If you watched the Grammys Monday night, you saw a live performance of the rap opera that might just save the Union: “Hamilton.” This astonishing mix of hip-hop, rap, R&B, and, well, just about every musical style known to New York is a history nerd’s dream: a detailed, passionate telling of the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution.
It sounds boring, but it is the opposite: passionate, vital, scrappy, like its subject. Also like its subject, “Hamilton” is a bit dangerous. Its opening line screams out the question: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore…grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” The answer, of course, is America.
“In New York, you can be a new man,” the lyrics tell us. We have forgotten the miracle of a place where your background, your ancestry, your family history pale in comparison to your drive to grab opportunity. In New York, in America, no one cares who your daddy was. This particular bastard, orphan, son of a whore was lucky enough to find himself in a vibrant meritocracy where a man can get “a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self starter.”
It’s Not about Hamilton’s Politics
If at this point you are objecting because you do or do not like Alexander Hamilton’s take on federalism, the National Bank, or some other issue, first of all, congratulations on being very well-educated and, secondly, you’re missing the point.
“Hamilton” succeeds not because of intellectual points scored but because it captures, so deftly, the feeling of America, the free-wheeling freedom that courses through every patriot, the refusal to back down from a fight, the do-or-die edginess of revolution. We’ve enshrined American heroes on such high pedestals, we’ve forgotten there was something wild about them, something almost crazy. The revolutionaries in “Hamilton” are “the hungriest brothers with something to prove.” They spit and spin and swear and fight each other as well as the enemy.
The hip-hop and rap songs bring that energy back to the forefront. The sound of rebellion now adapts amazingly well to rebellion then. The multiracial cast brings it home.
With the backdrop of this energy, this hunger echoed in the style of the streets, the musical drives home the remarkable moments of history: The mind-blowing idea that subjects would declare themselves free and capable of self-government, the incredible idea that George Washington would willingly relinquish power, the concept that disagreements could be solved by debate (or rap battle) rather than by guns.
Determined to Succeed or Die Trying
This sounds scholarly, but Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius behind the musical and portrayer of the title character, never loses sight of the emotion. Try to keep a dry eye when Washington sings “One Last Time” or when vanquished Tories lament the “World Turned Upside Down” after the battle of Yorktown.
Alexander Hamilton’s own personal drama has plenty of play as well. He was the unlucky subject of America’s first great sex scandal. There is definitely drama enough to carry a Broadway musical. His wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) and her sister Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry) are fully formed characters, with personalities beyond the flat manner in which founding mothers are usually portrayed. (Their sister Peggy, who makes only a brief appearance, isn’t so lucky.)
I have written a page full of words and still cannot begin to scratch the surface of this musical. While being unbelievably catchy and engaging, the musical reminds the audience of what we are as Americans—all Americans. Scrappy, energetic, unwilling to live on our knees. Full of dreams, full of plans, determined to succeed or go down fighting. As one refrain of the character Hamilton says, “There’s a million things we haven’t done, but just you wait.” Another urges brothers and sisters to “Rise UP.”
Rise up. It’s a feeling, a posture we have in common as Americans. We may need reminding now, but we will always rise up. Luckily, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his bastard, orphan, son of a whore are here to jog our memories.
You can listen to the addicting cast album of Hamilton on iTunes or other streaming sites. There are some explicit lyrics, sometimes using the F-word. I admit these lines have become some of my favorite, especially from a side character named Hercules Mulligan. When you knock him down he gets the *&^# back up again, which just about sums the whole musical up.