Lin-Manual Miranda has combined some of my favorite things — musicals, hip-hop, and history. It’s a compelling spectacle: a familiar story of the founding of a new nation told through a less familiar figure (Hamilton), a multi-racial cast (African Americans and Latinos in the prominent roles of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, the Marquis de Lafayette), and a contemporary musical genre. Beyond those innovative elements, though, why is it so compelling?
Hamilton is not the first musical to seize the opportunity to re-imagine the founding of the nation in song. 1776 is an obvious predecessor. Opened on Broadway in 1969, it told the story primarily through the character of John Adams, and focused on the drama and persuasion necessary to convince colonists to sign the Declaration of Independence. Adams’ intimate and voluminous correspondence with his wife, Abigail, provided the musical’s necessary male-female romantic story, as she supports and prods him through his quest to get all thirteen colonies to vote for independence. It is largely a male tale – the only two women are Abigail Adams and Martha Washington – and a rendering of politics as debate, pandering, and compromise among white men in a country torn by the issue of slavery. It’s generally true, generally appealing, but transforms neither the genre nor the story.
In the Heights (2008), Miranda’s first musical, is another predecessor for Hamilton. In this, too, Miranda used hip-hop to rejuvenate the musical genre and tie together a generational story of Washington Heights. It featured a largely Latino/a cast, incorporated a bit of Spanish into the lyrics and dialogue, and created a warm, affectionate picture of belonging – a stark contrast to the alienated, discriminatory view of Latino/as in New York of West Side Story. (The comparison of West Side Story to In the Heights is a part of the final chapter of my book, A Place for Us.) Besides this contrast and the incorporation of hip-hop, however, In the Heights served up traditional musical fare: two sweet romances, an endearing abuela, and conflict resolved.
Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk (1996) is perhaps a closer influence. This show told the history of African Americans through tap. Slavery, lynching, migration northward, Uncle Tom-ing, riot and revolution – through the ring shout to the Nicholas Brothers, Bojangles Robinson, and, finally, the hittin’ of Savion Glover. It weaved together the history of African Americans with that of dance; it told the story through rap and tap. History as performance, history as interpretation, history as present. (The show was also nurtured at the Public Theatre before moving to Broadway, like Hamilton.)
Hamilton builds from all these influences. It takes 1776 and turns the perspective from Adams to Hamilton, from well-established politician to scrappy immigrant-orphan. It takes the clean romance of In the Heights and twists it to reflect the realities of marriage, fame, and legacy. The traditional romance is severed by death and time. And it takes the ebullience, speed, and contemporary song and dance of Bring in ‘da Noise and uses it to re-tell – and rejuvenate – the past.
It is this final achievement that rings loudest. There is a philosophy of history in the title song: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” That is the compelling, underlying purpose of the production. Some facts are wrong (the Marquis de Lafayette was not hanging out in the colonies, fomenting rebellion before the Declaration of Independence, according to this fabulous biography by my colleague Laura Auricchio); there are representations that are a bit skewed (Jefferson may have been in France during much of the American Revolution but he was not completely uninvolved. “What Did I Miss,” which opens the second act of the show, drags that absence to a funnier conclusion). But there is a tone, a perspective, that gets a lot right about the back-and-forth skelter of colonists’ march to revolution, the jostling of men for fame.
One of the smartest dramaturgical moves in the script was to pose Aaron Burr against Hamilton, who serves as a kind of cipher for the main character. Burr loves, becomes a parent, seeks political position – as does Hamilton. And their lives will be forever intertwined in Hamilton’s death, and the story that gets told about it. The story we tell about Burr: “the damn fool who killed” Hamilton. The story we tell about Hamilton may have been more unknown but has always been more complex. The bastard child of the Caribbean, the second-hand man to Washington, the theorist of the Federalist Papers, the financier of the new nation, and the man who lost a duel.
The end of the production gives some indication of why there is that difference in the stories we tell of Burr and Hamilton. Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, lived fifty years after his death. Even after being betrayed by her husband’s affairs with other women and his encouragement of their son to duel (in which he also lost his life), she resurrected and prolonged his legacy. She opened up the first home for orphans, and named it for him. She told the story of his influence on the more well known founding fathers again and again. She lived longer, died later, and told his story.
This makes clear the interpretive nature of history. Some people’s stories never get told; other stories become only a means to end (an understanding of one gun shot). But Hamilton does more history-making than this. It re-enacts – and, therefore, re-makes – the past with new players, new rhythms, new skin. A friend of mine found disappointing that the lyrics and text of the production did not mark out the whiteness of the founding moment enough; she may have wanted more condemnation. Miranda takes a different tack, I think, by accepting that fact, nearly ignoring it in word, and instead re-making it in action by the deployment of African American and Latino/a actors and the expressive song and dance styles from those traditions. We see Washington as an African American; we do not hear him extol his slaves. We see Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, both African Americans, in easy familiarity with one another. To my mind, this does not ignore the realities; it points them out by disjunction and then supplants them. Instead of asking how and why was the founding of the nation discriminatory, we see a past re-made to fit present demands for full citizenship, full recognition, and a future full of possibility for everyone.