In my ongoing series of “Trudy discovers entertainment phenomena that everyone else already discovered ages ago,” I’ve recently become COMPLETELY OBSESSED with the soundtrack for the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. I’ve heard people online raving about this innovative hip-hop musical based on the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (lesser known than the other founding fathers because unlike Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison et al, he never got to be President). The musical is famous not only for bringing history to life and hip-hop to Broadway, but for re-imagining the key characters in the American Revolution as a more diverse cast made up mostly of people of colour.
Like most fans of the soundtrack album, I won’t be seeing this famously sold-out show live in Broadway anytime soon … I will be seeing it in eleven months, as I managed to snare tickets for myself and my similarly-obsessed teenaged daughter for May 2017. By that time most of the original cast, including creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, will have moved on to other roles. But a similarly brilliant cast of musical theatre stars will take the show’s infectious melodies and intelligent lyrics into the future, and we will be there to see it, and I’m excited about that.
There’s so much to say about Hamilton— why people are so obsessed with it, why I’m so obsessed with it. The massive popularity of this show has excited a lot of comment regarding what it says about musical theatre, hip-hop, politics, American identity, diversity, and so many other things that I am interested in but may not know a lot about. So I’m just going to talk about the one thing I know: writing, specifically creative writing about history.
Hamilton, among so many other things, is a brilliantly crafted piece of literature, which is probably why Miranda won a Pulitzer Prize for writing it. The rapid-fire, often rapped lyrics are intricate and intelligent, and if (like me and most people) you’re introduced to the musical via the soundtrack album rather than via the stage performance, you have the luxury of listening over and over, replaying and re-hearing until you catch all the nuances. Musicals always play with musical motifs — a repeated thread of melody that accompanies a character throughout the story, used in different ways for different songs and scenes — but Hamilton adds an extraordinary level of literary motif, too.
Take, for example, the song “My Shot” (which is currently my alarm on my phone so I can wake up to its inspiring lyrics every morning). The real Alexander Hamilton is probably most famous for (possibly, depending on what you believe about the debated historical evidence) “throwing away his shot,” i.e. deliberately firing to miss in his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. In writing Hamilton’s songs, Miranda plays with this phrase in every possible way, spins its meaning in a dozen different directions as he builds a portrait of an ambitious young man determined not to “throw away his shot,” not to miss a chance either at personal success or service to his adopted country. Over and over, whenever given a chance to jump into the fray, Hamilton vows not to throw away his shot — at fame, at fortune, at leaving a legacy — and yet every repetition of that phrase points us forward to the inevitable conclusion, when he will throw away his shot, and leave that highly ambiguous legacy.