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Hamilton the musical: America then told by America now

It was only after I finished writing The Founding Fathers: A Very Short Introduction that I got to see the off-Broadway version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton: An American Musical” at New York City’s Public Theater. I was lucky enough to see the Broadway version (revised and expanded) last month.

Like many colleagues in early American history (the colonial period through the age of Andrew Jackson), I was entranced by the play. Miranda has pulled off something approaching a miracle — retelling the complicated and dramatic life of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) in a Broadway musical, drawing on genres of music and theater from classic show tunes to hip-hop, Britpop, and epic rap battles, delivered by an immensely talented, energetic, multiracial cast.

Beyond its theatrical success, Hamilton is having an astounding cultural impact at least equaling anything we know in the history of theater. My colleagues and I hear reports that students in elementary and middle schools know the words and the music, and perform numbers from the show at the drop of a hat. Catchphrases from Hamilton have entered modern dialogue, such as “I’m not throwing away my shot!” and “Immigrants: we get the job done.” And the show’s use of multicultural casting resonates in our current discussions of immigrants and the tangled racial and ethnic history of our nation and its politics.

Though some scholars quibble about historical details, I argue that Hamilton is “Shakespeare history” — historical dramatization remaining true to the substance of the past while condensing and shuffling chronology for dramatic effect. Three major things contribute to its success at presenting the substance of Hamilton’s life and the complex origins of the American nation.

First, the cast — both the people assembled and the principle of casting. Hamilton features a multiracial cast, with, for example, such figures as George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Aaron Burr, and Angelica Schuyler being portrayed by African-Americans and such figures as Hamilton himself, John Laurens, and Philip Hamilton being portrayed by Latino actors. It is also a nice touch that the only Anglo role is that of King George III. This method of casting presents the story in a form engaging the sympathies and interest of a modern American theater audience. Multiracial casting helps an audience of any racial makeup to connect with these historical figures as they contend with challenging political questions having relevance and bite today; they thus get beyond stale generalizations about “dead white men.” In fact, two of the most remarkable sequences in Hamilton present key decision points of the Washington administrations as heated rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson.

Second, the show’s careful attention to the politics of the era. The rap battles mentioned above do a splendid job of plunging audience members into knotty issues of politics, diplomacy, and governance. Miranda has noted in many interviews that rap is an especially efficient means of giving an audience a great deal of information in easily-absorbed form. Rap also captures the rhetorical richness and virtuosity of the era and its people; these men and women were skilled in debate, and their words matter now as they did then.

Third, the show’s commitment to take politics and government seriously, and with respect. As teacher and librarian Danielle Lewis noted after seeing Hamilton, the show teaches us (without doing so in a heavy-handed way) that “the Constitution placed faith in the people, and that faith has not been misplaced — it is up to ‘we the people’ to make sure that that faith has not been misplaced.” Indeed, in a time when far too many Americans reflexively mistrust politicians and fear government, Hamilton tells a far different story, one that all Americans should hear and ponder. This story is that the founding fathers, including Hamilton, sought to order the nation’s political world with words by creating a form of government (set forth in the Constitution) that they hoped would respond to the nation’s problems effectively while protecting individual liberty. Those fortunate enough to see Hamilton will learn that that creation was not fore-ordained, and that the founding fathers were taking great chances, sometimes risking their lives in the service of their ideals and their political commitments.

Had I had the chance to include Hamilton in The Founding Fathers: A Very Short Introduction, I would have used it to illustrate the continuing power of the founding fathers over the American imagination — as Mr. Miranda has put it, America then told by America now.

In the late 1960s, the musical 1776 (which is returning to Broadway this spring) dramatized the creation of the US Declaration of Independence, with singing and dancing John and Abigail Adams, Thomas and Martha Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. In the years since its debut, the musical has inspired many scholars — including the present writer — to study early American history, because 1776 made these historical personages seem real and human. Who knows how many young scholars will be drawn to the study of Hamilton and his contemporaries because of their exposure to Hamilton: An American Musical?

Headline Image: Quill & Ball. Photo by Delwin Steven Campbell. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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