What Is America's Legacy?
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.