Looking for the Next "Hamilton"

Jon Foro on February 22, 2018
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File this under Late to the Party:

Hamilton opened in Seattle last week, and through a peculiar kind of luck—I know someone who knows someone who knows some people who could get tickets outside of the cruel lottery implemented to mete them out—I was able to go. I know my way around Oklahoma! and West Side Story well enough, but I'm definitely not what you'd call a "musical theater guy," and there was real risk that the ticket would be wasted on me.

It probably was, but only in the context of all the Hamilton-heads around me who were obviously undergoing peak experiences in their ancient and narrow theater seats. There is a lot going on in this production, but outside of its deservedly lauded elements—the thrilling perspective, the modern implications, the songs, the stagecraft, the unworldly charisma of the performers—an essential component to its success is the subject. We tend to focus on the top tier of our history, and whatever personal knowledge we have on the Founding Fathers, mythological and otherwise, usually serves to gild the legacies of familiars such as Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Madison (eccentric snark-slinger Ben Franklin makes the cut on a personality waiver). Of course we know to one degree or another (often just one, or one-half) that Hamilton was a major player in the American Revolution, an architect of its subsequent government, and the innovator and inventor our banking system, but as a mere secretary, details and anecdotes of his character and personal life faded in and out over more than two centuries of history.

Hamilton-Chernow.jpgAt least until Lin-Manuel Miranda plucked Ron Chernow's acclaimed biography off the shelf, resurrecting Hamilton as a living person for millions more who might not be bothered to read the book. That's not a slight; it's big and daunting (and I'm included). So big, in fact, that it surprised me that Miranda went so deep with his adaptation. Running almost three hours, it's comprehensive. When the Siege of Yorktown, condensed to a song, came and went before intermission, and the prospect of 70 minutes of hand-wringing over the Federalist Papers alarmed me. But I found that the second act—full of bad judgment, calamitous advice, regret, and more messy human stuff—passed faster than the first.

Okay, enough of that. Everyone already knows it's good.

Afterward, I started wondering about other lives that might make unexpected fodder for a musical. If one of the secrets to Hamilton's appeal was his "Tier Two" status, what gold awaits in Tier Three? Not necessarily the worst of history, or unimportant. Just the bland or unheralded placeholders whose personal lives are virtually unknown, or at least counterintuitive as dramatic material. One criterion: Unlike Hamilton, it should be hard to find a "definitive biography." And if there is one, it shouldn't look very interesting.

Here we go.

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Leonid Brezhnev

While Brezhnev loomed over my childhood as the avatar of Mutual Assured Destruction, he had some hard acts to follow as the successor to the likes Lenin, Stalin, and his mentor, Khrushchev the Shoe-Banger. No matter: The Cold War machinery thrummed efficiently throughout his long tenure, and tensions were undoubtedly amplified by his stoic inscrutability. One wonders what secrets and passions lay beneath these Siberia-grade eyebrows.

Audience favorites:

  • "Still in the U.S.S.R."
  • "We Should Not Pour Muck on Ourselves"
  • "Apparatchiks Dig a Five-Year Plan"


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Marge Schott

Sometimes people are so abrasive that you wonder if it's all a ruse. Schott was the third woman to own a Major League Baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds. Unfortunately, she was also an equal-opportunity offender, casually filling the air with slurs and aspersions like her second-hand smoke. She thought enough about herself to name her St. Bernard, Schottzie, after herself. So maybe she's not the most sympathetic character to build a narrative around, but you know, people like baseball stories. And I would like to know what she said to her dog.

 

Audience favorites:

  • "Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog"
  • "Lady in Red"
  • "Smokin' in the Boys' Room"


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Neville Chamberlain

The only thing that anyone knows about Chamberlain is that he's the guy who thought he could negotiate with Hitler to win "peace for our time." Unfortunately for Chamberlain, that time lasted less than a year, before the Nazis ignited WWII with their Polish invasion. What was he thinking? Let Broadway sort it out.

Audience favorites:

  • "Appease Appease Me"
  • "Liberal Unionist Blues"
  • "Withdraw Your Troops (Before I Withdraw My Heart)"


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Gerald Ford

Ford didn't ascend to the presidency as much as he was sucked up into it, as though through a tornado. One can imagine his ambivalence: He must have known it was a no-win situation, but who would say "No" to history? His sober blandness might have been the tonic that America needed following the hijinks of Watergate and the White House Plumbers, but all that Nixonian hink weakened him as a candidate in his own party, and incumbency wasn't enough to hold off Jimmy Carter in the general election.

Audience favorites:

  • "(I Beg Your Pardon) I Never Promised You a Rose Garden"
  • "Free Fallin'"
  • "Welcome to My (Long National) Nightmare"

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