The lights go up center stage. Music begins, and an actor portraying Vice President Aaron Burr begins to rap, slow and solemn, focused, to a hypnotic beat. He poses a question about Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton: “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?” And off we go. This is the first line of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s seminal Broadway musical entitled "Hamilton! An American Musical." For the next few hours, the audience is taken through Hamilton’s life, from his days as an orphaned clerk in St. Croix to his days as a college student at King’s College, culminating in his death at the hands of Aaron Burr in a duel in 1804. However, Hamilton’s dramatic life is not the only reason this musical has taken off with such an adamant and positive hype. From the gripping re-imagining of America as a young nation to the slick and quick verbal breakdance of the music and lyrics, "Hamilton" uses actors and actresses of the racial minority to craft a tale of American exuberance. Through its portrayal of American history, its presentation of musical forms outside the norm, and its representation of racial minorities and women, "Hamilton! An American Musical" is an invaluable expression of modern theater that is not bound by any one traditional identifier of musical theater.
It feels evident from the first few lines that the creators of "Hamilton" aspired and worked for it to be something more than itself, to do something more than just to entertain people. The show is getting a new generation of people interested in American History through the use of music that they can relate to. It’s sharing with a new audience the value of live theatre, that it’s not just boring and stuffy, that it can educational, influential, entertaining, fun and cutting-edge. Using the musical stylings that it does, "Hamilton" is captivating an entirely new audience of people, drawing them in and igniting within them a spark of connection with the American musical theater. In the second act, a cabinet meeting takes place in the form of a fast-paced rap battle between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, over the topic of Alexander’s new debt and financial plan for the young American nation. Hamilton tackles the subject of slavery in the south, while Jefferson poses the question of why Virginia should be obligated to bail New York out of any potential debt it is in. The show takes topics that are potentially boring to a younger audience and draws them in by presenting it as a rap battle. In the first act, we meet General George Washington to a fanfare of fierce beats and quick wits, asking Hamilton to be his right-hand man. We even hear from the perspective of King George, where he sings songs reminiscent of kitschy pop break-up numbers to the American colonies, telling his perspective and how he feels wronged, like a scorned lover. Miranda from theatlantic.com mentioned: “…and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.” These pieces and more show that there is an emerging precedence of the need for connection in "Hamilton," of the need to go that extra mile and do something no show has ever done before. Regardless of opinion and taste, it cannot be denied that "Hamilton" is pushing at the boundaries of what it means for a musical to be popular in America.
This musical is invaluable because as well as advocating for the importance of American history, it’s also drawing in new patrons who wouldn’t normally be interested in musical theater by use of rap, hip-hop and popular music styles. It uses a mix of different musical stylings, such as fast and clever lyrics, traditional theater ballads, hip-hop beats and alluring chord progressions to create a palpable experience of Alexander Hamilton’s life. When most people think of the average theater-goer, the image that most often comes to mind is of middle-aged or elderly white people, not of young multi-racial people, but this is the audience that "Hamilton" is appealing to. It even won the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album this past February, and it broke records by debuting at Number 12 on the Billboard 200 charts. According to Billboard.com, it’s also been Number 1 on Cast Albums, and Number 3 on rap albums among others, for good measure. A musical theater soundtrack debuting that high on the Billboard charts is unprecedented, lending itself the value of the show not just for the American theater, but also for American culture as well. The show also references many popular rap songs, which aids in drawing in an audience who have never before had popular culture references targeted for them in musical theater.
"Hamilton" is a great source of representation for racial minorities and women who don’t often get to see themselves in big roles, as the entire cast is made of people of color, except for one main role and a few ensemble members. People don’t want to see a hip-hop musical written exclusively by white people, starring exclusively white people. It’s taking a popular medium of entertainment and using it to really represent what it means to be an American today. The show's creator, author and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda says about his musical for theatlantic.com: “This is the story of America then, using America now.” It’s absorbing to think about in this context, because when you consider race in this musical, you get this sort of delicious multi-tiered masterpiece that tells a story of triumph; of life and love and perseverance, of fear and dedication, of deliverance. Alexander Hamilton then becomes, to the audience, not just another ‘old dead white guy,’ but “another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom;” he’s tangible, his story is now relatable to the common citizen.
The show also advocates for women, as can be seen in the show number “The Schuyler Sisters,” when Angelica Schuyler sings “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ / And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’ma compel to include women in the sequel!” The character of Eliza is also very valuable to this point, because when it’s revealed that Hamilton has cheated on her, his wife, she sings a ballad entitled "Burn," saying “I’m erasing myself from the narrative / Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart / … The world has no right to my heart / The world has no place in our bed / They don’t get to know what I said.” Later in the show, after the death of their son Philip, their reunion and ultimately Alexander’s death, Eliza says this in the finale in response to Aaron Burr asking ‘who tells [Hamilton’s] story: “I put myself back in the narrative.” This song is called "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story." A writer at the New Yorker draws attention to this fact in his article about the women in "Hamilton:" “…by implicitly equating Eliza’s acts of narration with his own, he’s acknowledging the women who built the country alongside the men. You’re left wondering whether the “Hamilton” of the title isn’t just Alexander, but Eliza, too. Hamilton is helping people feel represented, bringing to light the place that they’ve always deserved in America, like the constitution can mean something to them other than just being a law document written hundreds of years ago by people who have no idea what it’s like to live as a minority in America now.
Great art is not without criticism, however, and "Hamilton" is no exception. Critics of the show say that there are multiple historical inaccuracies in "Hamilton," therefore any argument pertaining to the show’s presentation of American history is inviable. To that, I would simply say that this is not a textbook intended for relaying factual information, nor does it pretend to be. Miranda’s creative licenses lend themselves to the drama of the show, whose intentions are not to prepare students for the SATs, but to leave the audience feeling something different than when they walked in. The American history aspect of the show is just a plus. Another criticism of the show is that the male characters are hyper-masculine, but this is easily explained. The men (and women) in the show are the kindling of a revolution; they are about war, resistance, freedom and self-sufficiency. They are at the start of the nation, of course they’re going to be excitable! I would point out, however, that there are multiple examples of the men engaging in what is (incorrectly) seen to be exclusively feminine behavior, such as lamenting about their relationships in songs like “Wait for It” and “Helpless” and gushing over their newborn children such as in “Dear Theodosia.” The third criticism I would like to point out is that many say the choruses of the songs are too repetitive, but the purpose of this is the show leaning back on itself to highlight and emphasize central themes, such as Hamilton’s dedication to his goals with the repeated phrase “I am not throwing away my shot” seen in multiple songs, and the melodies that replay themselves to nod back to other melodies in previous songs for the same reasons.
"Hamilton" is reaching people where they are by meeting them where they are: at the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway, in a convenience store in downtown Detroit, or a college campus in Dayton, Ohio. It’s sharing with people the joy of musical theater, but also taking stands and making points, all while pushing the boundaries of traditional musical theater. It’s establishing new reasons to love history. It’s exposing new audiences to the inherent and sturdy value of both Broadway and hip-hop music, and it’s connecting with people in America who have never felt connected to the country. It’s not pretending to be anything other than what it is, and by being itself, it has become a prized piece of musical theater in America.