There are many reasons why Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary War hero, principal author of The Federalist Papers, and America’s first treasury secretary, never could have become president. In some quarters, it was blemish enough that he was illegitimate and an immigrant. Born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, he came to New York City in 1774, when he was 17. Then there was his spectacular adulterous affair—an extortionist setup for which he paid considerable hush money, and about which he later produced a 95-page pamphlet detailing the illicit relationship in all its wanton detail in order to prove that the disbursements were not evidence that he’d embezzled the Treasury, as his opponents contended. Those same adversaries—chiefly Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, aristocrats who owed their wealth to slavery—vilified the self-made, abolitionist Hamilton as an out-of-touch elitist. Being an intellectual policy wonk and a long-winded, inextinguishable hothead didn’t help matters either: At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton extemporaneously held forth for six nonstop hours. Worst of all, as Ron Chernow writes in his 2004 record-straightening and captivating biography, Alexander Hamilton, he “violated what became the first commandment of American politics: thou shalt always be optimistic.… He was incapable of the resolutely uplifting themes that were to become mandatory in American politics.”
When the composer, lyricist, and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda went on vacation in Mexico some seven years ago, he took Chernow’s tome as a beach read. A couple of chapters in, reading about Hamilton as a “poor boy from the West Indies [who] commanded attention with the force and fervor of his words,” Miranda saw—and more important, heard—the bragging, swaggering, word-spinning, quick-tempered men of the American Revolution synchronize with the hip-hop rhythms and run-ins that formed the popular sound track of his teen and early adult years. (Miranda was born in 1980.) Soon he was working on a mixtape that mashed up the founding fathers with beat-boxing bruthas.
Invited by the White House in 2009 to perform a number from his Tony Award–winning 2008 musical In the Heights, Miranda offered instead a rap tune about Hamilton, who, he said, “embodies hip-hop.” Spoken in the voice of Aaron Burr, the vice president who fatally wounded Hamilton in a duel in 1804, it begins:
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 ten-dollar founding father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter.
After a few more verses, it continues:
The ship is in the harbor now, see if you
Can spot him
Another immigrant, comin’ up from the
His enemies destroyed his rep, America
And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him.
This exposition-packed rap became the electrifying choral opening number of Hamilton, the nearly three-hour sung-through bio-show that follows its hero through his quick rise from humble origins to the height of inventing American government—and then his decline as he blusters and blunders at work and in his domestic life and the political winds shift. “I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy, and hungry,” Hamilton sings, making explicit the way his own story parallels America’s.
With its top-notch cast of 21 performers in near-constant motion, Hamilton played for 15 sold-out weeks at Off Broadway’s Public Theater last winter and opened to rapturous reviews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on August 6. The Broadway run garnered hefty advance sales of $30 million, so good luck finding a seat before October, unless you’re willing to shell out around $350 per ticket, the lowest prices in the resale market.
The show’s popularity is no surprise, considering the dynamism created not only by Miranda’s book, lyrics, and score, but also by a seamless collaboration among director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and the design team of David Korins (scenery), Paul Tazewell (costumes), and Howell Binkley (lights). The entire show bursts with youthful, revolutionary energy on a rustic, wooden unit set with a turntable that helps keep things flowing.
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Hamilton is winning its loudest accolades as a “game changer” for bringing rap to Broadway. But that’s not really the primary source of the show’s success, nor of its importance.
Miranda (who also plays the title role) is a clever and daring rhymester, cramming lots of information into most of Hamilton’s 34 numbers. (Most musicals have a little more than half as many songs.) He expects you to lean forward and really listen to Hamilton (it’s heartening that he does so), and rewards you amply for the effort. Playing with internal and near rhymes as well as perfect ones, Miranda is never just showing off or resting on his assonance; you can glean the story’s narrative range from the line endings alone. Here are just a few of the innumerable examples: “stay in it…bayonet”; “disgust me…discussed me…can trust me”; “however he wants…pièce de résistance”; “war vet…more debt”; “courted me…escorted me…extorted me for a sordid fee”; “resistance…existence…indifference…deliverance.”
