The genius of Hamilton: The Musical is that it tells the story of America’s improbable success by focusing on the brazen and unapologetic Founder who, just like his young country, was “young, scrappy, and hungry.” His innovative mind could think only five steps at a time, but in the process of playing catch-up owing to his late entrance onto the Revolutionary stage, he managed to, like the musical dedicated to his legacy, exceed all expectations.
Hamilton tells the story of the turbulent and tragic life of Alexander Hamilton, the brave orphan turned Columbia student, Revolutionary hero, first Treasury secretary, and Federalist Party leader. His personal life was tumultuous and heartbreaking, characterized by a traumatic childhood, the nation’s first scandalous affair, the death of his son, and his own untimely death at the hands of Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel. Needless to say, it makes for excellent drama.
The musical score reflects the highly energized time in which Hamilton lived. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator and star, manages to execute the impossible, flawlessly integrating pop, R&B, hip-hop, and rap with traditional elements of musical theater. Yes, debate over the Proclamation of Neutrality is in the form of a rap battle. And yes, it works.
Hamilton is about as historically accurate as is possible for theatrical adaptation. It even incorporates several direct quotes. For instance, George Washington (played by Christopher Jackson) sings parts of his Farewell Address during the number “One Last Time.” The musical remains true to the major facts of the Founding and is loose only with minor details, taking creative license merely to streamline the narrative. Miranda even captures the Founders’ complex relationships with each other, a reality some professional historians stumble with: Washington did not just rubber stamp Hamilton’s plans, Madison did not simply live in the shadow of Jefferson, and Hamilton’s feud with Burr was decades in the making.
The musical crams a surprising amount of history into three hours. The time between the Colonies’ victory in the Revolutionary War and the formation of Washington’s first cabinet takes only six and a half minutes onstage, and offers a charming overture of all the tunes from Act One in the process! “Non-Stop” also contains arguably the most important lines in the whole production. About two minutes into the number, Alexander Hamilton knocks on the door of Aaron Burr to try and enlist him as a fellow author of what would become The Federalist Papers. (Here Miranda does take creative license—Hamilton never actually approached Burr.) Burr responds by pointing out that the Constitution is a “mess” and “full of contradictions.” Hamilton does him one better by admitting that independence itself is full of contradictions, but stresses the need to defend the Constitution in any event, because “we have to start somewhere.”
Here, as throughout the entire musical, the author does an excellent job highlighting America’s original sin of slavery while still praising the Founders’ accomplishments. Just because equality under the law was not practiced at the birth of the nation did not mean it was not possible to attain down the road. There was something about America worth investing in regardless, as stated by Alexander Hamilton (who was involved with the early anti-slavery movement) in the opening Federalist Paper: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” In other words, a government by some of the People, with an eventual shift toward a government by all of the People, was a unique experiment in the science of politics that was worth trying.
The musical’s narrator is none other than Aaron Burr (portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr.), who plays the cautious politician who enviously walked among statesmen like Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson. He stands in contrast to these other men, who, although they had vicious internal disagreements, were working to bring about the best America they could envision, a “great unfinished symphony.” Burr is different. He has no beliefs, boldly declaring that he is “waiting to see which way the wind will blow,” and just wants to be in “The Room Where It Happens.” In this instant classic Broadway show tune, there is no sugarcoating the political process and how things actually get done. It’s a refreshing break from the current rhetoric that compromise is a good in and of itself.
Considering the huge differences in Hamilton’s and Burr’s understanding of the purpose of politics, there was only one way, given the times, that the feud between them could have ended. In the musical, Hamilton endorses Jefferson over Burr in the election of 1800 because “Jefferson has beliefs/ Burr has none,” compelling Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel. The rest of the story is history.
The opening number of Hamilton: The Musical asks a simple question: “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?” The answer was as true, unique, and praiseworthy during the birth of the United States as it is today. In America, “even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints.”
The show has merited praise that crosses cultural and political lines. Dick Cheney, Justice Stephen Breyer, Beyoncé, Rupert Murdoch, President Obama, and many others have all proclaimed their delight in the show. In highly polarized times, the musical is a reminder that gridlock is a feature, not a bug of our system, but that signal moments in history demand the bridging of partisan and ideological divides.
Shiza Francis is a junior at Villanova University. A national tour of Hamilton: The Musical is scheduled to begin in 2017.
Original Image of Alexander Hamilton via Wikimedia Commons.