The Wisdom of Hamilton

When a rumor spread that the musical Hamilton would be touring the UK in 2021, the Guardian published this rather breathless advance review:

“Hamilton fuses American history with current politics, using a soundtrack of American popular music and one of the most inventive librettos ever written. The result is that nearly every song in the show works as a complex historical concert, layering musical pasts with the musical present, just as the historical past mingles with the political present. In less than two years, it has exploded all box office records – it has sold $1bn worth of tickets – and won every theatrical prize (including the Pulitzer Prize for drama), garnering the kind of hyperbolic praise that no production can possibly live up to. But Hamilton exceeds its own acclaim.”

Which is nice, but still doesn’t explain my granddaughter Chloe. Last year, at the age of 14, she unexpectedly and inexplicably became a “Hamilton” fanatic (joining an unofficial group dubbed “Hamilteens”), listening to the soundtrack over and over until she had memorized most of the words. Her birthday and Christmas presents were — out of necessity — “Hamilton” connected, and she became close Internet friends with another Hamilteen who lived in New Mexico, half a country away from Chloe’s Virginia.

Oddly, Chloe had never shown any particular interest in American history — certainly not the Revolutionary period. The hip-hop infused music of the show wasn’t even what she usually listened to. But she was definitely hooked.

Reading another article about this phenomenon, I came across a quote from another Hamilteen: “I thought all the founding fathers were really best friends. You wouldn’t think that they had love triangles and feelings.”

In other words, they were actually very much like the politicians today. We forget that the new Americans who gathered in Philadelphia to hammer out the first Constitution were hardly one big happy family. Alexander Hamilton’s clique espoused a strong central government and a powerful presidency; the Thomas Jefferson wing was all about state’s rights. After a while, these two factions began to intensely dislike one another.

In 2020, an enraged politician will most likely attack a rival with a nasty Tweet or mass e-mail. In Hamilton’s time, such disputes were often settled with dueling pistols.

Imagine Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer squaring off, like Burr and Hamilton, in front of CNN and Fox News cameras.

Besides gunplay, the post-Revolutionary years were enlivened by flamboyant speeches and blood feuds, secret alliances, and sexual dalliances. Underneath that period dress beat some truly radical hearts, but you’d never know it from the bland and traditional American history fed to us at our school desks. Buried beneath that rather tiresome pile of dates and treaties, the first American leaders come across as serious and dull, but Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda managed to make them riveting. In doing so, he constructed a bridge between two far-flung eras in the process.

Teens love drama, and that’s what Miranda gave them.

He also gave them lots of action. Our mental impression of those early leaders comes from rather static illustrations showing them signing papers or shaking hands or trying to look important in front of a portrait artist. Instead, these new movers and shakers had just escaped from the British caste system and were fiercely competing to fill the power vacuum that remained. In “Hamilton,” they move and shake a lot.

And it wasn’t just Hamilteens who paid attention. Miranda’s work’s astonishing mass appeal crossed generational and racial lines, teaching us a few things in the process.

How many of us knew, for example, that Alexander Hamilton was actually an immigrant, born out of wedlock and then orphaned on the Caribbean island of Nevis? Or that his later career was severely damaged by a scandal involving adultery? Or that his beloved son Phillip also perished in a duel?

Everyone loves an underdog, but we don’t often think about how unlikely it was that these dissatisfied and disorganized colonists were able to defeat one of the most formidably armed nations in the world. It was a truly amazing upset, and it’s hard to hear Hamilton’s defiant independence anthem: “I’m not gonna throw away my shot!” without feeling inspired.

“I will send you a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love,” countered a wry King George.

The lyrics to most of the songs are modern, which was another way of building the aforementioned bridge. True, Jefferson, Burr, Washington, and others come across as caricatures at times, but “Hamilton” is not about subtlety. Like an abstract painting, it intends to depict not stark reality, but reality as we are invited to view it.

Best of all, to me, was the casting. For the first few minutes that I watched the movie, it was a little disorienting to see black and Latino actors depicting white historical icons (including the Puerto Rican-born Miranda as Alexander Hamilton). Very soon, though, I adjusted.

This wasn’t just an attention-getting trick, though, like casting African-American Carl Anderson as Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I believe Miranda was making a statement about American history.

When you think about it, African-Americans and Latinos have never really been a part of that history as it was recorded. Circumstances (slavery, segregation) relegated them to the role of outsiders looking in, and popular black history is mostly about their relationship (or lack of it) with white people.

What “Hamilton” is saying is that ultimately, skin tone doesn’t matter — that Hamilton and Jefferson could just as easily been “people of color” as Caucasian. And like that abstract painting, it shows that truth sometimes transcends reality.

Most definitely, Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t throw away his shot.

Darrell Laurant
Founder at Snowflakes in a Blizzard | + posts

Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."

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