Let Us Now Praise Great Art: “Hamilton”

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Hamilton is not a musical. At least, not as I understood the term up until Friday night when I sat down on the first mezzanine of the Richard Rogers Theater to see the much-lauded show. My original definition of a musical was  a play with plainly spoken dialogue  punctuated by occasional outbreaks into song. Watching Hamilton, it took a couple of back-to-back musical numbers for me to realize that the kind of dialogue I was expecting  would never come. Nearly every line in the show is either rapped or sung. The music almost never stops. Technically, Hamilton is a sung-through musical, like Les Misérables, which can also be called pop or rock operas. In Hamilton’s case, however, the term hip-hop opera would be the most fitting description.

Hamilton’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda chose to use hip-hop  for the soundtrack because he saw a hip-hop narrative in Hamilton’s life story. Hip-hop also helps the music encapsulate Alexander Hamilton’s reputation as a motormouth. The structure and tempo of hip-hop  helps Hamilton to package many words into a short amount of time. On the track “Guns and Ships,” for example,  Daveed Diggs as Lafayette says 19 words in 3 seconds.  According to, Five-Thirty Eight Hamilton is the most word dense musical ever and holds this spot by a wide margin over its closest competitor, Spring Awakening. Hamilton has a total of 20,520 words spoken at an average speed of 144 words per minute, making it five times longer than Spring Awakening in terms of total word count and almost twice as  fast. Even during the moments when Hamilton’s tempo feels releatively relaxed, the show never truly drops in energy, which means that as an audience member, you gotta pay attention.

I have to admit that the first 10 minutes of Hamilton were a little jarring because even having heard about the show before, I still didn’t really understand what I was watching or how to absorb the language. Once I got into it, I started to engage with the show like I would with a Shakespeare play. Essentially, that meant translating the language from poetic devices and rhymes into broader implications  of what they meant for the plot. The crazy thing though, is that even though I knew I was watching something different, the show works from the very beginning. It doesn’t seem strange. You don’t question why Lafayette and Hamilton are having a rap battle over whether to defend France in their revolution. It seems obvious,  natural.

My Shot

Before going to see Hamilton I spent a lot of time on the interweb reading about the cast and listening to interviews with them. One tidbit I discovered that was particularly interesting, came in an interview with Lin Manuel Miranda on Michael Ian Black’s podcast How to Be Amazing. In the podcast Lin discussed how a loss he experienced in his childhood taught him that no tomorrow is guaranteed and to make the most of every day he had. The line in the show that Lin said he related to the most was “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory,” from the song “My Shot.” These concepts of death and time are essential parts of the show, and one of the reasons I believe Lin was the best person, if not the only person, who could create  Hamilton.

Throughout the show Hamilton is consistently confronted with death, while avoiding it himself. As a child  he survived the illness that killed his mother, and as an adult lived through the Revolutionary War as well as  the deaths of his friend John Laurens and eldest son, Phillip. We hear Hamilton’s knowledge of his limited time in the refrain of “My Shot,” in which he states that he will not “throw away [his] shot.”  However, this phrase carries a tragic irony and double entendre, because in the end Hamilton did throw away his shot and at the worst possible time.

Hamilton died in a duel with friend and later political rival Aaron Burr. Hamilton and Burr were both orphans, both revolutionaries, but opposites personality wise. Burr was reserved and when asked for advice, encouraged Hamilton to play his cards close to the vest. “Talk less, smile more,” he says in the musical, “don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” Hamilton, of course, was passionate and opinionated, and while he didn’t totally heed Burr’s advice a little bit of Burr seemed to rub off on Hamilton and vice versa. The duel is when we see the product of their interactions. The reserved Burr takes a proverbial leap and fires a fatal shot at Hamilton, while a usually reckless Hamilton fires his shot in the air out of caution, essentially, throwing it away.

Who Tells Your Story?

In the finale of the show, there is an especially poignant line that says, “every other founding father’s story gets told/every other founding father gets to grow old.” The line notes the way history hasn’t recognized Hamilton’s legacy the same way it recognized those of other founding fathers like Jefferson and Washington. Considering that the audience learns how important it was for Hamilton to leave his mark on the world and the success of the musical finally telling his story, the line is both heartbreaking and inspiring. But it also speaks to a larger theme in the show: the way we write and erase history. The theme recurs in the show with Hamilton’s wife Eliza, who worries about her place within the narrative of Hamilton’s life, and more subtly in the decision for people of color to portray the founding fathers.

Hamilton’s wife, Eliza seeks to reject the restrictive portrayals of woman in history as either this important dude’s wife, mother, or daughter. Specifically in its closing number the musical makes sure to highlight the things that Eliza Hamilton accomplished in her life from speaking out against slavery, to attempting to write the story Hamilton’s life, and even starting the first private orphanage in honor of her husband. In an interview with CBS morning news Renée Elise Goldsberry, who plays Angelica Schuyler, the smart, never-satisfied sister-in law-to Hamilton, discussed one musical number in particular, “Satisfied” is a reminder that women’s revolutionary mindset and political activism didn’t just begin in the 1960’s.

It’s such a great diagram of the thought process of a brilliant woman, and the cool thing about it is that that’s not a woman from 2016. I don’t know that we thought that these women we were portraying thought as [revolutionarily] as we…[do now]. And we know that they did now.

The public’s surprise about the choice to cast actors of color as the founding fathers reminds us that the founding fathers were in fact all white men, something that many (white) people might not have really considered. Personally, as a white girl, I never thought about the privilege of racially identifying with the founding fathers and how that affected my relationship to America’s history until I first heard about Hamilton.

One of Hamilton’s most-discussed virtues is its power to make the past feel relevant. Not only does that mean making the cast look more like modern America but also drawing parallels to modern issues. In 1776 our founding fathers were the underdogs, and in different forms their fight against oppression continues in modern America. The soldiers in the modern versions of this fight are marginalized people like minorities, women, and immigrants, and the casting choices help draw that parallel.  As a result, the founding father’s struggles feel alive and not so far from the modern world.

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