Still, it’s not as if hip-hop has never seen the light of the Broadway stage before. Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam enjoyed a six-month run as many as a dozen years ago. Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk joined rap to the tradition of tap even earlier. Miranda’s own In the Heights (with the book by Quiaria Alegría Hudes) fused plenty of rap with the show’s Latin rhythms. Beyond Broadway, works like Will Power’s Flow and Rennie Harris’s Rome and Jewels go back more than a decade, and a hip-hop theater festival with national scope has been thriving since 2000.
Besides, for all the “check it” “what?” “yo” “unh” “work, work” “uh-huh” “woof woof” “whoa, whoa, yeah” assigned to the chorus in the script, it does not suffice to label Hamilton a rap musical because it features a mixture of popular musical styles. Thanks to the arrangements by musical director Alex Lacamoire, the score includes tinkling harpsichords, schmaltzy strings, and lush choral harmonies. The Schuyler sisters—Angelica (Hamilton’s close, perhaps romantic, friend, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry), Eliza (his wife, Phillipa Soo), and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones)—trade fast-talking verses and harmonize on choruses in an R&B groove that sounds like Destiny’s Child; Burr (a smashing, properly smarmy Leslie Odom Jr.) busts out with a fit of envy in the form of a razzmatazz show-tune, “The Room Where It Happens” (commenting on the secret meeting among Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison at which American government’s first quid pro quo was bargained). Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) opens the second act returning from Paris and asking, in a boogie-woogie number, “What’d I Miss?” And there are several (maybe one too many in the second act) beltable ballads. England’s King George (a hilarious Jonathan Groff) pouts about the loss of the colonies in the mode of a bouncy British breakup tune: “What comes next? / You’ve been freed. / Do you know how hard it is to lead? / You’re on your own. / Awesome. Wow. / Do you have a clue what happens now?”
More than the rap element alone, what’s actually exciting the multitudes (or at least the reviewers) is the way rap has been so smoothly incorporated into an old, beloved form. Like any great innovator, Miranda has grafted fresh branches onto a stable trunk, not hacked down the tree. Hamilton makes deft use of standard Broadway elements: The opening song is a classic establishing number; Hamilton and his comrades beguile the audience with a charm song; several major characters take a turn at an I want–I am song; romances and their love ballads intertwine with a big-canvas plot. Central themes are reprised (Hamilton’s assertion that “I am not throwing away my shot” is repeated several times, eventually turning from a vow to make the most of every opportunity to an ironic comment on his final gesture in the duel with Burr.) Action moves through the songs—most wittily in the rap battles through which Jefferson and Hamilton debate monetary policy and intervention in the French Revolution. Here’s a sample:
If New York’s in debt—
Why should Virginia bear it?
Huh! Our debts are paid, I’m afraid.
Don’t tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade.
In Virginia, we plant seeds in the ground.
We create. You just wanna move our money around.
A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor.
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor.
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.” Yeah, keep ranting.
We know who’s really doing the planting.
And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment
Don’t lecture me about the war; you didn’t fight in it.
From late-20th-century musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, Miranda borrows the device of using the title character’s nemesis as the narrator. And he doesn’t shy away from the blatant tear-jerking of Les Misérables magnitude in a couple of moments, such as the death scene of Hamilton’s oldest son in 1801, shot in a duel defending his father from calumny, and wife Eliza’s forgiveness of his philandering as they mourn their son together—arguably an 11 o’clock number. (This scene is one of several in which Miranda necessarily collapses time, adapting historical events for the sake of dramatic efficiency.) Even the looser uncoiling in Act II of a tightly wound Act I follows form: That’s an age-old bête noire of the musical theater.
