It’s been a while since I’ve had a record catch my attention and get stuck in my head like Hamilton has over the past couple of weeks. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you’re already probably tired of hearing about it. But in the spirit of it’s-still-stuck-in-my-head-and-I-want-to-talk-about-it, I’m writing a blog post in the hopes of reaching a few folks who wouldn’t likely otherwise familiarize themselves with it.
On the face of it, the summary of this new Broadway musical sounds, frankly, bizarre: a rap/hip-hop musical, featuring nearly all non-white actors, about the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.
To Hamilton’s writer/composer, though, it makes perfect sense. Lin-Manuel Miranda, a thirty-something New Yorker and son of Puerto Rican immigrants, sees Hamilton’s story as a classic immigrant story. Born in the Caribbean, no father around, mother died when he was young. Immigrated to America, and with great ambition and drive played a significant hand in the founding of the USA, only to die in a duel at the hand of Vice President and long-time rival Aaron Burr. So why wouldn’t you tell this story?
Miranda gave an early performance of what would become the opening song of the musical at a White House evening of poetry, music, and spoken word back in 2009. (He was invited after penning his first musical, the Tony Award-winning In The Heights.) You can see the range of reactions in this video: at first, everybody chuckles at the idea of a hip-hop album about Alexander Hamilton. But 4 minutes in, he’s really good, and they’re hooked.
After hearing friends rave about Hamilton for a few days I went ahead and bought the cast recording. It’s clear at once that Hamilton is serious story telling. It’s not played for laughs or trying to highlight the incongruity of a Hispanic man in the lead and African Americans playing Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. After 10 minutes you’ll buy into the idea, and by the end of the musical you’ll have a new perspective on immigrants shaping our country in its infancy.
What grabbed me first about Hamilton was the lyrics. I’ve always been a fan of smart wordplay, whether it be in silly family pun battles, Mel Brooks lyrics, Andrew Peterson songs, or Danny Kaye movies. And in Hamilton they’re smart, and they’re incessant. In the Alexander Hamilton character’s introductory song “My Shot”, he raps without hardly taking a breath, about his plight as a new immigrant:
I’m ‘a get a scholarship to King’s College.
I prob’ly shouldn’t brag, but dag, I amaze and astonish.
The problem is I got a lot of brains but no polish.
I gotta holler just to be heard.
With every word, I drop knowledge!
I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal
tryin’ to reach my goal. My power of speech:unimpeachable.
Only nineteen but my mind is older.
These New York City streets get colder, I shoulder
ev’ry burden, ev’ry disadvantage
I have learned to manage, I don’t have a gun to brandish,
I walk these streets famished.
The musical traces Hamilton’s life through his move to America, his marriage to Eliza Schuyler, his involvement in the revolution and the founding of the country, his writing of many of the Federalist Papers, the affair that most likely cost him a shot at the presidency, the untimely death of his son, and his final showdown with Burr.
This bit from CBS Sunday Morning back in March is a nice brief overview of Hamilton the man, Hamilton the show, and the magnetic and clearly brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda.
If you’re mildly interested by this point, I’d recommend checking out the cast album. (It’s up on YouTube to stream if you’re not ready to commit to a purchase.) It’s possible it won’t be your thing – Hamilton is currently sold out for goodness knows how long at the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway, but your standard Rodgers & Hammerstein musical it ain’t – but if you can immerse yourself in it for an hour or two I don’t think you’ll regret it.
As a footnote: my friend Bethany pointed me toward the #ParksAndHam mashup on Twitter, wherein folks are combining Hamilton quotes with pictures from Parks and Recreation. If you’re a fan of Parks and Rec, there are some pretty great ones out there.
— savannah? x-stitch commisions open! (@savannahshutup) October 31, 2015