- Hamilton’s America: An Unfinished Symphony with a Stutter (Beat)
Hamilton. The Public Theater, New York, April 12, 2015.
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?
Lin-Manuel Miranda is no stranger to success on Broadway—his musical In the Heights garnered him four 2008 Tony Awards and a Grammy Award.1 In 2016 Miranda almost tripled his success: the juggernaut musical Hamilton, for which he wrote the music and lyrics, and starred as Alexander Hamilton, won eleven 2016 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score.2 Inspired by the historian Ron Chernow’s 2005 biography Alexander Hamilton and beginning as “The Hamilton Mixtape” performed as a short rap by Miranda for President Barack Obama at the White House in 2009,3 Hamilton’s connection to contemporary American politics via its unique perspective on the nation’s founding has garnered the production endless accolades from various popular media outlets and a steady stream of celebrity attendees from Beyoncé and Jay-Z to the Obamas and a slew of Treasury secretaries, including the current secretary, Jacob J. Lew.4 While this review is of the Public Theater production (direction by Thomas Kail, choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, and music direction by Alex Lacamoire) that enjoyed a thrice-extended run from January 20 to May 3, 2015, much of my commentary remains relevant for its transfer to the Richard Rogers Theatre on Broadway in July 2015, where it continues a sold-out run and has reinvented the concept of the rush line as a performance venue in itself. Since January 2015, Miranda has been awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 2016 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama [End Page 1045] Inspired by American History, the George Washington Book Prize, and the Original Broadway Cast Recording has won a Grammy and reached number one on the Billboard Rap chart.5 Hamilton’s primary interventions into the story of the founding fathers revolve around casting choices and the use of rap and hip-hop as the dominant musical genres. Both the nontraditional casting and music reinvent dominant modes of storytelling, advancing Miranda’s thesis of “history being up for grabs, and the teller being just as important as the subject.”6 While seemingly universally lauded by popular critics, a recent critical conversation among historians and cultural critics has emerged, positioning two lines of primary inquiry: Hamilton as art/entertainment, and Hamilton as history. Yet these lines continually intersect in the experience of the production, creating a web wherein they produce meaning interdependently, not as fragments, complicating the critical division.
Hamilton tells the story of “10-dollar founding father without a father” Alexander Hamilton (Miranda), bookended by two encounters with Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.): the first meeting between the men in New York City in 1776, where Hamilton seeks Burr’s advice at climbing the political ladder, and the last, their infamous duel in 1804.7 Act 1 addresses the Revolutionary War, act 2 the aftermath of governing. The entire show is sung (rapped, etc.) through, making the cast recording a good option for a relatively complete version of the show if a live Broadway viewing is not in your future. The musical opens with several historical figures—Burr, Jefferson (Daveed Diggs), Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan), George Washington (Christopher Jackson), John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), Eliza Hamilton (Phillipa Soo)—ruminating on Hamilton’s unlikely survival and success, introducing both the central figure and the critical interplay between history and historiography that runs throughout the performance. Burr’s opening lines, which began this review, introduce a man who was raised by a single mother out of wedlock and, crucially for this production, came to the colonies as an immigrant believing in the promise “In New York you can / be a new man.”8 “Alexander Hamilton” paints Hamilton as saved from a life of poverty and insignificance largely by his skill with words: “put a pencil to his temple, connected it to / his brain.” Bolstered by the...