Music for the Revolution

This week, Emily encourages you to take a break from your current Netflix binge so that you can share her excitement about a new Broadway musical.

Hercules Mulligan was a total badass. Angelica Schuyler was a brilliant socialite, writer, and proto-feminist. And the guy on the ten dollar bill? He was an extraordinarily ambitious, hot-headed idealist, determined to make his mark on his country.

The original cast recording of Hamilton is streaming on NPR’s First Listen, and my God it’s good.

Hamilton is, fundamentally, the story of the birth of a new nation. Beginning in 1776 with debates about the practicalities of colonial revolt and ending in 1804 not long after Thomas Jefferson is elected president, this is a musical about what it means to be an American. But this isn’t Schoolhouse Rock telling you about the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” No, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new hit musical has a fascinatingly specific perspective on Americanness, filtered through the very particular story of self-starter, political theorist, and ladies’ man, the eponymous Alexander Hamilton.

Tracing Hamilton through the Revolutionary War and the birth of federalism, up through his death in a duel in 1804, Hamilton becomes the story of one flawed, brash romantic, who’s willing to give his life for his nation — but who still manages to pick fights with just about all the other founding fathers.

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore / And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot / In the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor, / Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

With love triangles, resentments, battles, duels, powdered wigs, and some recognizable historical figures, it’s perhaps not surprising that someone decided to make the life of Alexander Hamilton into a musical. But what makes Hamilton so awesome isn’t just the facts of this one man’s wild life. It’s the energy of the show, the liveliness of the writing, and the political perspective that Miranda and his collaborators bring to this very twenty-first-century musical.

Hey yo, I’m just like my country, / I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, / And I’m not throwing away my shot.

Hamilton’s an extremely energetic and fast-paced show, drawing from contemporary hip hop, R&B, and pop music as well as Broadway and musical theater tradition. We totally still get traditional musical theater chorus numbers. (There’s a second act song that keeps reminding me of The Lion King’s “Be Prepared.”)

But we also get General Washington presenting rap as the evolution of the patter song. (He is, after all, the model of a modern major general.) And King George singing Britpop-esque break-up songs to the colonies. And congressional arguments about federalism being staged as rap battles. The music’s awesome, as is the writing. Everyone’s got fantastic lines, and while the tempo of the show does of course shift from song to song, the sense of dynamism and potential in this era of American history never really cools off. Hamilton is funny, smart, and genuinely excited about eighteenth-century America.

Ive been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine, / So men say that Im intense or Im insane. / You want a revolution, I want a revelation / So listen to my declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident / That all men are created equal, / And when I meet Thomas Jefferson / Imma compel him to include women in the sequel!

Also, this is a show that sets up a proto Mary Wollstonecraft being super awesome. Can you ask for anything more??

Hamilton is intensely aware of the political upheaval and idealism of the late eighteenth century, as America and France each tried to begin new nations, and disenfranchised peoples fought to let their voices be heard. And Miranda and his collaborators are only too aware of how the struggles of idealism versus pragmatism — of federalism versus states’ rights, of dominant voices versus the disenfranchised — are echoed by the tensions in contemporary American politics. So one of the fascinating and fantastic things that Hamilton does is cast actors of color in all the major American roles. (Jonathan Groff does play King George, but he’s over across the pond chewing scenery in a velvet and ermine cape.) Casting the founding fathers so that they match the demographic makeup of twenty-first-century America just highlights the idealism, the radicalism, and the powerful optimism of the men and women who created America in their image in the first place. As the (awesome) Marquis de Lafayette and the Caribbean-born Hamilton cheer when it looks like they’ll be able to win the Revolutionary War,

Immigrants! We get the job done.

It’s a gorgeous, catchy, energetic show about ambitious men and brilliant women and the new world that they are trying to create. It highlights the individualism, collaboration, and diversity at the heart of the American experience, even as it points out that America was practically founded on arguments about the nature of federal government and resentments within the two-party system. It resonates powerfully with modern American debates about women’s rights, immigrant rights, the representation of people of color, and the purpose of government.

But to be honest, the reason I’ve been listening to this show non-stop this week (when I probably should have been doing grad school things) is the intimate, vulnerable portrait of the two men at the center of this story: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

The opening number serves as a sort of Greek chorus, setting up the action of the play, with Burr lamenting near the end,

Me? Im the damn fool that shot him.

If you know anything about early American politics, chances are you know that Burr killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804. And Hamilton doesn’t remotely try to pretend that the death of Alexander Hamilton is going to be a surprise to its audience. Instead, it exploits the tragic potential of these two powerful, intelligent men who couldn’t get over their pride and resentment enough to work and live side by side. Throughout the musical, we trace the parallel — or perhaps intersecting — histories of Burr and Hamilton.

Neither man is perfect, but both men are good. And as they find themselves unable to reconcile their differences time and time again — as they find themselves drawn towards conflict and cynicism and disenchantment — Hamilton takes on a valence of tragedy. Early in Act Two, Hamilton imagines himself as Macbeth.

‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.’

I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy / Without my having to name the play. / They think me Macbeth, ambition is my folly. / I’m a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive pain. / Madison is Banquo, / Jefferson’s Macduff, / And Birnam Wood is Congress on its way to Dunsinane.

But this isn’t a play about the evil of ambition. It’s a play about the difficulty of governing and the clashes between cynicism and hope that define the experience of being in power. It’s a play about idealism and regret and what it means to become a nation. Hamilton’s not in Macbeth — if anything, he’s in Julius Caesar.

We have two tragic heroes in Hamilton and Burr. While Burr doesn’t die on stage, he hits the same beats of hamartia and anagnorisis as Hamilton does (if I can get all grad-school on you for a second). Burr and Hamilton both make tragic mistakes and come to recognize what they did wrong. This is what makes Hamilton so powerful: it humanizes both Hamilton himself and Aaron Burr. We get a story about men trying their hardest but still sometimes making bad decisions.

Hamilton isn’t a story about the awesomeness of federalism. (Although seriously. You’ll never have so many feelings about the Federalist Papers.) Nor is it a story about the charisma of Thomas Jefferson and the aforementioned badassery of Hercules Mulligan. (Despite the fact that I’ve totally been daydreaming about the hardcore awesomeness, sexiness, and radicalism of the founding fathers.) It’s a story about the importance and difficulty of forming a new nation. It’s about diversity and collaboration, and about individualism and ambition. It’s about why we write in the first place, and why we valorize certain historical moments. Hamilton is fundamentally a story about what it means to be American. And it’s completely amazing.

From my current home in the Midwest, I haven’t been able to see the show live, but I highly encourage any and all of you near New York to go see it immediately. For the rest of us, the cast recording is currently available as an NPR First Listen as well as being available for preorder wherever fabulous Broadway albums are sold. Please do listen!!

In the meantime, if you want to get a taste for the show, here’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton’s creator and star, performing an early version of the first number at a White House event back in 2009:

Happy listening!


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