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Hamilton, the Musical

Hamilton, the Musical

by William H. Benson

July 30, 2015

     On Saturday afternoon, July 18, President Barack Obama and his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, were pleased to attend the new musical based upon Alexander Hamilton’s life, Hamilton.

     The popular play moved to Broadway, to the Richard Rodgers Theater, on July 13, after it received rave reviews off-Broadway. It is the brain-child of the gifted lyricist and hip-hop musician Lin-Manual Miranda, thirty-five years old, of Puerto Rican descent, who wrote the songs and stars in the lead as Alexander Hamilton.

     Miranda explained that years ago when on vacation in Mexico, he read Ron Chernow’s bulky biography of Hamilton. As he read it, he said, “Hip-hop songs started rising off the page.”

     Miranda approached Chernow, but the biographer questioned if rap and “hip-hop music could be the vehicle for telling such a rich, complex story.” Miranda “pointed out that with dense, rapid lyrics, you could pack an enormous amount of information into the songs. He also noted the use of rhyme, including internal rhyme, and all of the clever wordplay that was possible.”

     Two months later Miranda went to Chernow’s house and performed a song, supposedly sung by Aaron Burr, then the vice-president, who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel on July 11, 1804, 201 years ago, in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton died the next day at the age of forty-nine.

     “How does a bastard orphan son of a loose lady 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. Another immigrant, coming up from the bottom. His enemies destroyed his rep. America forgot him. And I’m the darned fool who shot Alexander Hamilton. I’m the darned genius who shot Alexander Hamilton.”

     Impressed, Chernow told Miranda, “I think that’s the most astonishing thing I’ve ever heard in my life. You have accurately condensed the first 40 pages of my book into a four-minute song.”

     Other songs followed, and sewn together, Miranda covered Hamilton’s life: that he was born on Nevis Island in the British West Indies, that he was illegitimate because his mother and father were never married, that he was an avid reader and writer, and that he moved to New York City and attended King’s College, later Columbia University, where two centuries later Barack Obama attended.

     General Washington appointed Hamilton as his aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, in the summer of 1787, Hamilton argued for a strong union. He wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers and convinced New York State to vote 30 to 27 for the Constitution. Then, for five years he served in President Washington’s cabinet, as his Secretary of Treasury, where cabinet meetings often turned into heated battles between Hamilton and Jefferson.

     The reviewer for the Theater Mania, Zachary Stewart, said of Miranda’s play, “Exceptionally smart and unexpectedly timely. This story of an American patriot is the best new American musical in years.”

     One important fact about Hamilton comes across. Hamilton’s piercing intellect and his verbal swordplay antagonized people. Of Hamilton, Stewart said, “He should not say the things he says, but he cannot help it. He knows he is right.” The biographer Saul Padover said, “He gave the impression of a man who could not curb his feelings—or his tongue. The consistent pattern of Hamilton’s character was one of outer unquiet and inner disharmony.”

     Most of the actors who play the Founding Fathers in Hamilton are either African-American or Latino. At first Chernow questioned the multi-ethnic casting, but then he said, “After a minute or two, I started to listen and forgot the color or ethnicity of these astonishingly talented young performers. The miracle of the play is that it shows us who we were as a nation but also who we are now.”

     A white actor plays a foppish King George III who taunts the rebellious Americans with the song, “You’ll Be Back,” and a white actress, Phillipa Soo, plays Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth.

     The most haunting song is “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Burr lived, Hamilton died, but today in New York City, Hamilton’s adopted city, it is African-Americans and Latinos who tells us Alexander Hamilton’s story. Miranda combined eighteenth-century politics with hip-hop music.

     In another haunting song, Hamilton and Burr sing to their children, but when they do so, they face the audience; in a sense they sing to their posterity. “If we lay a strong enough foundation, we’ll pass it on to you. We’ll give the world to you, and you’ll blow us all away.”

     Hollywood and Broadway ran out of ideas for intelligent scripts decades ago, and so it is refreshing that the entertainment industry has now joined arms with the historians. What Steven Spielberg did with Lincoln in 2012, Lin-Manual Miranda has done with Hamilton in 2015. 

     On stage, front and center, Aaron Burr begins Hamilton with the question, “How did a man so disreputable and so hated achieve so much, even getting his face on the ten-dollar bill?” Although he displayed brilliance and a vaulting ambition, the best answer is, “Hamilton migrated to America.”