Jesus Christ might have been a superstar, but few believe he wandered Judea with his disciples singing rock songs. If the Parisian painter Georges Seurat ever sang during his Sundays in the park, his songs didn’t come out sounding like Stephen Sondheim’s variations on New York minimalism. And despite Vietnam’s colonial history, the songs of 1970s Saigon bore little resemblance to those of miserable French peasants a century prior, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg’s soaring melodies notwithstanding. So is it really such a stretch to imagine America’s founding fathers rapping their stories, as the composer, lyricist, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda has them do in Hamilton: An American Musical?
“Of all the forms of contemporary pop music, rap is the closest to traditional musical theater,” writes Sondheim in his memoir, Look, I Made a Hat, “both in its vamp-heavy rhythmic drive and in its verbal playfulness.” Some other productions have realized this: The short-lived jukebox musical Holler If Ya Hear Me used the songs of the late rapper Tupac Shakur, and Sondheim cites his own Witch’s monologue from Into the Woods and songs from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man as examples of similarities between the two styles. Based on Hamilton’s phenomenal success, theater composers should have been exploiting their proximity to rap all along.
After all, the music’s theatrical potential is enormous. Both genres thrive on vivid personalities, telegraphed to audiences instantly, and they delight in complicated rhyme schemes delivered with apparent ease. Both genres also center on vocalists telling their own stories, with lyrics in the first person far more often than the third. This idea of “story” is a complex one, though; in both rap and musicals, a “story” can mean any number of things, from “narrative of an event” to “what I thought of an event,” from “the forces that shape who I am” to “legacy.”
Like politicians and rappers, Hamilton is obsessed with such stories. The words “story” and “legacy” litter its lyrics, as do words like “history” and “narrative.” Sometimes this obsession bogs down the show and detracts from the show’s soundtrack album. When Hamilton works, though, it reveals the chaotic swarm of life behind the events.
The story of Hamilton’s creation takes a similarly lively route. After Miranda won several Tony Awards for his 2008 Broadway musical, In the Heights—which also featured rapping, albeit in a more contemporary setting—he went on vacation and read Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow’s biography. Almost immediately Miranda imagined a rap song about the life of Hamilton, an orphan who lived his early years in the Virgin Islands. In 1772 Hamilton wrote a highly praised newspaper essay about a devastating hurricane, which prompted the locals to pay for his passage to the northern colonies on the mainland. “He literally wrote his way out of his circumstances,” Miranda said in a 2011 interview with the Charlotte Observer, “which is the same story as a hip hop artist’s.” Miranda wrote what would become the musical’s first song, “Alexander Hamilton,” and in May 2009 performed it for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama as part of a White House Poetry Jam. From there Miranda developed a revue-like project called The Hamilton Mixtape; Sondheim referred to it as an experimental piece in his 2011 memoir, and the New York Times called it “the next big leap.” And so it leapt: to an off-Broadway theater in February 2015, to Broadway that summer, and from there to winning eleven Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize. The show opened in Chicago at the end of September, and a tour is scheduled to stop in eighteen cities so far, with more dates being added. This mostly-rapped musical biography, in which people of color portray every major character except King George, has become enshrined in American culture as few musicals have.
Once you hear (or, if you’re lucky, see) Hamilton, its success no longer seems unlikely. For one thing, Miranda was right about Hamilton’s life: there’s a musical there. The American Revolution spawns a rousing showstopper in “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” in which the full company dances onstage to celebrate the colonists’ victory. Hamilton’s complicated relationship with his wife, Eliza Schuyler, and her sister Angelica yields the poignant and very Broadway-ish ballads “Helpless” and “Take a Break.” Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds led to the nation’s first sex scandal and to the smooth R&B highlight “Say No To This.” And the most infamous aspect of Hamilton’s life, losing a duel to Vice President Aaron Burr, haunts the show from beginning to end. Early on, a headstrong young Hamilton echoes Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” rapping, “I am not throwin’ away my shot”; he ends the show doing exactly that, and the gesture costs him his life.
Equal parts Broadway geek and hip-hop head, Miranda has figured out how to fuse his obsessions while staying true to both. He develops his characters through their flow patterns the way he and other Broadway composers use melodic leitmotifs. Although the show’s rapping has earned plaudits from legendary MCs like Jay-Z and Talib Kweli, its rhymes, nearly all of them perfect, land with auditorium-friendly clarity as well as dexterity. This is Broadway rap. Just as nobody ever expected to hear the songs from Rent in a real-life East Village club, you won’t hear much on Power 92 that sounds like Hamilton. Indeed, most of its rap references are twenty years old. Miranda recasts the late Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments” as the expository “Ten Duel Commandments,” and the character of tailor-turned-spy Hercules Mulligan draws heavily from Busta Rhymes’s roughneck charisma. The most au courant rap number is “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” As Kweli notes, the doomy bass drops and double-time cymbals of trap, a recent rap subgenre, are perfect for the song where Hamilton publishes an account of his infidelity (Charlton, 2015). “He never gon’ be president now,” chant Hamilton’s political opponents with glee as they dance around him, making the stage rain with pamphlets.
