How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean impoverished in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar…
If you’d told me oh, not even six months ago that in a few short weeks I would soon be head over heels for former U.S. treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton who died over 200 years ago in a duel, I would have been like “…uh huh. Sure.” I suppose it’s not entirely a stretch; I’m a huge history nerd and will make anyone within earshot listen to me about Thomas Paine (who is wonderfully mentioned by Angelica Schulyer in this musical!) and the American Revolution, or the French Revolution, or 19th century French politics or the American labor movement. So I mean if they were looking to draw history nerds, count me in, particularly because muscial theater also happens to be my jam. When people in the breakroom at work ask me what I’m listening to there’s at least an 80% chance it’s a musical and I usually get looks when I say so because people have a lot of preconcieved notions about musical theater. But when I heard the phrase “a hip hop based musical about Alexander Hamilton performed by mostly people of color” I was like INTRIGUE. I was excited to listen. But I still had no idea just how groundbreaking it was or how it would affect me.
Alexander Hamilton, I thought, upon reading about the musical from other musical theater nerds who were talking about it on the internet. I took AP U.S. History, I remember him. We spent like, a quarter of the year discussing and debating the differences between Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian thought. I remember thinking “this Hamilton guy seems to have it right, states rights are a bit of a mess. Certainly didn’t help during the war, with all the squabbles and no congressional taxing power. Also economies are you know. Positive.” I remember writing a paper taking the side of Hamiltonian thought, but beyond that and my 8th grade lesson about his duel with Aaron Burr, that was as far as my thoughts on him went. I can learn more about him! I thought. I bet it will be a great cast recording Lin Manuel Miranda did In the Heights and it was incredible.
Oh Katie, you naive young thing. I did not yet understand.
But about 30 seconds into the first song, I thought, “…what is happening to me?” I was drawn in, immediately and this has been true of everyone I’ve asked who listened. The more I listened, the more I wanted to keep listening. I loved all the characters right after meeting them. I cheered for Hamilton’s Revolutionary Squad, comprised of John Laurens (READ ABOUT HIM), Hercules Mulligan, and the Marquis de Lafayette. I wanted to be the Schulyer Sisters (If you don’t love Angelica and Eliza I’m not sure what to say to you). I paid more attention to George Washington than I ever have before and Chris Jackon plays him SO well. I felt for Aaron Burr, which was confusing to say the least, but if you listen to “Wait For it” you’ll feel for him, too, in the way Miranda humanizes a man we’ve only ever seen as the villain. And most of all, I felt more attached to Alexander Hamilton than I could have legit ever expected.
“My new historical son,” I whispered to myself sometime during the second act. “You get a place in my dream of driving a minivan full of my historical faves around the modern world, despite the fact that I don’t drive and they would totally fight.”
Alexander Hamilton wasn’t perfect. As the internet might say, “he has no chill” but it’s something I could relate to, even if I didn’t even agree with him all the time (though largely I did. Mostly our conflict comes over Opinions on the French Revolution. Most everything else though, word, A.Ham.). If he lived today, I’m sure he’d be one of those people saying “fight me” a lot. But he was an incredible man, flaws, many mistakes (America’s first sex scandal, whoops) and all. (Also he’s a Gryffindor, and I WILL fight on that). And that’s what’s so incredible about Miranda’s musical; he doesn’t shy away from the mistakes or the flaws at all, but at the same time uncovers the enormity of Hamilton’s accomplishments and the immense amount of hardship he overcame. It cannot be anything other than inspiring, and it flips the Jefferson-driven historiography we’ve all come to know on it’s head. And even better, watching a cast comprised of so many people of color-as Lin Manuel Miranda put it, “a story about America then told by America now”- dancing and singing on the stage in roles they’ve long been denied, singing things like “rise up!” cannot be anything other than extremely relevant to now. So many lyrics ring true like that, and sometimes entire songs like “My Shot” or “The Farmer Refuted.” Not to mention how much this show never, not for a second, lets you forget that Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant. In today’s Donald Trump and Ted Cruz America, that reminder is crucial. It also gives center stage roles to women and their accomplishments. This show is, in every sense and in so many ways, a revolution.
By the time I was done listening to the last song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” I was wiping my eyes and I know it sounds dramatic, but I knew then, my life was different than it had been before I started. I defy ANYONE not to have to sift through piles of emotions when Hamilton’s wife Eliza comes on stage in the finale, talking about her neverending work to protect and preserve her husband’s legacy, when she talks about the orphanage she helped found, when she says of the children she helped raise, “in their eyes I see you, Alexander/I see you every time.” In the end, Hamilton is as much about Eliza’s legacy as it is Alexander’s and that is one of the most beautiful things about it. Despite their struggles and Alexander’s mistakes, they loved each other, and built a family together than Alexander never had growing up.
I have to know MORE, I said to myself. And to my roommate, who was also listening and crying.
A week later, I had Ron Chernow’s pivotal 800 or so page biography of Alexander Hamilton sitting on the kitchen table. Three weeks, later I’d read it cover to cover, fully aware now, of why Lin Manuel Miranda would want to write this musical. We spend so much time talking about the other founding fathers that it seems like Hamilton hardly gets even a piece of what he should. Things I’d never heard came tumbling out from the musical and the biography; things about Hamilton’s childhood, the fact that his father abandoned them when he was 10, his mother dying just a few years later from an illness that could have easily killed Alexander when he caught it. That a hurricane swept through his town, where he could have easily died again. That hurricane and the poem he wrote after ended up being what got him passage off the island. That he was a strong abolitionist and member of a manumission society for the duration of his life after the war, also working with his friend John Laurens in a failed attempt to create battalions of freed slaves in the Continental Army (for all America’s worship of Thomas Jefferson, I’d like to point out that he never even made an attempt to free his slaves, and he also managed to spread slavery into the western territories). He was George Washington’s aide de camp for four years. He fought at Yorktown. That not only did he work on the Federalist Papers (which I knew) but that he wrote probably 51 of them. He started our national bank. He built our broken economy up from the ground. He was, no doubt, a genius. He had eight children and a wife who spent the rest of her life fighting for him. Who spent the rest of her life doing incredible charity work that deserves a legacy of it’s own. I could go on forever.
But if you don’t feel like picking up the tome of a biography (it’s great! But I know that’s daunting) there’s something in the phenonmenal musical for everyone. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will make you want to change the world. It’s full of not only sharp hip hop and rap numbers, but a variety of flat out gorgeous songs (I mean, heck have you listened to “Wait for It” or “It’s Quiet Uptown”?). If someone gives me a weird look when I say “but you should listen to this rap musical about Alexander Hamilton” I usually respond to said weird look with “Okay but just listen to this rap battle between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton about the national debt” and that, usually, is enough of an oddity to draw them in. (“Doing whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello” is officially one of my top five favorite lines of the show.)
There’s lots of things about Hamilton that I love, but one of the things I found myself in was the way Hamilton’s writing drove him. If I were to ever get a second tattoo (after my planned and hopefully will get over my fear of this year to actually do Les Mis idea) it would likely either be “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” a line from the finale of the first act, Non-Stop, or “I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance” from Hurricane. There’s something that resonates in everyone’s soul in Hamilton.
…I’ve written a much longer than intended post, which is fitting. So here’s to you on your birthday, Alexander Hamilton. I hope wherever you are, you’re watching people give the cast of a musical about your life a standing ovation and applauding Lin Manuel Miranda’s genius.
And if we’re honest, probably haunting Congress about that whole almost letting the debt ceiling pass thing.