I first found out about the new Broadway musical Hamilton during a car ride across Michigan last November. The family was packed in the minivan on our way to Thanksgiving dinner at my brother’s in Detroit. To pass the two-and-a-half hours of car time, we agreed that each person could choose a couple songs from “their” music, and we would take turns listening to each other’s choices. When my college-age son’s turn came up, he insisted that we listen to the Hamilton cast album.
“Ugh, a musical?” we groaned. But it was his turn, so we cued up the opening song. And then the second song. And the third. And that was the end of our little agreement. No one else got a turn. We wanted to listen to Hamilton the rest of the way there and all the way back.
If you live anywhere near New York City, no doubt you know all about the show thanks to the publicity posters that wallpaper the city. Even if you don’t live near New York, you may have heard about the show. It opened on Broadway last August after a fabulously successful run Off-Broadway, and it’s been sweeping every award people can think up to give it. In fact, don’t bother trying to get tickets. The show is completely sold out until August, and even then tickets are going for between $300 and $1200.
Seriously? A show about Alexander Hamilton? He’s the guy who … wait, what did he do? Well, among other things, he shaped the United States’ financial system before being killed in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804.
Doesn’t sound like exciting enough material even for a BBC1 documentary. So what’s going on? Well, the genius behind the show is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who picked up the 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (in an airport bookstore, no less) and upon reading it, immediately recognized that in Hamilton’s story is America’s archetypal narrative.
Alexander Hamilton was born in St. Croix to a Scotsman and his common-law wife. By age 17, his father had abandoned the family, his mother had died of fever, and his island had been devastated by a hurricane. Young Alexander wrote an eloquent poem about the hurricane, submitted it to a newspaper, and soon people were taking up a collection to send him to New York for an education. So now we have a mixed-race (from the colonists’ point of view) immigrant arriving in America in 1772 with nothing but ambition, prodigious talent with words, and attitude.
It dawned on Miranda that the Founding Fathers we imagine as courtly and old were actually young, a little wild, ready to take crazy risks, and making it up as they went along. Moreover, he saw the resemblance to those who feel disenfranchised today, people who don’t feel they have a full share in America’s promise, and are willing to “rise up” to do something about it. As the New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley put it: “Before they were founding fathers, these guys were rebellious sons, moving to a new, fierce, liberating beat that never seemed to let up. ‘Hamilton’ makes us feel the unstoppable, urgent rhythm of a nation being born.” As Hamilton and the ensemble sing in the third song of the show, “Hey yo, I’m just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry/ And I’m not throwing away my shot!”
Miranda, who is Puerto Rican-American, grew up in Washington Heights, fluent in the musical languages of hip-hop, rap, R&B. He also loved Broadway musicals, as his family listened to cast albums all the time. Miranda started writing in high school, and has developed numerous professional shows, including the Tony-award-winning In the Heights. When developing Hamilton, Miranda knew he had to tell the story of this remarkable American Founder in the high-intensity vernacular musical language of today—and to use a cast of Black and Latino/a actors to play all the characters. (Well, except King George, naturally.) Miranda himself plays Hamilton.
The result is so much more than just a gimmick or even simply a “hip-hop musical” (which has been done before). It’s a full-on reclaiming of America’s history by those whom that history has marginalized. Actor Daveed Diggs, who plays both Jefferson and Lafayette, said in a fine New Yorker article that the work “feels important, because it allows us to see ourselves as part of history that we always thought we were excluded from. … Rap is the voice of the people of our generation, and of people of color, and just the fact that it exists in this piece, and is not commented upon, gives us a sense of ownership.”
