I Saw Hamilton. (The Musical, Not the Shitty City)

Well, I’m in Chicago. I’ve been through O’Hare airport many many times. Once, a decade ago, I had an unplanned overnight stay here when I was en route to Memphis to give a presentation; but I didn’t have a real chance to see the city then.

So this is my first time. And…. wow. What a place! I officially declare Chicago to be the only other actual city in the USA. New York is clearly the other one.

What? Los Angels, Atlanta, Tampa… aren’t those cities? No. Those are large assemblies of people clustered in an urban environment. New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, Istanbul, Rome, Mumbai, Beijing…. these are cities. You know what I mean. And now I think I might add Chicago to that list.

I know that will trigger some of you. Get over it.

My taxi driver from the airport today was from South Sudan. I commented to him, “Ah, the world’s newest country!” And he replied, “And the world’s poorest country.” Then we chatted innocuously for a bit. Upon dropping me off, he sheepishly asked, “Can I ask, are you from Canada?”

“How did you guess?”

“Only Canadians are polite and take an interest in other people’s countries.”

Take THAT, other countries!

I’m staying at a fairly swanky hotel (hey, I’m not paying), but spent wayyyy too much time chatting with the front desk person, about life, beer, climate, nutrition, and Zod knows what else.

Later on, walking down the street, I would fall into an overly long conversation with another random person on the freezing streets; this time about climate change and indicators of development.

What is it about this place that compels me to have lengthy conversations with strangers? Or maybe I’m just lonely.

Oh, here is the view outside my window:

Yep. I am constantly exposed to the giant letters that spell the name of an orange buffoon. But at least I always know where I am.

The first challenge, of course, was finding a meal that meets my weird and stringent dietary restrictions. On the plane, all I could find that was vegan was: a muffin, a slice of banana bread, a bag of chips, and a glass of tomato juice. Not exactly a healthy meal:

Yes I’m also watching an episode of “Arrow”

But I was excited to see on Google Maps that there’s a vegetarian-friendly restaurant near to the hotel. So I got my sweet ass there lickety-split, and got this sufficient spread of tofu burrito and veggie chili:

In my new talkative state, I of course had to start a conversation with the people who made my burrito. They were excited to learn I had just arrived from Canada. They were less sanguine about my dismissal of Chicago’s supposed frigid weather.

It’s only -4 degrees (Celcius) here. Jeebus, people, it was -18 in Ottawa this morning! Minus four is nothing!

I’m here to attend a global health conference. But no one wants to hear about that. I don’t even want to hear about that. This evening, though, I saw the musical Hamilton.

Let me tell you… I was absolutely enchanted. Hamilton really is everything I love and admire about the USA. First, the performance skills of its actors and singers is, I think, unequalled in any other nation. Beyond that, though, there is something charmingly and specifically American about how these people are able to celebrate their founding mythology –or more accurately, mytho-history– through contemporary swagger, attitude and musical form.

Me in the CIBC theatre, watching “Hamilton”

Alexander Hamilton has always been a favourite historical figure of mine. I find some personal relevance in his story. He was an immigrant from the Caribbean who got by largely on his writing skills, and whose major weakness was women. It’s a profile that, um, resonates. Ahem.

But the fact that Hamilton was largely self-made, and pulled himself to a stratum of power and importance by virtue largely of words, well that’s the story of hip hop, no? Throw in the sex and the violence of his life, and this might as well be a Tupac biopic. It’s a fascinating and genius combination of content with style, and I am compelled to drop to my knees in appreciation for such innovation.

Want to learn a fun fact about Alexander Hamilton that you likely won’t find in history books, and definitely not in the musical?  Well, years after Aaron Burr killed Hamilton, Burr married a young widow for her money. When the woman discovered that Burr was squandering her fortune, she sued him for divorce. And what lawyer represented her interests in her divorce from Aaron Burr?  Well, Alexander Hamilton, Jr, of course.

True story.

But back to the musical. I was quite moved by the performance. But I was more moved by the enthusiasm of the audience. It was a diverse, full house. In particular, there were many very young people present, who were showing a frankly effervescent excitement for elements of their nation’s history. How cool is that?

Since being back in my hotel room, I’ve been listening to the show’s soundtrack on loop.  I’d forgotten what it’s like to be entertained by something other than a TV show or a movie. I’m thankful for a…. a thing… that had me tapping my feet, appreciating the people around me, grinning like an old fool, and, frankly, thinking about some big ideas: war, death, civic duty, familial responsibility, loss, and legacy, hours after the show’s end. Is that not what true art is supposed to do? When you get those things in one evening, it’s a good day.

My favourite parts were the three brief and light songs by “King George III”. The dude playing the role tonight was Andrew Call, who has this hilarious addition on his Instagram page. I was a little amazed a how the supposed villain of the piece kept getting thunderous applause and appreciation.

American revolutionary history has always fascinated me. I enjoyed the two years I lived in Washington, DC, and tried to take advantage of the multitude of learning opportunities there. But there are many points of contact and reference that those having grown up in the USA take for granted, but that I had to hurriedly and imperfectly learn for myself.  Things like the Battle of Yorktown are only vaguely known to even the most diligent of the Canadian educated elite; so I had a lot to catch up on before I could appreciate much of the historic centres that surrounded me in the heart of the hegemon. And I still feel woefully under-equipped to appreciate the fullness of it.

I’ve always viewed the founding of the USA as the greatest practical achievement of Enlightenment scholars, and the US Constitution (and before it, the Declaration of Independence) the greatest documents of the Enlightenment Era. And while it is fashionable and quite reasonable to shit on many of the global deeds and attitudes that have been ruinously spawned by later incarnations of the American experiment, I think it’s important to always remember that the remarkable achievement embodied by the founding of this nation initially entailed indescribable bravery, vision, brilliance and singleness of will.

You know whom I find even more interesting that Alexander Hamilton (who, I now realize, must have been a damned handsome bastard)? Lafayette. The Marquis is probably the one player in this particular theatre of historical characters with whom I’d enjoy dining. To have been present and pivotally involved with the popular revolutions of two of the world’s great Enlightenment nations, events that created the modern world, must have imbued him with something resembling perspective on the duties of moral men in an immoral world. And that’s a topic on which I always want more perspective.

Plus he looked fashionably fierce:


Oh, and Aziz Ansari is also performing here tonight. There’s a lineup around the block to see him. And it’s not all brown people! Whaaa?

Peeps lining up to see Aziz Ansari

That’s all for today. Chat soon, mein droogies!