is key. If you think of it as a way to get to know Lee a bit better, to get inside the novel-writing process, you’ll be golden.

But if you expect Go Set a Watchman to slap you in the face with awesomeness, you’ll probably be disappointed.

Posted
AuthorTaryn Pierson