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Alissa Wilkinson

What Is America's Legacy?

How Hamilton reimagines the Founding.

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.)

Hamilton’s main characters include Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, the daughters of Philip Schuyler, George Washington, and King George III—all of whom are portrayed by non-white actors except the last, whose increasingly deranged stalker-like odes to the colonies are delivered as peppy Brit-pop. (Key line from his first number, sung just before the Revolution is in full swing: “And when push comes to shove / I will send a fully-armed battalion to remind you of my love!”) The show is sung-through in the manner of Les Misérables (which Miranda names as a major influence), meaning the Grammy-winning cast album is a close aural approximation of the show itself. That album, critic Wesley Morris wrote in the New York Times Magazine, is “a gateway to obsession. To know someone who has this album is to know someone who needs a restraining order.”

The frequent, lazy designation of the show as a “rap musical” ignores the eclectic, wide-ranging styles at play, a product of Miranda’s lifelong immersion in every musical style imaginable. Hamilton demonstrates a keen understanding of how musical forms affect the way their audiences internalize the content. The cabinet debates about financial systems and foreign policy between Hamilton and Jefferson are performed as rap battles (“How do you not get it? If we’re aggressive and competitive / The union gets a boost. You’d rather give it a sedative?”). Characters rap throughout—particularly the highly intelligent ones—which perfectly fits both the intricate rhetoric and swaggering pamphleteering so prevalent then. But “The Room Where It Happens,” in which Aaron Burr tells us how it came to be that the nation’s capital moved from New York City to the District of Columbia, is set to a honky-tonk dance jam we associate with speakeasies in mobster movies, suggesting the birth of shady back-room politicking, with lyrics like this: “The immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power / A system he can shape however he wants / The Virginians emerge with the nation’s capital / And here’s the pièce de résistance: / No one else was in the room where it happened.” The song in which Hamilton is introduced to his wife, Eliza Schuyler, is a classic R&B and rap love duet called “Helpless.” There are familiar Broadway showtunes, rhymes and rhythmic patterns that quote and reference rappers from Biggie to Jay-Z, ballads and contrapuntal debate anthems set to harpsichords, drinking songs, hints of Queen, hints of gospel.

Miranda’s previous show, In the Heights, was also praised by audiences and critics, though it by no means approached Hamilton’s monster-hit level. In 2015, he was awarded a MacArthur genius grant; in 2016, he won the Pulitzer Prize and was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world. He’s also one of the internet’s favorite humans, with hundreds of thousands of adoring Twitter followers. Part of the reason is his assiduous attention to the show’s growing fan base, most of whom won’t ever be able to get tickets. Daily “Ham4Ham” video shorts, apparently shot mostly on whatever iPhone happens to be handy at the time, feature Miranda and other members of the cast or various musical luminaries (Broadway and otherwise) performing songs from Hamilton and other shows, generally just having a terrific time, to help compensate for the daily disappointment of everyone who once again doesn’t win the ticket lottery. Sometimes the videos are shot on the street outside the theater. Once the trio of actresses who currently play the daughters in Fiddler on the Roof came by to perform a rewritten version of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” that playfully begged to be allowed to play the Schuyler sisters in Hamilton some time. Once, Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, showed up.

Miranda’s Twitter presence is robust and friendly, full of pictures and shout-outs to other shows and artists, and most nights it includes a post-show selfie with some backstage guest, ranging from New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning to rapper LL Cool J to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Obamas are known to be big fans. When the “Batlexander Manilton” parody showed up on the web, Miranda tweeted about it, as he did when dozens of college students from around the country collaborated on a full-length, crowdsourced parody called Jeb! The Musical, with Donald Trump in the Aaron Burr role. (I wrote a piece about Hamilton’s biblical references for Christianity Today that Miranda also tweeted, accompanied by a tiny original couplet—judging from the timestamp, he sent it from backstage moments before his first entrance of the night.) Miranda regularly appears on a round of late-night shows, which yields up instant viral content for networks. He recently appeared on comedian John Oliver’s HBO show Last Week Tonight to explain the Puerto Rican economic crisis and plead for relief—in a rap written for the occasion, of course.

But that appearance took place a month after he stood before Congress and delivered a heartfelt, non-rapped plea on the same topic, offering whatever help he could give—even Hamilton performances—if they would back relief measures for the poverty-stricken U.S. territory. And that occurred a day after the cast performed parts of the show at the White House, including the Rose Garden rap. Which is to say that the reach of this musical far exceeds a night of light entertainment or even Tumblr-style fan obsession.