Most of all, Miranda harks back to the golden-age musical and its sense of good cheer. (“Look around look around at how / Lucky we are to be alive right now” is one of Eliza’s motifs.) Hamilton recalls the spirit of shows staged before edginess and angst were brought into the genre by the likes of Stephen Sondheim or Kander and Ebb—back, that is, to the day when, like American politics, Broadway musicals also followed a commandment to be optimistic and uplifting. The shows may have had dark, even tragic, elements (Jud in Oklahoma! or the eviction in Fiddler on the Roof, for example), but in the end they left audiences with a good feeling as they celebrated a community that cohered and looked to the future (and even to the rainbow). And often that sense of community and sense of promise came from a wistful idea of America.
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The golden-age book musical has long addressed the question of national self-definition. Not every one of these musicals takes up this theme, and often it is presented obliquely, but it has been astonishingly persistent. Many of the most enduring musicals have responded to contemporary currents that invited audiences to reconsider the very meaning of Americanness. There’s Oklahoma! (1943), with its unifying spirit as the farmer and cowman become friends and the US incorporates Western territories, premiering during a time of war. (A powerfully seething revival directed by Daniel Fish played at this year’s Bard SummerScape program.) Or The Music Man (1957), with its huckstering disruption of small-town smugness as the American suburbs expanded, or Fiddler on the Roof (1964), a story of perseverance and persecution in the old country at a time when the United States was beginning to conceive of itself as a nation of immigrants. (A new production will open this fall on Broadway, directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Danny Burstein.) Another is 1776 (1969), in which John Adams struggles to persuade representatives of the 13 colonies to sign the Declaration of Independence, winning the Best Musical Tony at a time of deep national discord.
Even beyond the golden age, when Broadway’s role as a spearhead of popular music weakened and its economic calculus changed, musicals have continued to provide a platform for America to reflect on itself in works that expand the cast of the national narrative—La Cage aux Folles in 1983, Rent in ’96—or to look back historically at the struggles to hold it to its promise (Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, 1995; Ragtime, 1996; Caroline, or Change, 2004; Assassins, 2004).
Hamilton not only assumes a place among these productions; it unabashedly asserts that it belongs there. As much as its lyrics allude to rap stars and their songs—there are verbal hat tips to Mobb Deep, the Fugees, Grandmaster Flash, Brand Nubian, and especially the Notorious BIG (whose “Ten Crack Commandments” is remade into “Duel Commandments,” which dynamically explains the protocol for affairs of honor)—the show also quotes from the musical-theater canon. George Washington (Christopher Jackson) borrows from The Pirates of Penzance when he calls himself the “model of a modern major general”; Hamilton invokes The Last Five Years when he pays off his blackmailer, telling him, “Nobody needs to know.” Burr gets in two references in a single rhyme as he urges his rebel colleagues to stay calm: “The situation is fraught” (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). “You’ve got to be carefully taught” (South Pacific’s liberal outcry against racism). Quoting 1776, Hamilton cries, “Sit down, John!” (adding an obscene epithet) as he drops his infamous screed-pamphlet against John Adams onto the floor. I think I spotted a choreographic quote of 1776, too, in a quick tableau of founders who gather together, then spiral apart.
These nods aren’t just a game for devotees of Rap Genius or All That Chat: They place rap in the legacy of the musical theater that Hamilton lays a claim to. As the Broadway stage was once a source of Top 40 hits, Hamilton insists that contemporary popular music is a rich source for Broadway. Miranda heaps adoration upon the American songbook while introducing a bunch of new pages. All those white male (mostly Jewish) songsters don’t have to be shoved aside so that Broadway can hear the rest of America singing.
