We all learn in our history classes about America’s Founders, the ones who penned our proclamations and petitions and pamphlets. But the monotonous memorization of dates and battlefields, congresses and committees, can bleach all the life out of the true spirit of revolution. The story has been retold over and over again in textbooks and History Channel specials, but we rarely get a glimpse into the heart and courage it took to build a nation from nothing. This all changes in Hamilton, the Broadway play fanning the flames of patriotism with unapologetic hip hop.
Alexander Hamilton is a name few of us remember from class as our nation’s first Treasury Secretary, or maybe know as the face on the ten dollar bill for trivia purposes. But the creator and star of Hamilton, Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights, Bring it On: The Musical), saw something in the bastard-orphan-son-of-a-whore turned Founding Father when he read Hamilton’s biography by Ron Chernow. In interviews, Miranda has explained that Hamilton, a man who rose out of poverty with literally nothing but willpower and written words, lived a classic hip hop storyline. This culminated in the Hamilton Mixtape (a rough draft of songs that would later blossom into a full-scale musical) in 2012. The first production of Hamilton debuted off-Broadway in Jan. 2015 and was promoted to Broadway that July in a history-making flurry of previews, one of which was attended by Barack Obama himself.
Hamilton’s raging success gripped Broadway immediately, with tickets sold out as of now until Sept. 2016 and an astonishing array of celebrity viewers, including: Beyonce and Jay-Z, Shonda Rhimes, Bill Clinton, John Lasseter, Kerry Washington, Amy Schumer, Ingrid Michaelson, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Conan O’Brien, and Oprah Winfrey. The Ham4Ham ticket lottery held by cast and crew members outside the stage door now fills the whole block with hopefuls. (A recent attempt to make the lottery/informal performance digital ended up crashing the Playbill site in minutes.) Miranda and the show have been featured on 60 Minutes, Jimmy Fallon, and Stephen Colbert. People are going, well, Ham.
So what makes this show so goddamn special? Musicals and American history have been married before in productions like 1776 and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but none spurned half the mania Hamilton has created in a few short months. A lot of it has to do with the casting. When you think American Revolution, you think old white guys in wigs in a stuffy Philadelphia meetinghouse, which is why it’s so jolting and powerful to see a cast of black, Latino, and Asian performers throwing down raps about debt plans and foreign policy. Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler, told TIME, “It’s such a diverse cast with such a diverse style of music. We have the opportunity to reclaim a history that some of us don’t necessarily think is our own.” That union of colonial and contemporary, that realization that history belongs to all of us, is why Hamilton shines.
In addition to reminding us of its importance, Hamilton makes history exciting, with cabinet meetings presented in the context of rap battles and essays rewritten in hip hop verses. There’s something far more relatable–and hilarious–about hearing Alexander Hamilton cuss out John Adams than reading his letter Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States. (Since listening to the soundtrack the first time, I have done my own research into the lives of our founders. Did you know that Jefferson had a bust of Hamilton placed opposite his in the Entrance Hall at Monticello? He swore that they would be “opposed in death as in life,” because he was petty like that.) But more than that, Hamilton displays our Founding Fathers as human: flawed, ambitious, scared, driven. We learn about their families and their love lives, their emotional needs as well as their political ones. Aaron Burr sings before he shoots Hamilton, “I have only one thought before the slaughter. This man will not make an orphan of my daugher.” It’s important to remember that all these men who we put on pedestals as the founders of our nation had other sides to them than their political pursuits.
Another important topic that Hamilton raises is that of the unsung heroes. Hamilton is generally ignored as a Founding Father among big shots like Washington and Jefferson; the US Treasury is even planning to remove him from the ten dollar bill, an atrocity considering how crucial Hamilton was to our economy. Along with his revolutionary banking system, Hamilton served
in the Revolutionary War as Washington’s senior aide, defended Levi Weeks in the first ever US murder trial, and wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers, yet only since the musical has he been granted the attention he deserves. Very few people had heard of John Laurens (radical abolitionist from South Carolina nearly 100 years before the Civil War) or Hercules Mulligan (tailor who spied on the British during the revolution) until they became lovable characters in the production. We all learn about Abigail Adams, but who knew the name Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton? The long-suffering wife of reckless, unfaithful, workaholic Hamilton, Eliza raised funds in DC for the Washington monument, interviewed soldiers from the revolution, organized Hamilton’s thousands of writings after his death, and established the first private orphanage in New York City. She was a person whose story demanded to be told, and Miranda made that possible.
In fact, storytelling really is the heart of the musical. Even more than being a brilliant lyricist and composer, Miranda is a storyteller of the highest caliber and the purest quality. The final song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” reminds us that history is just that: not a list of years and places, but a tangled up narrative about real people, people who had courage and insecurities and passion and hope. And it’s one that may be rewritten a thousand times. Possibly even in the form of a Broadway musical.