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.
This sparkling literary dexterity highlights the other thing I love most about Hamilton — how it works as a piece of (staged) historical fiction. Writing engaging historical fiction about real people is difficult because most of the audience already knows how the story ends. We know that Caesar will get stabbed on the Senate floor, that Antony and Cleopatra will carry out their suicide pact, that Anne Boleyn will get her head cut off. If you’re even minimally familiar with the history of the American revolution, you know from the first time Alexander Hamilton says “Excuse me, are you Aaron Burr, sir?” that this is the guy who will someday kill him in a duel (and actually, if you don’t know even that much, Burr has already told you “I’m the damn fool that shot him” in the musical’s opening number). Yet a truly great writer can take a story whose outcome is already carved in stone and still make us care — even make us wish we could change the ending. The tension comes not from wondering how the story will turn out, but from knowing how it turns out and wishing it could be different.
The other thing I can most closely compare Hamilton to is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, though the genres are so different: one a highly literary historical novel (which won the Booker Prize), the other a hip-hop infused Broadway musical (which won virtually ALL the Tony awards as well as the above-mentioned Pulitzer). The prizes prove that each is an outstanding work in its field: each one also takes a historical figure little-known to the general public and not always admired by the history buffs who do know about him, and moves him to centre stage. Miranda makes Hamilton, as Mantel makes Cromwell, the central character in his own story, showing us how events might have looked from his point of view.
This is, of course, an inherently biased way to tell the stories of history. It’s not the same job as a historian is supposed to do: weighing all the evidence and presenting, in as unbiased a fashion as possible, all sides of what most likely happened. The job of the writer of historical fiction, whether they’re writing a novel, a musical, a play or a movie, is quite different and complementary to the historian’s job: it is to bring history to life, to make us feel it as well as think about it. That requires a point of view, and a point of view is necessarily limited and biased. When Wolf Hall made it to TV, critics carped because the saintly Thomas More was portrayed as a tyrannical bigot. But, as I pointed out at length in a blog post at the time, that is exactly how he likely would have appeared to Thomas Cromwell, and the whole point of Wolf Hall is to tell the story from Cromwell’s point of view.
Likewise, it’s hilarious that the Thomas Jefferson of Hamilton — played with brilliance by rapper Daveed Diggs — is portrayed as a smug, self-absorbed braggart, but it’s probably jarring to the many Americans who view Jefferson as a towering figure in their country’s history. (I’m Canadian, but I went to college in the US, took several US history courses, and visited Monticello on a spring break tour, so I know all about the respect many Americans have for ol’ TJ). But while the rap battles (and the portrayal of Jefferson as a black man by the mixed-race Diggs) may not be historically accurate, Miranda and his cast have captured something essential in the scenes where Jefferson and Hamilton debate: the Founding Fathers, like all historical leaders, often were arrogant, insulting, and breathtakingly rude to each other (you could get away with saying things about a political opponent in the 18th century that you could never say today), and Hamilton probably did see Jefferson, at least some of the time, as a smug, entitled prick.
That’s why I love Hamilton — for the same reason I love Wolf Hall, and The Sunne in Splendour, and every other great piece of historical writing that has ever captured and engaged my imagination. If you want historical accuracy, if you want research, if you want to examine all sides of the debate, read the work of historians (like many Hamilton fans, I am currently absorbed in reading the 800-page biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow that originally inspired Miranda to explore and write about Hamilton). But if you want to feel like you’re a part of history, if you want to feel as if people who lived hundreds of years ago are alive and breathing and speaking right into your ear … read a novel. Watch a movie. Or, if you can get a ticket, go see Hamilton (or at least download the album).