I have always felt close to Alexander Hamilton. Eight years ago, I found myself on a little island in the Caribbean called Nevis, where it turns out Hamilton was born and raised. I walked in his shoes, and even spent some soul-searching time in the place in which his mom died of fever (a tiny room on the island of St. Croix, not far from Nevis). A year later, I moved to New York, Hamilton’s second home. I became a scholar of the Whiskey Rebellion (a subject I have published on, and continue to study), in which Hamilton played a major role. Hamilton haunts me.
When I learned of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop opera (for lack of a better term) about Alexander Hamilton, I had to see it – even though the cost of the ticket crippled me almost as much as Hamilton’s 1791 excise tax would have. Miranda teased Hamilton back in 2009, when he performed the show’s first song at the White House poetry slam. Six years later, the full (almost 3-hour) Hamilton is live on stage at The Public Theater – and it’s the hottest ticket in town. I was lucky to score a ticket to see the performance during previews last week, and I was blown away.
Hamilton is based almost entirely on Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography of Hamilton. Chernow is a respected historian, and his book is well-researched. Still, it is one man’s perspective on Hamilton. The fact that Manuel’s Hamilton is so thoroughly inspired by Chernow’s Hamilton means that Miranda’s interpretation is necessarily limited. The actual history reflected in the play is a fairly typical biographic account of Hamilton’s life – his birth, move to New York, role in US government, private life, and of course his famous death in the duel with Aaron Burr. Still, Miranda’s perspective is so fresh, and so unique, that this relatively classic story feels totally new.
The early America featured in Hamilton is almost unrecognizable, save for the fact that the actors are wearing period costumes. For one thing, almost every major character in the play – from George Washington to Aaron Burr to Thomas Jefferson to Hamilton himself – is not white. The multi-racial cast flies in the face of traditional images of the Founding Fathers and their world. The New York Daily News calls this “color-blind casting,” but I don’t agree. I think the multi-racial casting choices were entirely purposeful. When confronted with a mostly-black cast portraying our white, slave-owning Founding Fathers, thoughts of equality are unavoidable. Through its casting, Hamilton brings up major questions about freedom and equality without directly addressing them. And the world of Hamilton feels real and relatable in a way that most depictions of 18th-century New York do not. Miranda’s emphasis on Hamilton as an orphaned immigrant (actually, a “bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman”) who came to New York to make something of himself could come from a much later period in American history. Hamilton’s story feels like our collective American story.
The most stunning part of Hamilton is the music. Musical styles as diverse as rap, hip-hop, R&B, pop, and traditional “musical theater” are all mixed together in one big Hamilton stew. Jefferson and Hamilton rap-battle about the Whiskey Rebellion (“When Britain taxed our tea we got frisky, imagine what gon’ happen when you try and tax our WHISKEY.”). The Schuyler sisters sing a melodic, Destiny’s Child-style pop song. King George III belts out a straight-up breakup song to the American people (With lyrics like, “When push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion, to remind you of my love.”) that sounds an awful lot like The Monkees’ Daydream Believer. Like Alexander Hamilton himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda is an excellent writer. The intelligence and wit of the lyrics throughout Hamilton‘s musical numbers is what ties the differing song styles together into a fully-formed modern opera.
Miranda’s Hamilton (and Chernow’s Hamilton, and probably the real Hamilton) is flawed at best. He is a hustler and a player. He almost definitely had a “thing” with his wife’s sister Angelica. In the play, Hamilton greets Angelica for the first time with, “Excuse me miss, I know it’s not funny, but your perfume smells like your daddy’s got money.” He definitely had a three-year “thing” with Maria Reynolds while paying her husband to keep it a secret. He pissed a lot of people off, including Aaron Burr. Still, Miranda’s Hamilton is a sympathetic, scrappy protagonist (“I’m just like my country,” he claims, “I’m young, scrappy, and hungry.”). You find yourself rooting for him, despite the fact that he is kind of an asshole. Even Aaron Burr has a soft spot for him (until, you know, he doesn’t).
Hamilton is the best show I have seen on or off Broadway since I moved to New York in 2009. As a history lover, I loved Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, but it was gimmicky and too self-conscious. Somehow, Hamilton has managed to do a similar thing without coming off as either. Its run at The Public Theater is sold out, but it won’t be long before Hamilton comes to Broadway. Even though the tickets will cost a little more than “a Hamilton,” I highly recommend the splurge. Right now, you’ll have to settle for Ron Chernow’s biography and a trip to Hamilton Grange.
All about Hamilton,