Hamilton’s Ghosts
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Hamilton’s Ghosts
Hamilton: An American Musical. Thomas Kail, director; Sander Jacobs, Jill Furman, Jeffrey Seller, and the Public Theater, producers; Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer, book, music, and lyrics; Ron Chernow, historical consultant. Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York City, performance date, August 6, 2015.
Hamilton: The Revolution. By Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-1455539741. Hardcover. Pp. 288. $45.00.
Hamilton: An American Musical (CD). By Lin-Manuel Miranda. Orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire. Produced by Alex Lacamoire, Bill Sherman, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Ahmir Thompson and Tarik Trotter for the Roots. 2015. Lyrics enclosed. Atlantic Records 551093-2.

At the end of the first act of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, a ghost makes an appearance. Immediately following the heart-warming duet “Dear Theodosia,” Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, approaches him with a letter. Before she speaks, a blue light illuminates the spectral presence of Hamilton’s close friend John Laurens next to them. “I may not live to see our glory / But I will gladly join the flight,” the ghost of Laurens sings as Eliza tells Alexander that it is not Laurens but his friend’s father who has written (131). Alexander is stunned to learn that Laurens was killed in battle in South Carolina. The father reminds him that Laurens had dreamed of emancipating slaves to form an all-black military regiment, but, sadly, those plans will die with him. Laurens sings one more time in a rousing martial echo of one of Miranda’s favorite musicals, Les Misérables: “Tomorrow there’ll be more of us!” Alexander looks shaken but replies only, “I have so much work to do” (131). The blue light fades out on Laurens, and Aaron Burr reenters to finish the second act with a rousing account of Hamilton’s authorship of the Federalist Papers.

The ghost of John Laurens, like all ghosts, voids, and silence, raises intriguing questions. For the character of Laurens is not only literally a ghost at this moment, but is something of a spectral presence throughout the first act. Played by Anthony Ramos, the youngest cast member, Laurens never quite has a show-stopper moment like those of his comrades the Marquis de Lafayette and Hercules Mulligan, both of whom affected commanding stage presences, delivered the cleverest lines, and received the most applause at the curtain call of the show I attended.1 His death at the end of the first act feels curiously undeveloped. Especially given the contrast between the death of Laurens and the impactful [End Page 271] second-act death of his doppelgänger, Philip Hamilton, that lack of development seems to be not a result of Ramos’s performance but a fault of the text created by Miranda and his collaborators. We’re seemingly meant to feel strongly about the death of John Laurens, but the staged reality fails to quite achieve this. Why this small imperfection in such an extraordinary work of art? The underdevelopment of Laurens is something of a hermeneutic window into what makes Hamilton tick, and I propose that we follow his Dickensian ghost through some basic questions about Hamilton: What does this musical do, what does it tell us about the past, and what will it do about the future?

One aspect of Laurens’s low-impact death is that it is the only scene of the musical that does not appear on the wildly popular 2015 original cast recording. In his annotations on the libretto, published in Hamilton: The Revolution, Miranda explains simply that it was excised for being “more of a scene than a song. I wanted to save a surprise for those who see the show. And you, reading this” (131). This reveals our first insight into Hamilton: as with any performance, but especially in musical theater, there is not a stable text for analysis at the heart of the show. This is not merely a Barthesian argument but the simple fact that any show will go through multiple revisions prior to (and often after) a premiere on Broadway and will then further fragment into dozens of dueling artifacts: cast recordings, films, songbooks, and many more...


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