The sonnet that helped to heal America

Hamilton: ‘America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me.’ © Joan Marcus

Amidst the tears and rage yesterday over the mass shooting in Florida, it was arguably a simple love sonnet read at the country’s top drama awards that did most to tend the nation’s wounds.

‘This show is proof that history remembers / We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger / We rise and fall and light from dying embers / Remembrances that hope and love last longer / And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.’

Choking with grief, Lin Manuel Miranda, the outrageously gifted writer of the musical Hamilton, came prepared with the newly-composed sonnet partly quoted above. He did not freestyle his acceptance speech at the Tony Awards last night, as he has in the past. Instead he simply read out his tribute to ‘music, love and pride’ to honour the 49 innocent people who were shot and killed at a gay club in Orlando in the early hours of that morning.

Miranda has had an amazing year. His musical tells the story of one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, an orphan Caribbean immigrant who used his wit and intelligence to write his way to the top of American society — first as George Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War, then as the country’s first treasury secretary. But that same fearless passion also tanked his career amid petty rivalries and America’s first sex scandal.

In short, he ‘embodied the spirit of hip-hop’, says Miranda. And so it is a blend of hip-hop, rap, pop and traditional Broadway music that Miranda uses to tell the story of Hamilton’s life.

There are rap battles with Thomas Jefferson; Beatles-style break up songs addressed to America from King George III; a trio of sisters who sound a lot like Destiny’s Child.

The show’s fans include everyone from the Obamas to Jay-Z. Its album has gone platinum. It has won a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy, and — as of Sunday — 11 Tonys. And it was introduced at the ceremony as ‘one of the greatest pieces of art ever made’.

‘History has its eyes on you’

This is the true America, proclaimed the Tonys. The night was ‘so diverse that Donald Trump has threatened to build a wall around this theatre,’ joked its host, James Corden. Hamilton in particular casts America in every hue — black, Latino and Asian Americans play most of its parts, making the history feel accessible and current for everyone. ‘Hate will never win,’ said Corden. The Tonys are ‘a symbol and celebration of that principle.’

A beautiful sentiment. But realists argue that glittering awards shows are only a tiny fraction of America. The country’s promises of freedom have always gone hand in hand with slavery, bigotry and violence. Even in Hamilton, every on-stage death comes from the bullet of a gun: and more than 200 years after the musical’s setting, Orlando is a harrowing reminder that America has still not found a solution to that problem.

You Decide

  1. Is art the best way to learn about history?
  2. Does Lin Manuel Miranda’s poem (quoted in part in the story’s opening lines) paint a true portrait of America?

Activities

  1. Watch the videos and listen to the songs from Hamilton in the links under Become An Expert. Then write three things they have taught you about US history.
  2. Inspired by Lin Manuel Miranda, write your own poem about the shooting in Orlando. You can find the full text of his sonnet in the first link under Become An Expert.

Some People Say...

“Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.”

George Washington, Hamilton.

What do you think?

Q & A

Are you getting a bit carried away?
Reviews of Hamilton always sound over-the-top, but it really is a game-changing show. Some have even compared it to Shakespeare’s history plays; by telling the story of his nation in catchy contemporary verse, Shakespeare helped to define a vision of England that has stuck around ever since. It’s early days, but Hamilton may well be doing the same for America.
Okay, you’ve convinced me. Can I ever see it?
Tickets to the Broadway show are now famously difficult to buy. But don’t worry: it is coming to London’s West End in October 2017, so you might get your chance. In the meantime, the album is a wonderful way to experience the show. Like an opera, it has no spoken dialogue — so you can listen to the whole story and let your imagination do the work.

Word Watch

Tony Awards
Annual awards ceremony for the previous year of drama and musicals on Broadway (the 40 major professional theatres in New York City).
Orlando
At 2am on Sunday morning, 49 people were killed at Pulse, Orlando’s biggest gay nightclub. It was hosting a Latin-themed night at the time. It is the worst mass shooting in America’s history.
George Washington
Commander-in-chief of the continental army during the revolutionary war and first US president, often referred to as the ‘father of his country’.
Thomas Jefferson
Main author of America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776, he served alongside Hamilton as Washington’s secretary of state and was elected president in 1801.
King George III
The king of Great Britain from 1760-1801, a period which included America’s battle for independence from British government.
Platinum
Awarded to an album that has sold over 1m copies in the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certification.
Diverse
All four major acting awards were given to African-American actors for the first time in Tony Awards history, three from Hamilton.

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