So much has been written about the Broadway megahit Hamilton: An American Musical that it seems almost impossible to break new ground on the subject. Nevertheless, I am going to contribute to the growing number of articles and posts devoted to the groundbreaking musical. Hamilton certainly deserves its hype: the musical is revolutionary (pun intended) for its complex lyrics, assimilation of contemporary music into theater, diverse cast, and relation to current issues. My interest in Hamilton arose from my love of history, which culminated in obsessively listening to the soundtrack for the last few months. One of the aspects of Hamilton that fascinates me most is its treatment of and influence on history.
Hamilton follows Alexander Hamilton’s life, set against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War and creation of the United States government, and successfully relays the major events and tensions of the time. Of course, since it is ultimately a performance, Lin-Manuel Miranda takes creative license when telling the story, leading to several historical inaccuracies. For example, the musical sets up a love triangle between Alexander Hamilton and two sisters, Angelica and Eliza Schuyler. Angelica decides not to pursue Hamilton because of societal expectations and her love for her sister. However, though historians speculate on what kind of relationship Angelica had with Hamilton, she was already married when she met him and had no chance to pursue him. Also, many of the interactions between Burr and Hamilton that take place during the musical did not actually happen.
The musical has also been criticized for glorifying Hamilton: David Waldstreicher, historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, called the show “part of this ‘Founders Chic’ phenomenon” and accused the creators of giving Hamilton a “free pass” by ignoring his less savory policies (Schuessler). Lyra D. Monteiro, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, reported in an interview with New York Times that “it’s an amazing piece of theater, but it concerns [her] that people are seeing it as a piece of history” (Schuessler). However, Ron Chernow, who wrote the Alexander Hamilton biography that inspired the show and who became a historical consultant, said that “Lin never gratuitously invents anything…he tries to stick to the facts, and if he has to deviate from the facts I have found that there is always a very good reason for him doing it,” according to the New Yorker (Mead).
While Hamilton takes some liberty with history, it also gives a voice to figures who may have been voiceless in history textbooks. The show gives full credit to the women in Hamilton’s life. Angelica Schuyler is portrayed as being incredibly intelligent and capable, and able to easily converse with and counsel Hamilton on political matters. In the song “The Schuyler Sisters,” Angelica states she is “looking for a mind at work” (Miranda). She proves her political savvy in a time when women were discouraged from political involvement by quoting Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence, announcing that when she meets Thomas Jefferson, she will “compel him to include women in the sequel” (Miranda). Eliza, Hamilton’s wife, also gets a focus in the musical. While she is mainly portrayed as Hamilton’s support, throughout the musical she develops a sense of agency, something that is most in the final song of show, when she lists off the different actions she takes in keeping Hamilton’s legacy alive, asking if she has “done enough” (Miranda). Hamilton‘s focus on Eliza’s accomplishments-which include compiling Hamilton’s papers, speaking out against slavery, and founding an orphanage-emphasize the role she played in history and in the creation of the show, since her devotion to preserving his legacy enabled historians to put together a picture of his life. Hamilton highlights not only women, but also enslaved African Americans in the show. Also, while many depictions of the Founding Fathers have avoided the cruel institution of slavery in America, Hamilton shines a spotlight on it. Though criticized for not including some black historical figures, the show is praised for keeping the issue of slavery visible throughout the play.
One of Hamilton’s greatest strengths as a cultural piece is its creative use of the historical narrative to impact and influence people today. The use of contemporary music, like hip-hop and R. & B., adds life to long-dead figures. Miranda’s singular style “turns out to be the perfect voice for expressing the thoughts and drives of the diverse immigrants in the American colonies who came together to forge their own, contentious, contradictory nation,” said Ben Brantley of the New York Times (Brantley). For example, the conflict between Hamilton and Jefferson’s visions for the United States Government may seem dry, but when presented through contentious rap battles, the division between the two becomes lively and significant. Hamilton not only makes history dynamic, it also makes it accessible and current. By casting an almost entirely non-white cast and using rap as the main form of expression, the show captures the essence of today’s America. Daveed Diggs, who plays Jefferson, says that it “allows us to see ourselves as part of a history we always thought we were excluded from” (Mead). Hmilton gives ownership of the historical narrative to the diverse make-up of America, and it incorporates themes that are just as relevant today as they were in the past.Hamilton’s journey as an immigrant, his struggle to get to America, rise through the ranks, challenges he faces because of his status, and mark he leves on history, is given emphasis in the show. The musical’s focus on immigrants in America parallels the current debate on immigration and the immigrant’s important role in shaping America. Hamilton rejuvenates and fosters interest in American history and its importance. For example, Hamilton is used by teachers to engage students in lessons. The show has partnered with the Rockefeller foundation to provide low-income students with tickets through a school program that integrates the musical into classroom studies. Hamilton’s utilization of history to relate to the modern world makes it an incredibly influential cultural icon.
The creative incorporation of history in Hamilton is one of its greatest accomplishments. Though the musical focuses on the life of Alexander Hamilton, the real star, as Ben Brantley notes, is “history itself” (Brantley).
Brantley, Ben. “Review: ‘Hamilton,’ Young Rebels Changing History and Theater.” New York Times. 6 Aug. 2015. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.
Mead, Rebecca. “All About the Hamiltons.” The New Yorker. 9 Feb. 2015. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.
Miranda, Lin-Manuel, Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Javier Muñoz, Leslie Odom, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, and Phillipa Soo. Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording. Wrt. Lin- Manuel Miranda. Orch. Alex Lacamoire. Hamilton. Rec. 16-21 Aug. 2015. 2015. CD.
Schuessler, Jennifer. “’Hamilton’ and History: Are They in Sync?” New York Times. 10 Apr. 2016. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.