It’s healthy to find art you can get obsessed with.
My friend Karl is a “Hamilfan.” You probably know one too. They’re the subset of people who, as cultural critic Alissa Wilkinson describes them, “willingly watch and listen to most anything related to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit Hamilton: An American Musical.” Wilkinson self-identifies as a Hamilfan, meaning she listened to the album on repeat during her daily commutes for four months. Hamilfans are the people who spent $300 on marked-up tickets for resale five months ago and consider it a bargain. It’s because of people like Karl that videos like this one were made.
It seems I can’t spend ten minutes with Karl without him dropping a quote. Just this week I used the term “cycle,” to which he promptly followed with a line from My Shot: “. . . of vengeance and death with no defendants? I know the action in the street is excitin’.”
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen Karl evangelize a potential convert by pulling up a YouTube video of the cast performing the opening sequence. He had it committed to memory months ago: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman . . .” I’ve almost memorized it myself from hearing him play it so many times.
Me? I’m hardly worthy of the term “casual fan.” I’ve listened to the musical once and rather enjoyed it. I would happily go see a live performance if it wouldn’t cost me a full paycheck. In light of all the press the musical has received, I consider myself a bystander to the obsession. From my observations of the phenomenon, I believe two responses are in order.
First, a confession. It’s annoying. This thing has inserted itself into the fabric of Karl’s rhetoric. I can hardly have a normal conversation with him, but not because he lacks any social graces. I’m sure he’s fully aware of the effect of his Hamilaria. He knows it annoys people and that it’s weird that some dead guy who was previously remembered only for his political philosophy and image on our currency should so entirely capture his imagination. He’s aware that he’s become foolish by the standards of polite society, but that doesn’t stop him. Nothing can blunt his enthusiasm. He cannot but speak of what he has seen and heard.
But – and this is my second point – that is how it should be. That’s real living! That’s the chief end of all of humankind’s artistic endeavors: awe and wonder at genius. Art at its best gives its audience an experience so wonderful they can’t stop going back for more. It’s the painting that keeps you going back to the gallery to gaze on it for the umpteenth time. It’s the book whose binding you’ve worn thin from reading it over and over and loaning it out.
For Hamilfans, Hamilton is as good (or better!) the second and third time around. The live performance of Hamilton almost transcends description, say those who have had the sacred honor of witnessing it. “It is new and it is familiar all at once,” recalls sportswriter Joe Posnanski. “You know these characters and don’t know them at all. You know the story and don’t know it at all. I can’t remember anything quite like that.”
There is a valuable principle to be drawn from the obsession: seek after pleasures that grow richer with repetition. This musical has layers—rhymes within rhymes, first-rate wordplay, rich human narratives, dense political philosophy. Every viewing has the same twists and turns, the same climbs and descents, but the traveler sees new things along the way each time. The Hamilfan is always listening for new nuances of rhythm and meter, or suddenly noticing that sly comment between the Schuyler sisters that he had missed before, and his pleasure grows with every revelation.
Give me obsession like that any day, rather than the aloof posture of the critic, hipster, or ironist who dips his toe in the rich stream of culture, observing it keenly but never letting it wash over him.
For casual fans like me, the trick is to avoid being the critic. The incessant Hamilton quotes annoy only because I haven’t been converted. Yet I can’t begrudge the person who has, because I know what it’s like to encounter those works that are new and familiar all at once. I’ve had glimmers of this experience in my enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings, Jon Foreman’s music, and most recently Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Heaven forbid I seek to take that away from someone.
So don’t stop, my dear Hamilfans. I love you too much to ask you to do anything else. Works that grab one’s entire being only come around a few times in a generation. Keep singing. Don’t throw away your shot.
For his day job, Andrew Collins is a staff writer at a public interest journalism nonprofit in the Washington, D.C. area. In his free time, he enjoys reviewing movies, reading good books, writing about something other than politics, and playing ultimate Frisbee.