Jeanne Houck reviews Hamilton

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President Barack Obama meets the cast of Hamilton, July 18, 2015.

President Barack Obama meets the cast and crew of Hamilton, July 18, 2015.

[Crossposted from The American Historian Online]

Jeanne Houck (Ph.D., NYU) is a public historian and filmmaker in New York City who served as project curator for the Tribeca Film Institute’s documentary film screening programs on the history of American popular music. She serves on the board of Waterwell Theatre Company, and is in the Institutional Advancement Department at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

Hamilton is a new hip-hop–infused musical that debuted on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theater in August 2015. The musical has received enthusiastic critical acclaim and experienced unprecedented advance ticket sales. Its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, previously made theater history with In the Heights, a Tony-winning musical that used Spanglish, rap, and hip-hop to tell a story about Latino families in New York City’s Washington Heights. With Hamilton, Miranda has once again made history. Working at the intersection of Broadway, the multicultural influences of hip-hop, and American history, Miranda has contributed innovations to the language of musicals and offered a public history that bridges the gap between “popular” and “academic” audiences.

One of the defining aspects of the performance is its cast of mostly African American and Latino actors playing the “founding fathers.” Miranda, who plays Alexander Hamilton and wrote the play’s music, book, and lyrics, states: “This is a story about America then, told by America now.” The musical depicts Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, James Madison, and others making war, writing constitutions, debating points of economic structure, and founding a nation. Three women in Hamilton’s life are fully rendered characters, including his wife Eliza; her sister Angelica Schuyler; and Maria Reynolds, whose affair with Hamilton causes his fall from grace.

Miranda was inspired by Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (2004). The biography made such an impression on Miranda that he asked Chernow to act as the project’s historical consultant. When Chernow wondered how hip-hop could be used to tell such a complex story, Miranda told him that with hip-hop’s dense, rapid lyrics, an enormous amount of information could be put into songs. Chernow said he was astounded how the first forty pages of his book were accurately condensed into the first song of the musical.

The musical’s narrative force and emotional intensity are driven by songs that draw mainly on rap, hip-hop, and R&B ballads, as well as a touch of early 1960s Britpop in a cameo by King George III. The rapid-fire delivery and youthful urgency of hip-hop conveys the passion, urgency, intellectualism, and idealism of the American Revolution and Early Republic. Miranda also offers the story of Alexander Hamilton as the quintessential immigrant and outsider who lends his talents and drive to form a new nation. The show’s multicultural casting reinforces this message, as does one of its refrains: “Hey, yo, I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I am not throwing away my shot.”

Miranda’s musical is motivated by a sense that Hamilton has traditionally been the most overlooked and misunderstood founding father. The musical’s depiction defies an image of Hamilton that dates back to the era that positioned Hamilton as a Northern aristocrat in favor of concentrated wealth versus Jefferson as the democratic agrarian. In Hamilton, the audience is reminded that the story is more complex and is made aware that Jefferson as slaveholder contradicts the image of Jefferson as a champion of democracy. And Hamilton, the musical notes, had humble beginnings and was on the record as an abolitionist.

Miranda’s sympathetic interpretation of Hamilton begins as the houselights rise on Aaron Burr (played by Leslie Odom Jr.). Hamilton’s friend and nemesis, the country’s third vice president, and the man who kills Hamilton in a duel, asks, “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, to squalor/ Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

The question drives the narrative forward. How did Hamilton rise from a childhood of deprivations and ongoing struggle in St. Croix to become a wartime adjutant to General Washington, battlefield hero, member of the Constitutional Convention and New York Ratifying Convention, orator, lawyer, author of the Federalist Papers, the prime mover in creating the country’s financial system, the first secretary of the treasury, and the subject of America’s first political sex scandal? And through it all, how did his rivalries with influential men such as Burr, Jefferson, and Madison shape the course of American history and the way that future generations understand Hamilton?

Miranda drew on Chernow’s work to keep Hamilton close to the historical record, as well as The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr by H. W. Brands and Affairs of Honor by Joanne Freeman. However, as an artistic project, Hamilton takes some license, shifting elements to fit the narrative. For example, Samuel Seabury’s pamphlets against the Continental Congress are portrayed as having been published after 1776, when actually it was 1774 and 1775. The show’s plot has John Adams fire Hamilton when Adams becomes president, which he did not. And Miranda has Jefferson, Madison, and Burr confront Hamilton about the Reynolds money, when in reality it was James Monroe and fellow Congressmen Frederick Muhlenberg and Abraham Venable.

These adjustments to move the plot forward do not detract from Miranda’s basic accomplishment—he gets the history essentially right and leverages the artistic form to approach a deeper understanding about the subject. For example, in a reimagined cabinet meeting, a dandyish Jefferson (played by Daveed Diggs)—who evokes pop icons Prince and Morris Day—comes up against Hamilton in a series of rap battles. While audiences are delighted, the lyrics give a highly complex summary of key issues of the era: Should the federal government assume the state debt? Should a national bank be established? Should the United States provide aid to our ally France in its war with England? The rapid-fire meter allows for a nuanced expression of the complicated political arguments of the era. Hamilton engages audiences in these questions, contributing to the civic discourse and making them accessible in a way that most academic forms of writing are unable.

Historical memory is at the heart of Hamilton. Perhaps nowhere else in popular culture has the question of historical memory been asked better and to such compelling effect. A recurring theme in Hamilton is the question of who gets to tell someone’s story and what gets passed down  through the generations. The character of Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (played by Phillipa Soo), makes the point that each generation crafts its own understanding of the past. In the final scene, Eliza tells us that she too left a legacy. Though her widowhood was beset with economic troubles, she was active in charitable organizations, held positions in the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York, and founded orphanages in New York City and Washington, D.C. With pride, she adds that she worked tirelessly to establish her husband’s legacy and repair his reputation, spending nearly fifty years collecting and preserving his papers and letters after his death.

Hamilton affirms that the stories we tell about ourselves are important and shape our reality. The conversation will continue as an even larger audience is exposed to the work. The cast recording was recently released, and the New York City Department of Education partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation and the Gilder Lehrman Institute to make it possible for 20,000 children to see the musical. And as Hamilton makes its way through the pathways of our popular culture, have no doubt that Hamilton will become one of the most beloved productions performed in high schools across the country.

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