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HamiltonThe musical Hamilton is star-spangled patriotic and worthy of attention, even though hip-hop may not be the favorite musical genre of most Imaginative Conservatives. Why? Intelligence finds the answer to a question, but genius answers a question no one else has thought to ask. The genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda leapt across three centuries to answer the question of how to make the history of America’s Founding come alive in a musical. Mr. Miranda’s genius brings the American Revolution to life with a cast of multi-racial revolutionaries, mirroring the face of America today, who sing and dance in today’s revolutionary genres of rap and hip-hop. Mr. Miranda created and played the role of the “$10 Founding Father without a father” himself.[1]

Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal called Hamilton “the best and most important Broadway musical of the past decade.”[2] New York Times columnist David Brooks described it as “one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in a theater… bold, rousing, sexy, tear-jerking and historically respectful — the sort of production that strips things down and asks you to think afresh about your country and your life.”[3]

The musical Hamilton opened off-Broadway in New York in February 2015 and was so popular that it moved to Broadway in August 2015 and has been packing in audiences to sold-out performances eight times a week ever since. An avalanche of awards and prizes has followed. Hamilton received a record-breaking sixteen Tony nominations and took home eleven. The musical won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and received the Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by History. The cast album received a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, and was named the number two Album of the Year 2015 by Billboard. Among many honors since, Lin-Manuel Miranda received the George Washington Prize Special Achievement Award and a “Genius Award” from the MacArthur Foundation.

Why does the musical Hamilton evoke such a seismic response? First and foremost, it is a powerful story, brilliantly told. Secondly, through Hamilton’s story, we experience the dramatic story of the birth of our nation all the way from the American Revolution through the ratification of the Constitution and the presidency of John Adams. Third, Hamilton’s biography runs parallel to that of the musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda in striking ways. Both are immigrants and outsiders whose sheer genius has left a mark on history. And finally, this rendition of Hamilton’s personal story embodies many of the classical elements of tragedy Aristotle describes in his Poetics, making this biography a piece of high literary art.

A moment of truth about this author: Like most people in America, I have not yet been able to see the Broadway production of Hamilton. But I have been listening to the cast album almost non-stop since discovering it a year ago, watching excerpts online, and sharing the music with friends, family, and the university students I teach, much to their surprise. (The buzz on campus: “Professor Elliott was playing rap in her class yesterday!”) Some of my most fanatically devoted students have memorized the entire score.

“This is the story of America then told by America now,” says Hamilton creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who seasoned the melting pot of music with a little pop and a dash of R&B, throwing in a ballad or two. The contemporary musical flavor keeps the history fresh, while the musical’s costumes are eighteenth century. As improbable as this mixture may seem, it sizzles. The characters of George Washington, Aaron Burr, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Marquis de Lafayette join Hamilton, his son Philip, his wife Eliza, and her sister Angelica, as they debate, dance, and duel through the birth of our republic. The high energy, rapid-fire, hip-hop lyrics pack more syllables per minute than any other form of music (more than 20,000 words in just under three hours), which allowed Mr. Miranda to pour rich layers of meticulously researched historical content into impeccable rhyming couplets. The music is captivating while the lyrics sparkle with passion and intelligence.

There isn’t a whiff of historical stuffiness. Ambition is pitted against ambition, as the characters circle around each other in political intrigue as recognizable as that of contemporary Washington. The razzle-dazzle number “The Room Where it Happens” features Aaron Burr (played by Leslie Odom Jr.), who is maneuvering for power: “No one really knows how / The game is played, / The art of the trade, / How the sausage gets made.”[4] But the story doesn’t descend to cynicism. In fact, it has a kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm that inspires, much to the consternation of educators who have denigrated the Founding era as evil propagated by dead white males who favored the upper classes. Mr. Miranda’s interpretation obliterates that vision. The history of the American Revolution comes alive in the nonstop, overlapping layers of language and music, evoking fear in danger, respect for courage, and patriotic fervor. It is impossible not to be moved.

The opening words from Aaron Burr’s lips sketch the arc of Alexander Hamilton’s extraordinary life:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a

Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten

spot in the Caribbean by providence,

impoverished, in squalor,

grow up to be a hero and a scholar?[5]

The rest of the musical provides a nuanced answer to this complex question. Against all odds, Alexander Hamilton survived the abandonment of his father, an illness that killed his mother and nearly took his own life, the death of a cousin who became his guardian, and a fierce hurricane that devastated the Caribbean island of St. Croix, where he lived. A passionate, literate letter that young Hamilton wrote about the hurricane’s destruction was published, moving local island merchants to take up a collection to send this promising teenaged orphan to New York City. He landed there untutored but full of ambition. He knew he would have one chance to leave his mark on history, and he was not going to throw that opportunity away.

… I’m just like my country,

I’m young, scrappy and hungry,

and I’m not throwing away my shot!

I’m ‘a get a scholarship to King’s College.

