I remember hearing about the Hamilton musical for the first time. My reaction was not unlike most people’s when they first learn the premise. A hip-hop musical set around the time of the U.S. Revolution, cast with actors of color, and focused on treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton? It made no sense to me, and I didn’t understand why people were so excited by it. But hey, even the President and First Lady laughed when Lin-Manuel Miranda showed up at the White House and surprised them with a song from his new project.
At least I was in good company.
But the reasons it sounds absurd are the very same reasons this musical is extraordinary. Miranda took those dry pages of history and made them relatable. He entertains us even while explaining the names and dates, and facts and figures that are so familiar to most of us. Cabinet meetings become rap battles. We learn about this country’s first political sex scandal. There is beauty and intrigue even when nothing is actually happening.
I’ll explain that last point. Two of my favorite songs are The Room Where It Happens and Burn. In the first, Aaron Burr is excluded from a secret meeting in which the U.S.Capital is moved to Washington D.C. while, simultaneously, Hamilton keeps the treasury in New York and gets his debt plan passed through Congress. From Burr’s point of view, this is another in a series of situations where he has been passed over or left out altogether. He’s beyond frustrated and it shows. He doesn’t know what really happened and, therefore, neither do we.
And isn’t that just politics as usual?
Similarly, in The Election of 1800, we see just how little has changed in American politics over the past 200 years. We have an image of our founding fathers being better than today’s politicians, somehow above what has become the norm of infighting and mudslinging. Nothing could be further from the truth. Adams apparently referred to Hamilton as “Creole bastard.” Another lyric describes the insults flung around in newspapers and says, “we don’t print retractions.”
Yep. Same old, same old.
In Burn, Hamilton’s wife Eliza learns about a secret affair he had with Maria Reynolds. When his contemporaries threaten to expose him, he admits to the whole thing by publishing what was known as The Reynolds Pamphlet. Until this point, Eliza had been very much a part of his public life. From Burn, however, it’s clear she retreated somewhat after the affair. “I’m erasing myself from the narrative,” she sings. “Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart…the world has no right to my heart, the world has no place in our bed. They don’t get to know what I said.”
And doesn’t that just speak louder than any insult?
In between are a wealth of lesser known figures that I promise you will want to know more about. Men like the Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens. Women like Eliza and Angelica Schuyler. At the very least, you will come to see all these events in a new, much more interesting, way than ever before.
It appears likely that the show will be headed to my city in some form. And yes, I will be among the first in line.