“you’ll be back” – jonathan groff (2015)

r-7640983-1445734288-9020-jpegFor a couple of years, I didn’t really celebrate my birthday.  At random points, I would go out with a girlfriend or a friend to dinner. Not every year.  Though, when I did, it was typically a quiet affair.  I decided to change that last year.  I invited close to a dozen friends to eat at Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago.  Not only that, I carried out a little letter writing campaign where I asked them to send me a letter and I would reply.  I got quite a few letters which was nice and it was fun to engage in a hobby that is hardly practiced anymore.  It made me feel more connected because it takes time, energy, and thought to write a letter.

This year, I wanted to do something different.  I still went to dinner with a few friends.  The Sunday before my birthday, we went to Zoo Lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo and then had amazing burgers at Kuma’s Too.  It was a great night.  But, that was a precursor to a much more exclusive plan for how I was spending my actual birthday.  I was going to go to the biggest event on the planet; Hamilton.

Hamilton became a monumental success that I don’t think anyone anticipated.  First, it was the story of one of America’s founding fathers that history has largely ignored though we benefit from his tireless contributions to our country.  Second, the creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, only had only created one show prior.  Third, Miranda took historical figures who were white and cast Hispanic and black actors instead.  Fourth, most of the music contained hip-hop influence and even a couple of rap battles. And finally, the musical has plays on the fact Alexander Hamilton was born in the British West Indies and feature strong themes about the contributions immigrants have made to America.  Given the current political climate including the rise of racial problems, white supremacy, and right-wing nationalism, those are all very bold directions.  But given that this show was about a founding father many were not very knowledgeable about, that’s the in.  Miranda couldn’t have done this show about someone more historically precious like Abraham Lincoln.

Tickets went on sale in June and I got a pair with relative ease.  Friends and coworkers were either complaining that they couldn’t get tickets or had to wait hours. I considered myself lucky that I was able to get two to such a hot show. And it was nice that I got them for my birthday which was completely my goal. I had told a friend prior that if I were to get tickets, then I would take her.  She didn’t think I would get them, so imagine her surprise when she found out.

For the most part, I had actually forgotten about the show.  When you buy tickets to a show six months in advance, you don’t think about it.  It just seems so far away and as if it will always be that way.  Of course, I went through the rush when I actually confirmed the tickets.  But, that went away shortly and I didn’t get excited again until the day of the show.

When my birthday came, my social media feed was blowing up with people wishing me a happy birthday.  I got calls and texts. It was all very nice.  Work had ended early for me because I went to a holiday party.  After, I grabbed a cab to meet my friend at a famous Chicago restaurant.  There were some issues with seating us, so we just left and toured the Christkindlmarket at Daley Plaza.  I was treated to a bratwurst and we walked around and looked at chocolates and ornaments.  Frankly, it was more my style than the restaurant.  It couldn’t have been more perfect.  After, we walked to the theatre and anxiously waited for the show.

I purposefully remained a little distant from Hamilton in the months leading up to when I could see the show.  I heard one or two songs, but I avoided listening to the soundtrack.  I didn’t watch any of the specials or documentaries.  And I didn’t ‘t read about the performances.  I did talk with people who saw the show.  While they shared some highlights with me, they were sure not to spoil anything major.

In short, the show was the best musical I had ever seen.  I even cried a little which I had never done at a musical before.  The reaction I had was incredibly strong.  I was a little concerned about the hype.  I was thinking, there’s no way this show is THAT good.  It can be that good and it was.

I won’t go into too much detail about the show.  I don’t want to spoil anything for people.  All the songs were great and many of them are still stuck in my head.  However, one song keeps coming up more than the others.  King George III, portrayed by Jonathan Groff, performed three songs with just himself on the stage.  However, it was his first performance, ”You’ll Be Back,” that I’ve been listening to more than the other songs.  Frankly, it isn’t even the best song on the soundtrack.  But the song and his performance has a lot of symbolism that is clever and poignant.

The representation of King George III was quite interesting.  We all know the story of the American Revolution.  George III, in the musical, treats it as a spat with a former lover.  He tells the colonies that they’ll be crawling back to him.  That it is hard to run a country.  That he loves them so much.   It is all playfully done and quite clever because it isn’t so much as a song about ex-lovers as a delusion of grandeur on George’s part with not so thinly veiled threats behind his declarations of love.  He is the abusive partner in the relationship.  You will come back because if you don’t, he’ll send a heavily armed battalion to murder your loved ones.  That is how he shows he cares and is worthy of your praise.

Beyond how the character of George III is portrayed, there is deeper symbolism present. Groff, a member of the original Broadway cast, is the only white performer who sings.  That might not seem like it means much at first, but take a closer look.  Broadway and musical theatre has typically been a white person’s game.  Groff’s role represents the old way of doing Broadway; the traditional way.  Miranda’s stylistic choice to cast Hispanic and black actors for the other roles symbolizes the new way; the changing of the guard.  Miranda is saying the face of Broadway is changing.  George III represented an urge to resist change; an urge that many theater goers feel as they become accustomed to the how Broadway is evolving.

Musically, Groff’s songs as King George III also represent the old Broadway traditions.  It is completely obvious how stylistically different his numbers are compared to the rest of the show.  While the rest of the show features hip-hop performances, soul solos, and rap battles, Groff’s performances recall the old days of show tunes.  It has a 60s British pop flare with an arrangement that is reminiscent of bands from that era like Herman’s Hermits or Gerry & the Pacemakers.  This character, in the portrayal and the performance, has deep roots that serve as the perfect antithesis to the new wave that Miranda is unveiling with Hamilton and the rest of the American Revolution heroes.

What makes this so incredibly intriguing is that all of this is done considering how little stage time Groff has.  Three songs.  Less than nine minutes.  No interactions with other singers.  His physical presence is as minimal as a supporting character can be, but his contributions are immense.

As I said earlier, Hamilton is full of amazing songs.  There is hardly a weak point in the entire soundtrack. Certain songs may call to you at certain times.  I definitely have my favorites because of the ideas and messages they represent.  Plus, they’re catchy as hell.  However, “You’ll Be Back” serves as a palate cleanser that is well-thought out in it’s execution, delivery, and underlying meaning.  As soon as you get an opportunity to see Hamilton, take it.