I prob’ly shouldn’t brag, but dag, I amaze and astonish.

The problem is I got a lot of brains but no polish…[6]

This “diamond in the rough” is a quick learner in every way, utilizing his intellectual gifts and newly acquired social skills to “rise up.”[7] Hamilton joins the American Revolution to distinguish himself in battle and becomes the indispensable right-hand man of General George Washington. Handsome and charming, though penniless, Hamilton wins the hand of Elizabeth Schuyler, a daughter of one of the richest men in the colonies, and rises to the top of the military, social, and political milieu by sheer merit of his genius. He writes fifty-one of the Federalist papers, advocating ratification of the Constitution, and serves as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Under President Washington, Hamilton becomes the youngest cabinet member, the first Secretary of the Treasury, and the architect of the financial system of the new nation.

As we follow the meteoric ascent of Hamilton, we meet other characters who figure prominently in the American Founding, including Thomas Jefferson, with whom Hamilton clashes in Cabinet meetings, and the Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette, who leads troops to aid the colonists in their war for independence from Britain. Rapper Daveed Diggs plays both Jefferson and Lafayette. Renée Elise Goldsberry delivers a Tony-winning portrayal of Angelica Schuyler, who introduces Hamilton to her sister and future wife, Elizabeth, played by Phillipa Soo, who also garnered a Tony nomination. Leslie Odom Jr. won a Tony for his portrayal of Aaron Burr, the friend and rival who ultimately kills Hamilton in a duel. (True to character, Mr. Miranda was up against Mr. Odom for this award.) George Washington is played with gravitas by Christopher Jackson. Jasmine Cephas-Jones doubles as Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds; Jonathan Groff, who also garnered a Tony nomination, originated the role of King George III, who has some of the funniest lines in the musical. He sings in the style of a British pop breakup song:

You’ll be back, soon you’ll see

You’ll remember you belong to me…

And when push comes to shove

I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!

Da da da dat da da da da da daya da…[8]

There are distinct similarities between Alexander Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Both began life as outsiders: Hamilton immigrating from a Caribbean island, and Mr. Miranda as the son of parents from Puerto Rico. Mr. Miranda underscores the contributions of Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette, who say in unison: “Immigrants – we get the job done!” followed by a fist bump. Hamilton’s extraordinary intelligence made him a voracious reader as a youngster and he poured out a torrent of written words throughout his adult life. Mr. Miranda’s parents recognized early on that their son was a prodigy and placed him in a New York school for the gifted and talented. It is obvious that he read widely. “Everybody there was smarter than I was, and half of them were funnier,” recalls Mr. Miranda. “So I had to figure out my thing and run really fast in that narrow lane.”[9] His thing proved to be writing musicals, and he hit the ground running. While still in high school Mr. Miranda started writing his first musical, In the Heights, an autobiographical look at growing up in New York with Puerto Rican roots, which eventually made it to Broadway.

After winning a Tony Award for In the Heights, Mr. Miranda headed off for a vacation and picked up Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. As Mr. Miranda was lounging in a hammock, Hamilton’s story set his mind ablaze. Mr. Miranda saw parallels between the lives of Hamilton and rap artists Tupac and Biggie: They came from broken homes, grew up ambitious and verbally adept, and died in displays of male bravado.[10] It was clear to Mr. Miranda that rap was the genre to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton. Mr. Miranda immersed himself in history and literature of the Founding era, trying to get inside the heads of the historical figures he wanted to portray, while getting the history right. He spent six years researching and writing the score, which takes very little license with the facts for purposes of storytelling. To foster the creative process, Mr. Miranda went to the places Alexander Hamilton had been, sitting in the same rooms he had lived in, looking at the things Hamilton would have seen. Then he let it all simmer, creating a rich stew from which lyrics would emerge, sometimes unexpectedly.

When Mr. Miranda went to historian Ron Chernow to share the opening song from Hamilton, the author of the biography was dumbfounded. “You just did the first forty pages of my book in one song,” he exclaimed. “I know. Isn’t it great!” crowed Mr. Miranda. Once as he was on his way to a friend’s birthday party, Mr. Miranda listened to the rhythm of the train on tracks and suddenly the words to one of Aaron Burr’s songs came to him:

Death doesn’t discriminate

Between the sinners

And the saints

It takes and it takes and it takes

And we keep living anyway

We rise and we fall

And we break

And we make our mistakes

And if there’s a reason I’m still alive

When everyone who loves me has died

I’m willing to wait for it

I’m willing to wait for it.[11]

The astonished songwriter recalls, “That came in one giant lump on the train to Brooklyn.” So Mr. Miranda got off the train, went in to his friend and said “Happy Birthday! Now I have to go home and finish writing this song!”[12]

