Nearly six years ago, a 29 year old Lin-Manuel Miranda performed at a spoken word event at the White House. Rather than doing a number from his Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights, he chose to showcase a new rap: a track called “Alexander Hamilton,” where Miranda played Hamilton’s killer, Aaron Burr.
Miranda’s opening remark that nobody “embodies hip hop” like the first treasury secretary was met with laughs in the room, but last month Hamilton opened on Broadway to rave reviews and nearly $30 million in advance ticket sales. I had the privilege to see the show this weekend, and, simply put: it lives up to the hype.
Having been an avid fan of Miranda since seeing In the Heights, I expected to love Hamilton. I’d been watching every clip and interview I could find, counting down the days until I headed up to New York. I even toted the 800-page biography that inspired the show to a beach in Puerto Peñasco, boring my friends with anecdotes from Hamilton’s upbringing. But even with years of excitement built up for the show, I had no idea how exciting and (dare I say) revolutionary it could be.
At its core, Hamilton is about upending the classic narrative of the American experiment. Rather than repeating tired stories of compromises between dignified men in powdered wigs, it focuses on the dirty work that goes into building a country. Congressional debates are rap battles, and Hamilton’s verbal takedowns of each and every political rival are deserving of a mic drop.
Far from being a gimmick, the show’s hip-hop and R&B-laced score is probably the only way such a nuanced story could be told. The characters spit out policy stances and battle plans at a lightning pace, laying out centuries old rivalries in modern verse. During one of those Congressional debates, Hamilton rebukes Jefferson’s claims of Southern superiority:
A civics lessons from a slaver, hey neighbor
Your debts are paid because 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
The show runs nearly three hours and is sung through (that is, there are no scenes of spoken dialogue), so it’s impressive that Hamilton never feels overstuffed or slow. This is due in no small part to the passion of its performers: Miranda plays Hamilton as a young man desperate to impress, yet frustrated that no one can tell he’s the smartest man in the room. It would be impossible to pick out every great performance here, as they’re all stellar: from Daveed Diggs’ Thomas Jefferson to Okieriete Onaodowan’s Hercules Mulligan to Jonathan Groff’s small but show-stopping turn as King George III.
It should be noted that, aside from Groff, the rest of the principle cast (and the majority of the show’s corps of dancers) are people of color. Just as the show, to quote Miranda, “takes it as a given” that hip hop is the language of our revolution, it argues people of color are our revolutionaries.
The idea behind this casting, and perhaps the thesis of the show itself, is summed up when the Marquis de LaFayette and Hamilton shake hands and declare “Immigrants: we get the job done.” In Hamilton, hunger and passion are the driving force that leads to greatness. Immigrants and outsiders are the ones with the hustle to knock down systems and build up new ones. The root of Aaron Burr’s failures as a politician and a man is the fact that he refuses to take a stand and make something of himself. Instead, he is stuck in a constant refrain of “wait for it, wait for it.”
Hamilton starts from a fresh place. As the cast sings at the show’s close, Hamilton has largely been written out of our collective memory. While “every other Founding Father story gets told. Every other Founding Father gets to grow old,” his story has been relegated to only the most enthusiastic historians and readers. But in addition to showcasing the too-short life of one man, Miranda takes his goal of shining a new light on history one step further, and allows the women who stood behind and beside Hamilton a few shining moments in the spotlight.
Angelica Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Hamilton’s sister-in-law and confidant is given a show stopper in “Satisfied,” where she recounts the duties and limitations of being the oldest daughter of a wealthy man. Angelica’s younger sister, Eliza (Phillipa Soo) initially seems to have a smaller role. Not much is known about her, and the show cleverly portrays her burning of her personal papers as a choice to “erase [her]self from the narrative” of her husband’s increasingly fraught public life. But, in an unspeakably generous moment at the close of the show, Miranda (as Hamilton, and as a writer) steps back and allows Eliza to take center stage. In this final verse, Eliza recounts how she filled the 50 years she lived after she lost her husband: she organized his countless personal papers, interviewed soldiers he commanded, raised funds for the Washington monument, and founded the first private orphanage in New York.
George Washington repeatedly reminds Hamilton that there are three things you can’t control: who lives, who dies, and who tells your story. We are all very lucky Lin-Manuel Miranda was able to tell this one.
Featured image courtesy of The Public Theatre.