Broadway musicals are frequently played and sung in our home, and (usually once a year) we skip rent and food for the month to actually buy tickets to a Tony-winning show.
Our two latest stage adventures were Hamilton (which we all saw in Chicago) and Dear Evan Hansen (which only some of us saw in New York). The former was definitely the more ground-breaking, a game-changing masterpiece that brought new urban musical forms to the stage in the same way West Side Story recreated Broadway via jazz and modern dance. But Hansen certainly earned this year’s Tony’s with its talented cast, memorable songs, and heart-rending story about a high-school senior trapped in his own lies over a classmate’s suicide.
When comparing the two shows, it dawned on me that the protagonists were about the same age when you first meet them. Hamilton grows up during the play (which continues through his death at 47), while Hansen is the same age throughout. But it’s interesting to note that by the time Hamilton had reached Hansen’s 17-18-year-old mark, he had already been in college for several years, penned two remarkable and important public pamphlets railing against British treatment of the colonies, and was one year away from fighting his first battles as an artillery Captain in the Revolutionary army.
In contrast, Evan Hansen has spent those same years anguishing about his lack of friends and purpose, writing letters to himself to buck up his ego (one of which is mistaken for a letter of friendship with the boy who killed himself), and set up a web page to maintain this fictional relationship.
This comparison is not designed to decry the youth of today, but rather to ask the question of how a society that has overcome so many of the terrors men like Hamilton had to face over two centuries ago (disease, want, slavery, invading imperial armies) today seems obsessed with the small and internal when so few obstacles are in the way of thinking and living for larger purpose. After all, if men like Hamilton were able to fight for independence with barely enough food to feed an army and build a country while contending with Yellow Fever and gout, shouldn’t we moderns be doing so much more with hideous diseases banished and food (and other needs of life) plentiful?
But what if such hardships were not impediments to living a serious life, but the inspiration to live one? In fact, might Evan Hansen’s existential angst (and the angst felt by so many of us these days) derive from having inherited all the default comforts derived from the society he lives in, rather than having created that society (or contributed to its ongoing creation)?
This contrast may help solve one of the world’s great riddles: why are Israelis again and again ranked among the happiest people on the face of the earth.
Such happiness seems lunatic, given the knife-edge existence of the Jewish state and everyone dwelling within it, not to mention the sacrifices people living in that state must make in terms of high taxes and military service (including near life-long duty as reservists). But if we think of these sacrifices as contributions each citizen is making to the nation they and their parents built, then being an Israeli is revealed as synonymous with having higher purpose, a reason for existence.
With purpose, one has room in the soul for genuine love and friendship, not the pretend friendships and unrequited high-school passions of Evan Hansen’s lost high-schooler, but the deep and profound connectedness between lovers, family members, and comrades-at-arms that marked the life of Hamilton.
With this Fall’s hurricanes bringing so much peril and damage to the United States, Jewish news sources have noted that today it is Israel that is sending aid to its American landsmen, reversing a decades-long dynamic in which Americans were the givers and Israelis the recipients of charity. While such material aid is enormously welcome, it’s worth noting that the Jewish state has been exporting something much more important over the last seventy years: a way of life that provides an antidote to the existential crisis facing us all.