One aspect of Hamilton’s success is the fact that it tells a great story, a meteoric rise from rags to riches on the way up from obscurity to power, combined with all the elements of a Greek tragedy on the way down, as described by Aristotle in his Poetics.[13] Aristotle wrote that the plot for a good tragedy “should have for its subject a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end,” with a “single hero or a single period.”[14] Hamilton’s portrayal of the American Founding era clearly fills the bill on this score. Aristotle continues, saying hero of such a tragedy should be “above the common level,”[15] renowned and prosperous, whose misfortune is brought about by some error or frailty. Actions should originate between friends or enemies, or be committed in ignorance.[16] Aristotle concludes that the actions should be true to life and consistent with the protagonist’s character.[17]

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s depiction of Alexander Hamilton fulfills these requirements almost perfectly in telling the story of this extraordinary Founding Father. Hamilton was exceedingly intelligent, gifted in leadership, and successful in all he undertook. But his excessive libido proved to be his fatal flaw. (Martha Washington named her feral tom cat after Hamilton.) When Maria Reynolds came to his door begging for assistance, Hamilton took pity on her, then succumbed to her offer of sexual favors and became ensnared by her husband in blackmail. This sexual indiscretion sets a series of events into motion (spoiler alert!) that will eclipse Hamilton’s political life, damage his marriage, claim the life of his son, and ultimately snuff out his own. When Hamilton later dueled with his friend and sometimes enemy, Aaron Burr, Alexander shot in the air, just as he had advised his son Philip to do. This tragic miscalculation of the honorable intentions of their opponents proved fatal for father and son, completing the form of a Greek tragedy.

Mr. Miranda wanted to make history come alive, especially for students, through the musical Hamilton. This is becoming a reality through a $1.47 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, through which 20,000 New York City public school students from the least advantaged neighborhoods are being given access to $10 tickets for Wednesday matinees, after which they can interact with the performers. The Lehrman Institute is also working to integrate the musical into teaching materials for the classroom to foster appreciation of America’s history.

July 9, 2016 marked the end of an era. That night was the last Broadway performance of the original Hamilton cast members Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., and Phillipa Soo, who have played Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton since the show opened. Plans are underway to open with a cast in Chicago later this year, with other cities queuing up for performances by a traveling cast next year, including London and Houston. You can see lots of snatches of the musical online, like the performance for the Tony Awards. The cast was interviewed for “Sixty Minutes,” which also filmed the making of the cast album.[18] Mr. Miranda gave homage to Founding Fathers on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and appeared on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” riding along with the host for his “Broadway Carpool Karaoke” singing songs from Hamilton (which is hilarious). But just listening to the cast album is a rich experience, particularly a version that shows the lyrics.

My husband and I have wanted tickets for the past year, but have reluctantly concluded that the cost of scalper tickets, airfare, and hotel would wreck the family budget. But Charlotte sports writer Joe Posnanski, whose 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth was obsessed with Hamilton, raised money by taking speaking engagements to pay the unspeakable sum to take her to New York to see the Broadway show. She was ecstatic. Elizabeth already knew all the words to every song. Overcome with excitement, she clutched her father’s arm throughout the surreal experience of actually being there. I’ll let him tell the rest of the story after the last curtain call:

As we walked out into New York, the echo of the show still ringing, she held on to me tight, and she stumbled because she was still inside the dream. She leaned up and kissed me on the cheek.

“Are you going to start crying again?” I asked her.

“No,” she said, but she did, just a little, and she clung to me tighter, and I leaned down and sang in her ear:

‘They’ll tell the story of tonight.”

She smiled and wiped away her tear. “They’ll tell the story of tonight,” she sang back.[19]

The next morning, she burst into tears again when she saw the Tweet responding to her father’s message to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author and star of Hamilton.

Sobbing reading this in my dressing room after a long week.

Thanks Joe. Thanks Elizabeth.

Books on the topic in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

[1] Act I, Hamilton

[2] Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 6, 2015

[3] David Brooks, New York Times, Feb. 24, 2015

[4] Act II, Hamilton

[5] Act I, Hamilton

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Sixty Minutes Overtime,” interview of Lin-Manuel Miranda by Charlie Rose.

[10] “The Hamilton Experience,” David Brooks, The New York Times, Feb. 24, 2015.

[11] Act II, Hamilton

[12] “Sixty Minutes Overtime,” interview of Lin-Manuel Miranda by Charlie Rose. For more about the background of Hamilton’s lyrics, see Mr. Miranda’s posts on Genius.com.

[13] Aristotle, Poetics, Translated by S. H. Butcher, Provided by The Internet Classics Archive.

[14] Ibid, XXIII.

[15] Ibid, XV.

[16] Ibid, XIV.

[17] Ibid, XV.

[18] Making the Cast Album: “60 Minutes Overtime

[19] ‘”Hamilton’ works its magic on a Charlotte dad-daughter night that will live forever,” Charlotte Observer

 

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2 replies to this post
  1. A beautiful overview of this compelling work. I want my students to read this as we are studying theatre through a study of Miranda’s brilliant work.

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