Reporter’s Notebook: Can’t Fool History

By on May 2, 2018

Lessons on resistance and being present during ‘Hamilton’s’ Salt Lake City performance

Lin Manuel-Miranda expanded  Salt Lake City’s historical perspective on April 28. (Joan Marcus)

Salt Lake City, Utah – “Is there somethin’ going on tonight?” our Lyft driver asked, eyeing our outfits.

Seated in the back of a Chevy Silverado lined with camouflage seat covers, our suits and floor-length dresses likely made an impression. We were dressed in our Broadway finest, on our way to see Hamilton at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City.

Seated in the front, Spenser explained we were seeing a critically-acclaimed musical with Broadway origins.
“It’s like a re-telling of the history of our founding fathers through hip-hop,” he said, then looked at me for validation. “Right?”

“I didn’t know something like that even existed,” our driver said.

That’s exactly why Hamilton has come so far. Hip-hop on Broadway? Who could ever imagine such a thing?

Playwright and star Lin Manuel-Miranda could.

But the show is more than just a genre-defying historical narrative. It is a celebration of diversity, of progress, and of immigrants (they “get the job done”). It doesn’t only recount history, it rewrites it.

Hamilton cast members are almost exclusively people of color, even as the play outlines America’s racist history. (Hamilton’s closest friend, John Laurens, wants to be part of the country’s first all-black battalion, and Hamilton himself is a slave abolitionist).

And that’s exactly the point. The play’s final song gets to the heart of the show’s message: History is more than just a series of events. After (spoiler alert) Hamilton is killed in a duel with mentor/frenemy Aaron Burr, his wife and colleagues wonder how his legacy will live on.

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” the song asks. In other words, the narrator is at least as important as the narrative—perhaps more so.

Yes, I was hooked the whole time. King George’s “You’ll Be Back” still rings through my head. Tears welled in my eyes when (another spoiler) Hamilton’s son, Phillip, is killed defending his father’s name, and again when Hamilton’s wife Eliza bears her soul in the heartbroken ballad “Burn.” I fist-bumped at just the title of the song “History Has its Eyes On You.”

But the show’s finale really cemented my wonder.

As the cast questions “Who tells your story,” the spotlight shifts, literally, to Eliza Hamilton. It celebrates her life and her accomplishments—opening New York’s first private orphanage to honor her orphaned late husband, writing his words down so they would never be forgotten. The spotlight stays on her through the final recitation of “who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” and in that moment, at the very end of the show, she suddenly becomes the play’s protagonist. Because she was the one to tell Hamilton’s story, as well as her own.

The play’s finale suggests that the narrative acted out on stage wouldn’t have been possible without Eliza’s work. It is, like the rest of the show, meta and self-aware, and I loved it.

The message wasn’t lost on the Salt Lake City audience, either. The crowd erupted into applause as soon as the finale was over, and wasted no time standing up to offer ovation.

Apparently, I was part of a particularly well-behaved audience. Actor Joseph Morales, who plays Hamilton, called out the Salt Lake audience who saw the earlier performance of the evening for being on their phones too much.

“Seriously, SLC, you’re killing me,” Morales tweeted. “Put your phones away. We can see you. This isn’t a movie. What’s up with you guys?”

According to PJH’s sister paper Salt Lake City Weekly, plenty of viewers were quick to point out that Saturday night was also the Utah Jazz’s playoff game, so people were probably checking the score—because local sports are more important than a Broadway musical that sold out in a matter of minutes, apparently. Rude.

Whoever handles Utah Jazz’s Twitter clapped back at their uncultured following: “You can check the score after you get out of the theater,” they tweeted. “We’re not throwing away our shot.” The last line was a direct reference to Hamilton’s most repeated line in the play. Well played, Utah Jazz. 

It was powerful to see a show about the U.S’s original revolution in a city that’s in the middle of its own mini-revolution. As the federal government has stripped away federal protections on huge chunks of Utah’s public lands, and Utah state government applauds, many Salt Lake residents are pushing back.

“Protect Bears Ears” signs adorned almost every yard in the neighborhood in which I stayed. Meanwhile, the Utah capitol has been filled with protests and rallies in support of public lands and gun control. Perhaps that was partially behind the crowd’s enthusiasm—we were watching history, but we’re also making it, every day. And history still has its eyes on us.


About Shannon Sollitt

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