The sort of devotion the show sparks is partly due to its infectious music, its unironic, good-hearted patriotism, and its odes to hard work and faithful commitment to one’s friends and ideals. But it also owes much to its unprecedented harnessing of technology and social media. Tickets are absurdly expensive, but the cast album is just $20 on iTunes and can be streamed for free on Spotify. Everyone loves it, children and parents alike. I have a friend who awoke early one morning to hear her tiny son singing “I am not throwing away my SHOT” in his bedroom. Another offered his children the opportunity to go to either Disneyland or Hamilton for family vacation. The Founding Fathers beat out Mickey Mouse and Frozen.

And while only one number from Hamilton has been broadcast widely—the cast performed the opening number for the 2016 Grammys, beamed live from the stage of the Richard Rodgers—fans can interact with the show through Twitter, Tumblr, and Ham4Ham videos, which extend its presence and welcome a much broader and more diverse audience than could ever hope to score tickets. (It’s worth noting that in April, the show started devoting its Wednesday matinee entirely to high schoolers bussed in from underserved districts around New York City, all of whom pay just $10 a ticket.) That extended presence encourages the sort of creativity required to rewrite the entire show to be about a superhero or contemporary politics or any of the many iterations that will doubtless emerge in the future. This is not the passive intake of entertainment that grumpy think-piece writers like to attribute to Millennials. It’s a vibrant culture of creation and improvisation. Some young Lin-Manuel out there will write the next Hamilton.

The choice to cast the show with non-white actors is deeply significant as well, signaling that this is not just a literalist retelling of history but a recasting of the meaning of the Founding itself. Chris Jackson, the towering African American actor who currently plays Washington and cut his teeth as a singer in Midwestern church choirs, leads the cast in prayer backstage before every performance. He told Playbill, “I know that when I was 11 years old, if I had seen a show like Hamilton, it would have changed everything for
me. . . . I think once you see characters like us portrayed in real life, the power is you can somehow see yourself in that.” Wood writes in the New York Review of Books that the casting choice “symbolizes as nothing else could that the history of the founding of the United States belongs to all Americans at all times and in all places and not simply to elite white Anglo-Saxon males who lived in the eighteenth century.”

This, to no one’s shock, has ruffled a few feathers. But even to those who don’t mind, it could sound gimmicky—none of these men and women were people of color, after all. But Hamilton was an immigrant, born in the Caribbean, as the show reminds us repeatedly, to a Scotsman and a prostitute. The show’s telling of the Founding is keenly conscious of the racial injustice and slavery America had yet to confront, even as it sought to throw off oppression. In one rap battle, New Yorker and Treasury Secretary Hamilton spits at Virginian Secretary of State Jefferson, “A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor / Your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labor. . . . Keep ranting, we know who’s really doing the planting.” This isn’t an anachronism; the Founders hotly debated the issue of slavery, but chose to punt the problem down the road to deal with later—resolved only by a bloody and expensive war, decades after the colonists’ former oppressors in the United Kingdom had abolished slavery themselves.

Many critical discussions of the show have stuck to its identity and race politics, but its political philosophy seems all too timely in the face of a roiling, parody-proof presidential election. One can easily imagine Obama’s rueful smile in the audience when Washington admonishes Hamilton, “Winning was easy, young man / Governing’s harder.” Jeb! The Musical is just the tip of the iceberg. When Antonin Scalia died, prompting a national catfight over whether the president was or was not rightfully allowed to appoint a new justice to the Supreme Court, it was impossible not to sing Jefferson and Madison’s rejoinder to Hamilton about his own plans for what would become the Federal Reserve: “You don’t have the votes. You don’t have the votes / You’re gonna need Congressional approval, and you don’t have the votes.” Follow Twitter during any debate and you’ll see gifs, lyrics, and memes from Hamilton pop up, casting various candidates’ positions and platitudes in terms of the show’s characters.

The only real heroes in Hamilton are George Washington and Eliza Schuyler. Having served two terms as president, the former willingly cedes power while quoting Scripture to explain why rest is part of his legacy; the latter forgives her husband for an unspeakable betrayal and spends her life after his death in carrying on his legacy and creating her own through works of great service: “The Lord in his mercy, he gives me what you always wanted / He gives me more time,” she sings. Besides these two, whose virtue is founded on historical fact, no one is valorized—not even the show’s eponymous protagonist. Instead, Hamilton gives us characters who sacrifice personal integrity for image, who refuse to stand up for anything in the pursuit of power, who do things we applaud and other things we abhor. People are messy. Our founders were messy. They have lessons to teach us still.

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s critic at large and associate professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. Her criticism appears in RogerEbert.com, Rolling Stone, Vulture, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans).

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