Even more impressive is that Miranda has found the heart and soul of the story so that anyone can make a connection. A New York Times article from last August by Erik Piepenburg suggests a number of reasons why the show “has heat,” including the show’s diversity and its historical integrity. That integrity is especially impressive to me. Miranda didn’t just toss this thing off. He’s been working on it for about ten years. Structured basically on the fraught rivalry between Burr and Hamilton, the show manages to cover about 30 years and give a rounded picture of about a dozen characters. Miranda weaves several universal themes throughout: the feeling that time is too short, the ways we want to be remembered, and the power of rhetoric. The broad-ranging collage of musical styles, gorgeously orchestrated by Alex Lacamoire, effectively explores the human passions and sorrows behind our country’s founding: the exuberance, grief, recklessness, fear, and determination of the people who started it all.
Miranda understands that history, just as it happened, already makes a great story if you know how to tell it. No need to gloss over, dumb down, or alter things for the sake of “appeal.” Instead, Miranda has the audacity to include mind-numbing events such as the cabinet debate over a financial plan, the negotiations over the location of the capital and the banks, and the election of 1800—but he turns these moments into obnoxious, wonderful rap battles. Rap and hip-hop, Miranda proves, are more than up to the task of conveying complex ideas. In fact, few other contemporary forms have sufficient vocabulary and linguistic sophistication.
Miranda is also keenly aware of women’s roles in the revolution, and he gives his female characters terrific songs, real participation in the action, and extraordinary psychological depth. There are even some self-aware moments in the show acknowledging how difficult it is to understand how these women really thought and felt when relatively few of their words are left behind. Hamilton’s wife Eliza’s song “Burn” from the second act, for example, is a searing but wholly imagined moment in this woman’s life.
There’s a lot more to love: the allusions to other musicals, the allusions to all kinds of hip-hop stuff that I certainly don’t recognize but others tell me is there, and the fantastic humor of the various styles. King George sings as if he’s an egotistical, quasi-abusive boyfriend in Britpop, Beatles-ish style. Lafayette’s songs sound like New Orleans jazz. The Schuyler sisters sound like Destiny’s Child, and Eliza Schuyler sounds like Beyonce.
The hype over Hamilton may be driven by a significant cultural moment, and that’s reason enough to pay attention. But Hamilton is also an innovative, totally entertaining show. So even though you can’t get tickets unless you’re willing to take out a loan, you can still listen to the album, preferably under circumstances better than a car-ride to Detroit. So if you want to find out why everyone is swooning over this show, I offer my personal step-by-step plan.
- First, read the Wikipedia synopsis of the plot.
- Then download the cast album. Go ahead, it’s a good investment: 46 songs for $19. (This is one hefty musical: 46 songs?!)
- Pull up this site on your browser so you can follow the words.
- Now, listen to the first three songs, “Alexander Hamilton,” “Aaron Burr, Sir,” and “My Shot.” Skip to “You’ll Be Back.”
- Skip to “Helpless,” and admit that you are completely seduced.
- Now go on to “Satisfied.”
- Yep, now you’re helpless, too.
- Start at the beginning, ready to listen to the whole thing, and prepare to be dazzled. Have some kleenex handy. You will weep.
I’ve been thinking about this show a lot during all the Martin Luther King, Jr., commemoration events this month. And I wonder. The diversity-and-inclusion workshops and the Black History month speakers and the blacklivesmatter hashtags and the marches across campuses to remember the Civil Rights movement—they’re all important. But sometimes these gestures seem so tiny and incremental and utterly insufficient. I wonder what really shifts the ground under everyone’s feet, what really humbles the hearts of the privileged, what really helps people who feel disenfranchised and other-ed feel as if they are full members of the club. I certainly am not in a position to give an answer.
But I think we shouldn’t underestimate the power of art—music, story, bodies on a stage. In an age of racial hostility and political pugilism, a Broadway musical reclaims our nation’s founding in the vibrant language of the immigrant, the disenfranchised, the descendants of slaves—and makes it emotionally comprehensible (maybe for the first time) even to a middle-class, middle-aged white girl like me. The stories we tell about ourselves and each other matter deeply, and sometimes we can gather around a story well told and feel in our souls, at last, that the Our in Our Story includes everyone.