What Exactly Is Hamilton?
If you have a theater geek in your life, chances are you’ve recently heard the name Alexander Hamilton. If your theater geek is like most, they haven’t been able to shut up about him. You may have been able to gather that there’s a new play that has something to do with him, but you may not know anything else about it, because, when they talk about it, Hamilton fans have a tendency to go overboard with an enthusiasm that makes regular folk shut down. If you’d like to know more about what your beloved, obsessed geek is going on and on (and on and on and ON) about, I’m here for you. I’m pretty well-versed in the lore and I’ll try to keep my enthusiasm at an appropriate level.
Hamilton is a Broadway musical featuring mostly hip-hop music, about the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton. Yes, I laughed when someone told me that too. (When I first started hearing buzz about this show early last year, I actually thought it was a joke.) The story follows his life from his involvement in the revolutionary war through his duel with Aaron Burr (a factoid made famous in a 90’s “Got Milk?” ad, recreated here by the actor who plays Aaron Burr in the show). Opening last summer, the lead was, until recently, played by the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, fresh off the success of his Tony-winning musical, In the Heights. Miranda specializes in urbanizing theater in a way that makes it accessible to a much broader audience, which goes a long way to explaining how a musical, a format that traditionally appeals to a small section of the population, about a long-dead white politician, at a time when no one can even stand most of the currently-living white politicians, became so popular.
Miranda has said in interviews that he got the idea for Hamilton whilst reading the founding father’s biography on vacation. We learn in the opening number that Hamilton “wrote [his] way out of hell.” Orphaned in the Caribbean at the age of 12, he educated himself and his writing impressed his community so much that a collection was taken up to send him to New York where he might find his fortune. As Miranda said in an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, “I thought ‘This is the most hip-hop guy I ever heard [of]…’” and believed the connection so obvious that he assumed someone had already told this story in this style. Luckily for all of us, this gem of an idea was lying in wait (much like the character of Aaron Burr does in the musical) for Miranda’s artistic touch. Infused with energetic beats, rap breaks, and inspiration from the likes of Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G., much of the show’s music is hip-hop-inspired, but it’s still a musical. Each character has his or her own musical theme that appears in the score in their key scenes and all the themes weave together beautifully and intricately as needed, notably in the first act finale “Non-Stop,” like they would in any of the best Broadway musicals. Not relying on hip-hop alone, there are also notes of R&B, a little Latin flare, and even some Britpop, as is only befitting of the numbers featuring England’s king during Hamilton’s lifetime, George III. Simply put, the music in Hamilton moves the audience in all the right directions. It is exactly what it should be for its characters, its style, and the format of the story.
Miranda nicely breaks Hamilton’s life into two significant sections for the purposes of the musical: the period before, during, and after the Revolutionary War for Act I and the founding of our nation for Act II. In Act I, we meet Hamilton’s revolutionary compatriots, his love interest, and his friend/rival Aaron Burr. In a stroke of theatrical brilliance, the actors playing revolutionaries, no longer needed after intermission, double as other founding fathers and significant people in Hamilton’s later life in Act II. Judging only by the cast recording (as tickets have been notoriously hard to come by, few of us regular folk have actually seen this show), the performances are nothing short of miraculous. Aside from Miranda himself, highlights include Phillipa Soo, as Hamilton’s wife Eliza, the afore-referenced Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, Jonathan Groff as King George, and a mind-blowing turn by Daveed Diggs, doubling as a snarky Marquis de Lafayette (complete with French accent) and a sassy Thomas Jefferson. You may notice that the cast of American characters is exclusively multi-racial. This inspired casting is another wise move on Miranda’s part; cast actors who best personify the spirit of the characters, choosing from all actors, rather than just those who look the part. Combine these musical styles and this cast, both of which are far more likely to appeal to modern audiences than those of traditional Broadway musicals, and you can start to see how Hamilton has become such a phenomenon.
By far the most impressive accomplishment for his show, in my eyes, is the storytelling. Throughout the show, we see Miranda’s imagining of how historical events occurred, told through characters we can understand and relate to. Hamilton, a whip-smart young upstart immigrant, faces off against Burr, his cagier frenemy, time after time and we get to see how the philosophies of each man led to important moments in the formation of our country’s infrastructure. We see how the women in Hamilton’s life, whose stories are largely untold by history, affected and were affected by his accomplishments. We understand who the key players were in the winning of the Revolution and the founding of the government. The show makes us care about all of it and all of them by humanizing what was previously learned out of necessity, if at all, and quickly forgotten. And it does so through some of the best wordcraft in recent history. Miranda’s talent for putting words together is almost incomprehensible. He makes more words fit together than one would think possible and does so with driving rhythm and impressive levels of rhyme (“Uh-oh, you made the wrong sucker a cuckold/So time to pay the piper for the pants you unbuckled” remains one of my favorite examples of this). Once these lyrics catch you, they are infectious. They create a phenomenon I have dubbed a Hamil-trigger, in which a particular word, said without any contextual reference to the show, will cause one to launch into a memorable line containing that word. Perhaps this is why we can’t blame our rabid theater geeks for loving this show. It’s more like addiction or infection than fandom. It’s beyond our control and all we can do is try to spread it so that more people will understand.
Look, if it’s not for you, that’s actually OK. I know people, good, smart people with excellent taste who are well-versed in musical theater who can appreciate, but do not like this show. But I hope you can now understand what it is and why we like it/love it/can’t get enough of it/won’t shut up about it/have sold prized possessions and used the money to buy tickets/have tattooed the cast across our backs. (OK maybe not that last one.) I hope you give the cast recording a listen, I hope you find something you like in it. If so, join me in entering the Hamilton digital lottery daily, in which front row seats are awarded at a cost of $10 (the denomination featuring the face of the hero of the show) for a lucky few. I’ll take you if I win, if you take me if you win. And in the meantime, you know where to find me and we can geek out together about our shared addiction.