I recently saw Hamilton, the unprecedented Broadway smash hit by Lin-Manuel Miranda an artist who successfully writes both music and lyrics and stars in the lead role. The innovative story and exemplary piece of musical theater is about our Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. Miranda’s music and lyrics fuse nineties hip-hop, R&B, and classic traditional theatrical songs. He brilliantly re-presents American history through the use of race-blind casting. Roles played in history by white people are in Hamilton, played by Latino or African-America performers, without any explanation. It’s audacious and funny and serious all at the same time.
Even though all of this certainly breaks any previous Broadway show mold, there are several reasons Hamilton is enormously successful. One reason is because it isn’t just a hip-hop musical it’s organically and genuinely both things at once. Who would have even considered that the diversity of the genres would work? This show takes us to our past in revealing the life of Alexander Hamilton, who for the most part has been ignored in history, and adds a layer of the present in way that is truly revolutionary. He moves the audience to care about actual American history, spinning it into a story about honor which is at once ironic, contradictory, provocative, subversive, educational, entertaining and human. Simply remarkable.
In the process of Lin-Manuel Miranda having his moment, he has started a movement.
As I sat in the theatre on W 46th St in New York I reflected on the show’s tag line and final song – “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” I realized that public history is about meaning. Last year, at the PastForward conference Bryan Stevenson of Equal Justice Initiative spoke eloquently about the need to open up the narrative of our history to achieve social justice. He states, “I believe that the opposite of poverty is not wealth…I believe that the opposite of poverty is justice…” While Hamilton isn’t exactly a traditional agent in social justice, it does, in just a couple of hours, show how the narrative of a Founding Father is also the African-American story, the immigrant story, the story of women and a story of the impoverished. And the musical’s ability to engage the public on the importance of history in all its forms is worth its weight in gold.
Recently during a Q&A session at the Smithsonian, an audience member asked Miranda what he wanted his legacy to be. He said, (paraphrasing) that Hamilton touches upon the notion that there is not a lot of time in this world and so I want to leave behind as much as possible. I know that’s selfish, but there is so much in my brain that when I go I want it all out, I want to always throw rocks in the pond. (Miranda shows the incessant writing of Alexander Hamilton through out but highlighted in song lyrics, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time, running out of time.”)
And that is the final reason why Hamilton an almost perfect piece of public history. We only have one life to live and it’s fitting that it is Eliza’s (Hamilton’s wife) words at the end of the show are what left me energized and in tears all at the same time. In the final song she sings of her own legacy, telling not only Hamilton’s story, but also her own, adding another layer to an already rich story.
Perhaps, more importantly Hamilton’s ultimate message is that it’s not about finding someone to tell your story, but rather to “put yourself back in the narrative” and tell it yourself. After all, the greatest impact of history can have on the public is to inspire — and Hamilton the musical does just that.