There’s a strange kind of comfort in hearing about Hamilton’s affair and disgrace, or in remembering that he was killed by a sitting vice president. No matter how dysfunctional our current political moment seems, America has survived worse. One of the pleasures of Hamilton—or of Gore Vidal’s 1973 novel Burr, which covers much of the same ground—is watching the nation’s founders break free of their marble busts to squabble and air their petty hypocrisies. “The New Englanders and the New Yorkers from the beginning gave over to the Virginia junto [i.e., Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe] the American republic,” laments Vidal’s Burr, a proud northerner, “and with relish the junto proceeded to rule us for the better part of a half-century.” Territorial and philosophical arguments come to their head in Hamilton’s two “Cabinet Battle” numbers, in which Hamilton and Jefferson hilariously debate the forgiveness of the states’ war debts (Washington forgives them, and Hamilton wins) and whether to send military aid to post-revolutionary France (Washington doesn’t send the aid—Hamilton wins again). At one point Jefferson balks at the idea of self-sufficient southern states like Virginia paying off the war debts of the North. Hamilton retorts, “A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor/ Your debts are paid ‘cause you don’t pay for labor.” It’s one of the show’s few references to slavery, although a third “Cabinet Battle” on the subject exists online, cut from the show for length.
Too bad Miranda didn’t do the same with “Dear Theodosia.” The mawkish, meandering ballad, sung by Burr and Hamilton to their infant children near the end of the first act, serves two sound theatrical purposes: it reminds us of the parallels between Burr and Hamilton before politics drives them apart, and it establishes Hamilton’s bond with his son, later a source of conflict and tragedy. Unfortunately, it also augurs the main flaw of the show’s second act, a willingness to smooth over the complexity of its ideas and the tumult of history for the sake of theatrical convention. The real Burr enjoyed a fascinating relationship with his daughter Theodosia, training her in Greek and Latin and sharing a lifelong friendship and correspondence before her untimely death at sea. In the show, Theodosia vanishes after her infancy. True, Miranda couldn’t include everything, but alluding to the character in one song only to abandon her is stage writing at its most utilitarian.
Similarly, the show’s obsession with the idea of “story,” as opposed to simply telling the story, begins to grate the more it appears. Upon learning of Hamilton’s affair, Eliza burns the letters she wrote him, singing “I’m erasing myself from the narrative / Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.” A few songs later, in the middle of his duel, Hamilton wonders, “What is a legacy?” Even given the founders’ documented interest in their own legacies, these lines don’t sound like the characters Eliza and Hamilton so much as a playwright desperate for a theme. Later Eliza reverses course, becoming the caretaker of her dead husband’s legacy and writing herself “back in the narrative” during the final song, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” Washington’s answer to that question, given several times during the show, is simple and fatalistic: You have no control over any of it. But in Hamilton’s grand final gesture, the company looks out to the audience and sings the same question: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” An audience who accepted Washington’s answer would shrug and reply, “We have no control over that.” The more likely audience, moved by a cast of professionals singing pointedly to them, might feel resolved to start reshaping their stories. The musical itself seems confused on the matter.
Hamilton explains the complex idea of “story” most believably when it lets events speak for themselves—or when it lets rap music speak for those events. In the second “Cabinet Battle,” Jefferson ends a tirade against Hamilton with a confident, “And if ya don’t know, now ya know.” Rap fans of a certain age will recognize that refrain from the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 hit “Juicy.” In it, Biggie talked about how he wrote himself out of his circumstances, from being a poor rap fan to a drug dealer to a successful rapper; he mocked the people who told him he’d never amount to anything; he considered the forces of poverty and racism that shaped his life; and he marveled at his legacy, his newfound ability to provide a good life for his mother and his friends. One man’s story—in all its moving, untidy complexity—unfolds during a five-minute song. Hamilton takes more time to consider its subject, but like “Juicy,” it works best at its most granular. Those rap battles, slow jams, insults, and wisecracks get the job done because they reverberate with the vitality of history, not as it is theorized but as it is lived.
Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area.
Charlton, Lauretta. “Is Hamilton Technically Impressive Rap? Talib Kweli Analyzes the Broadway Smash.” Vulture. October 20, 2015. http://www.vulture.com/2015/10/talib-kweli-analyzes-hamilton.html
Sondheim, Stephen. Look, I Made a Hat. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
Toppman, Lawrence. “Five years ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda was pondering ‘Hamilton’—but not the way you think.” The Charlotte Observer. June 7, 2016.
Vidal, Gore. Burr. New York: Random House, 1973.