‘Hamilton’ surpasses description with a revolutionary history
You seriously haven’t lived until you’ve heard a cabinet meeting in rap battle form.
At a White House poetry jam event in 2009, Lin-Manuel Miranda took the stage in front of Michelle and Barack and briefly introduced his then current project.
“I’m actually working on . . . a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton,” he said. “He was born a penniless orphan in St. Croix, of illegitimate birth, became George Washington’s right-hand man, became treasury secretary, caught beef with every other founding father, and all on the strength of his writing. I think he embodies the word’s ability to make a difference.”
What happened next is history, literally. Miranda turned the Hamilton Mixtape project into the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, which he wrote and stars in as Alexander Hamilton. In true hip-hop fashion, the show’s music borrows liberally from the likes of Beyoncé, Ja Rule, Eminem, Biggie Smalls, and The Beastie Boys, but it doesn’t stop there. Miranda’s voluminous musical knowledge dips into everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to Django Reinhardt, Sufjan Stevens, and Little Richard. Much like Hamilton himself, Miranda clearly “writes like he’s running out of time.” “The man is nonstop.”
One of the extraordinary accomplishments of the musical (aside from its tidal wave of ticket sale success) is its ability to engage an entire generation with the revolutionary history of America. The blind casting of the main characters, with Washington played by a bald black actor, encourages a new ownership of our history. But it’s the deep dipping into modern hip-hop and R&B that really brings the past vibrantly into the present. You seriously haven’t lived until you’ve heard a cabinet meeting in rap battle form.
The inspiration for the musical comes from Ron Chernow’s 2005 biography of Hamilton, but the rest is all Miranda, who earned a MacArthur “genius” award for his work on the production. Says Chernow of the experience:
Lin-Manuel asked if he could come over to my house and sing something for me. He sat on my living room couch, began to snap his fingers, then sang the opening song of the show — ‘How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore, etc.’ When he finished, he asked me what I thought. And I said, ‘I think that’s the most astonishing thing I’ve ever heard in my life.’ He had accurately condensed the first 40 pages of my book into a four-minute song.
And it is astonishing, from the opening number, with Burr damning himself for his villainous part in our nation’s history, to the end, where the entire cast questions the very nature of legacy, asking, “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”
This is one of those reviews where I will never be able to do enough justice to the album. Hamilton is extraordinary music that you won’t be able to stop thinking about or talking about or cross-referencing the history of to see where creative license diverges from fact (not often, as it turns out).
In Alexander Hamilton, Miranda clearly found a kindred spirit. Both are disproportionately talented men who understand the word’s ability to make a difference. And, much like Hamilton, Miranda does not waste his shot.
Image: Via YouTube