I recently saw the musical Hamilton and naturally, I’m chockablock with opinions. I had, of course, heard of Hamilton long before Lin Manuel Miranda’s brainchild exploded onto the scene in 2015 (I mean Hamilton is on the $10 bill after all).
My first real introduction to Alexander Hamilton was in my eighth-grade U.S. history class. In the discussion of the Revolutionary War, our teacher introduced the country’s first Treasurer to us through a piece of now-historical pop culture.
Do you remember those Got Milk? print ads that featured celebrities, sporting a thick white, painted-on milk mustache? They were big in the 1990s and early 2000s and featured stars of the day like Whoopi Goldberg, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, and Shaquille O’Neal. In addition to such ads, there were also commercials. The one my teacher showed us went as follows — a man, clearly a Revolutionary-War history buff with his books and statues filling the room, is seated, slathering peanut butter on white bread, poised to enjoy a meal. He is listening to the radio and hears a contest come on with the $10,000 question. The question is — “who shot Alexander Hamilton?” The man lights up as he chews his sandwich — he not only knows that the answer is Aaron Burr, but he also receives the call from the radio station. All he has to do is say, “Aaron Burr.”
He picks up the phone and responds, “aarrr brrr,” with his mouth full of sticky peanut butter.
“Excuse me?” Asks the radio host.
“Time is running out,” responds the host.
Time is called. The man is distraught…if only he had some milk to swallow and clear his throat before answering the question… the screen fades to black and the words, “got milk?” appear.
Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston
Anyway, what I mean to say is that Alexander Hamilton has cropped up in the mainstream before, however, naturally, what Lin Manuel Miranda accomplished is quite extraordinary.
Here are the big need-to-knows about Miranda’s Hamilton:
- It recounts the story of U.S. independence (Revolutionary War, Constitutional Congresses, early presidential elections) through the perspective of Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasurer of the country.
- The actors portraying the founding fathers come from exclusively BIPOC backgrounds.
- Miranda’s Hamilton is not the first of its kind, just, perhaps, the most successful. In 2010, a rock musical came out about the seventh president titled “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” but never made quite the splash.
- Hamilton, although, technically a musical, is more like a rap opera. Most of the dialogue is rapped if not sung; there are only small pieces of actual talking.
- The musical takes some historical liberties. Most notably, the musical implies that Burr’s loss in 1800 presidential election led to the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Wikipedia (<<super credible, right?) states that this is less than accurate — instead, the duel happened years later as a result of a public insult that Alexander Hamilton made to Burr in an open letter after Burr lost an 1804 gubernatorial race.
I knew very little about the musical before entering the Citizens Bank Opera House in downtown Boston on a weekday night. The theater was packed, and screams and cheers could be heard as the lights dimmed and before the opening number began. The show is explosive and Hamilton with his die-hard passion to win independence and shape the country takes you on a journey of ups and downs with witty wordplay, banter, and laughs along the way. Understanding that the founding fathers look and sound very different from what was exhibited on stage is something that I thought of as the house lights came back on. Lin Manuel Miranda is quoted as saying, “Our cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional… it’s a way of pulling you into the story and allowing you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.”
I found it curious that the debate about slavery was excluded from the action, especially considering that it was a major point of contention for the founding fathers while writing the Constitution. I don’t even remember hearing the word “slavery” in the musical, (but I could’ve missed it, honestly, there was a lot of fast rapping), though there were definitely remarks made about slave labor, using other words and direct references to the abolitionist movement. On this point, I’ve also seen the musical 1776, which recounts the founding of the United States through second president John Adams’s point of view. The tone and setting of this musical is more traditional, and it addresses the slavery issue through much dialogue as well as song, and dives more deeply into the Revolutionary War and John Adams (who was not well liked, by the way). I wonder whether only shallow coverage of these points was an intentional separation from 1776 (but I have no real insight into this).
Hamilton is smart; he is cocky, and he is dedicated to American independence in the most passionate way. Hamilton fights harder for the U.S. than he does for anyone or anything else, which is probably noble, but also comes off as self-destructive. At different points, you can see the pain on his loved ones’ faces as he continues to choose the country over those nearest and dearest to him (again… it’s probably noble…). As you watch, listen, and experience, you will feel things. The music is driving — beating with crescendos and key changes, and, of course, clever rhymes. The center of the stage literally spins at points, showcasing the action from all angles, and framed by spotlights that blend colors and highlight the action in creative, out-of-the-box ways. Hamilton is so, so flawed, but it is still easy to feel compassion for him as he throws his all into the cause. He’s not perfect, but he did great things.
What a wonderful experience — I’m glad that I pushed myself to go even though I sat on my ownsome. In the end, Hamilton is a cultural phenomenon and, perhaps, a lot more memorable than an old Got Milk? commercial. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day in the future, much of the next generation of children are introduced to bits and pieces of this musical to learn something about America’s first Treasurer.
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