What Is America's Legacy?
Last night I watched Broadway stars perform a ditty about Colonial-era rules for dueling in a mixture of Filipino Tagalog and English. I witnessed the seductive crooning of a tune of temptation in the style of Billie Holiday. I watched, rapt, a performance of “Laurie’s Song,” from Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land, belted out in a tiny dressing room. I watched a freestyle rap performance about tax policy and the presidency take place in the White House’s Rose Garden. I heard a song outlining the origin story of an American Founding Father transmuted into a tale of a vengeful, murderous barber, then witnessed the same song rewritten to detail the origin story of Batman.
I am newly aware of Jonathan Edwards’ ties to the early days of Princeton University. I now know that one of the men who fought in the Revolution was the gloriously named Hercules Mulligan. I have learned the origins of our American practice of openly campaigning for political office. This week I subjected my students to three hours’ worth of discussion of Fredric Jameson, Henry Jenkins, and a Broadway musical. For four months, I have listened to the same album on repeat during my daily commute. This winter, I ponied up half a month’s rent for a pair of Tuesday night tickets, seats nestled into the corner of the very last balcony row. Every morning, before I rise, I enter the online lottery and hope to snag another pair.
By now you may have guessed: I am part of a group of people known collectively as Hamilfans or, more often, #Hamilfans, those who willingly watch and listen to most anything related to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit Hamilton: An American Musical. I am not given to joining fandoms, but of this one I am not ashamed, because in Hamilton there exists enough richness to fuel a college course or a historical treatise. Hamilton is a show about America’s founding, of course—and, as historian Gordon S. Wood explained in the New York Review of Books, a remarkably accurate one: “Of course Miranda had to move some people and things around and exercise some artistic license to fit some events together,” Wood writes. “But he doesn’t seem to make any unintentional mistakes.” And yet, as a friend put it to me, Hamilton somehow also manages to be a musical about everything: contemporary convergence culture, race, slavery, suffrage, media old and new, myth, transgression, grace, forgiveness, grief, idealism, pragmatism, the role of friendship in politics, and much more.
The show also marks a new way of regarding the nation’s founding, particularly among young people struggling to make sense of their country’s history and present condition. In Christianity Today, Jessica Gibson, writing about the show’s vast and active fandom among her peers on the Millennial-favored social networking platform Tumblr, explained that “[e]ssentially, it became a massive communal history class. . . . There is a clear ‘before Hamilton’ and ‘after Hamilton’ when it comes to conversations about America. . . . I would never have called it, but there are posts out there now defending George Washington’s Christianity as a good and necessary value for our first president to have had. People who have built up an attitude that puts them in opposition to traditional ideas about government are now getting excited about the type of politician they would normally despise.”
“Hamilton fans are going back and reconciling themselves to their own history in ways they didn’t have the chance to before,” Gibson writes. “It’s crazy and uncharacteristic, but my peers have found in Hamilton a reason to be patriotic.”
The show itself isn’t the only catalyst for this shift, though it’s certainly a theater landmark in its own right. Hamilton’s origin and history is chronicled in text and image in the gorgeous new book Hamilton: The Revolution, co-written by journalist Jeremy McCarter and Miranda, who is the show’s lyricist, composer, and star; the book also contains the entire text of the show, with marginal annotations. The Manhattan-raised son of Puerto Rican parents, Miranda started writing the show after picking up Ron Chernow’s 2003 biography of Hamilton in an airport. It took a winding, fascinating path to the stage, but eventually, after winning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical during its early 2015 off-Broadway run at the Public Theater, the production moved to Broadway, debuting at the Richard Rodgers Theater last August. It may never leave. (Long-running and touring productions are bound for Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and London in the next two years.)