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The composition of Hamilton’s company makes this expansive point most emphatically: All the principal roles, except for King George, are played by actors of color. This is not color-blind casting, though that’s the phrase numerous articles about the show have employed. Race and ethnicity aren’t meant to disappear into irrelevance here; they are significant. True, seeing Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the rest of the colonial crew played by black, Latino, and Asian-American actors isn’t a narrative snag. This is theater, after all, good old-fashioned make-believe. Actors portray specific characters (from whom they differ in myriad ways, even when they’re the same race), and audiences follow along. But Hamilton wouldn’t have clicked with white actors in these roles. The theatrical, corporeal point, which can’t be conveyed by the script or score alone, is that America’s history—and its future—belong to men and women of color as profoundly as to anyone else.
The gesture parallels that of the painter Kehinde Wiley, who refigures Old Master portraits by swapping out their subjects—white aristocrats—for black men and women from all walks of life. Hamilton, too, puts once-absent figures into a familiar frame, reviving the artistic form while at the same time asking us to consider all that we’ve missed when our traditions made them invisible. If it’s a little disappointing that by the end, the show’s focus shifts from the issue of what American democracy should look like to who should tell the hero’s story, the casting joins these questions inexorably.
This theatrical fact gives Hamilton some genuine progressive bona fides. Miranda goes even further to claim them. Early in the play, Hamilton confers with French-born Lafayette about their victories in battle, saying, “Finally on the field. We’ve had quite a run.” And Lafayette replies, “Immigrants…” Then they finish the line in unison while high-fiving each other: “…we get the job done!” Miranda repeatedly finds ways to put the fact of slavery (and Hamilton’s ardent opposition to it) into the text—the first reference comes in the play’s 10th line. His depiction of Jefferson as a foppish blowhard may be historically inaccurate—Chernow points out that Jefferson hated controversy and was retiring in debates, opting to use proxies for his dirty tricks—but Miranda efficiently reveals him as the cynical manipulator he was. He even finds a way to mention Jefferson’s slave mistress, Sally Hemings, having him call out, in his entrance song, “Sally, be a lamb, darlin’” and open a letter for him. And while the story of the founding fathers is a story about men, Miranda makes a real effort to give Angelica and Eliza Schuyler more agency and inner life than they are typically granted. Blankenbuehler also creates plenty of gender-neutral dancing. While conventions reign in scenes like the ball at which Hamilton meets the Schuyler sisters—which segues beautifully into Hamilton and Eliza’s wedding, as seen through Angelica’s eyes—in the battle sequences, men and women make up the battalions, and their putty-colored breeches and vests match, too.
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Why, then, is the show winning raves from the likes of Dick and Lynne Cheney, Rupert Murdoch, and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan? Conservatives can revel in Hamilton’s role in creating American capitalism, with its credit system, banking, and stock market (never mind his insistence on checks and balances, including regulations, taxation, and the strong federal government that he favored over states’ rights, and his rejection of American exceptionalism); they can cheer on Jefferson as a denouncer of big government and exponent of individual liberties (never mind his rank dishonesty, lack of scruples, and defense of slave-owning). Hamiltonian federalism and Jeffersonian republicanism hardly line up neatly with today’s polarized politics; spectators can choose their champions moment to moment and enjoy the recognition that today’s vituperative debates go back to the country’s founding.
But the deeper answer resides in the optimism and uplift that’s expected in American politics and musicals alike. Like many musicals before it, Hamilton offers an appealing wish for a mythic idea: in this case, as Hamilton sings toward the end, a vision of America as “a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and / rise up.” This still happens, of course, but if Hamilton had been sent here today to attend college as he was some 240 years ago, he’d have accrued a huge burden of student-loan debt and would have been kicked back to the Caribbean as soon as his student visa expired.
There’s an earnestness to Hamilton that is impossible to resist. While the fake debates of an overlong election season foul the airwaves, it’s a relief to find, at least in the theater, some sincere and energetic grappling with the character of our country. “I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me / America, you great unfinished symphony,” Hamilton intones as he dies. For Miranda, the theater is a place that some of those new movements can be written. At the Richard Rodgers, he reminds us, the stakes are high, and we all share in them.