The musical that has launched a thousand think pieces. The show that picked up basically any award it could carry. That has been praised and critically examined. That has sparked discussions about the state of representations of race in media. Where theatre as an art form is heading. And where the melding of history and musical theatre can take students.
Or, as I like to call it, the show that I can point to and say: “If you need to know what I am like as a person, read up on this show.” Yes, I am a diehard Hamilfan–or Hamiltrash, as my good friend Todd refers to the hordes of people obsessed with all things Hamilton.
My affair with the show began in 2014 when it was announced by the Public Theater in New York. It escalated in 2015 to the point where, before the B-roll footage had fully dropped, my best friend and roommate reported me singing the songs in my sleep. When the album was released, I listened to it constantly, and my obsession peaked when I finally got to see the musical on June 1, 2016. Yes, I can feel your jealousy from here.
And while my affection hasn’t lessened, I can admit to some Hamilton fatigue. In the months since I saw the show, it won 11 Tony Awards, began rehearsing for their Chicago run, saw cast members, including the creator himself, depart for new projects, and announce a West End run and a national tour. And I got busy with other aspects of my life that were not centered on this musical, and getting interested in other media that wasn’t about the ten dollar founding father without a father.
So when TNL asked me to write about Hamilton, I’ll admit: I panicked. What could I say that hasn’t already been written (and rewritten and rewritten)? And how can I describe my feelings for this piece of theatre that encapsulates a lot of what I want to be able to do as a historian/theatre maker?
The answer came to me, through of all things, two TV shows. The first was Slings and Arrows, a Canadian show from the mid-2000s about a theatre company that you should all go watch right now. It’s only 18 episodes and is perhaps my second favorite show. How could a theatre person not love a show about theatre people, made by theatre people? A character in the second episode says: “The theatre is an empty box and it is our task to fill it with fury and ecstasy, and with revolution.” A feat that the company of Hamilton reaches every performance at the Richard Rodgers Theater.
The second TV show that can best help me describe my appreciation for Hamilton is The West Wing. I could (and probably will one day) write article after article about this Aaron Sorkin show, but how it relates to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s theatrical masterpiece is the best way I can explain why Hamilton has stuck with me.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has noted the influences of The West Wing. Noticeable from the line in “The Schuyler Sisters”: “I’m looking for a mind at work,” first said by Sam Seaborn in a Season 3 episode (“The Poet Laureate”) to acknowledging how the show helped him in his annotations in the #Hamiltome: “This is where watching every episode of The West Wing helps you be a better writer.”
But The West Wing, much like Hamilton, is a show that should not have succeeded. And in hindsight, it opened the doors for every single show about government entities that followed. Just as I am sure Hamilton will do for the theatre community. And all of this proves that I have a soft spot for media about government that makes me cry.
For me, it is the breaking down of these seemingly mundane aspects of our culture, from the first Treasury Secretary to the inner workings of a theatre company to, yes, the West Wing of the White House, that are so important to tell. A lot of what we see on TV or in movies is focused on spectacle rather than substance. (And to put my theatre history hat on, I can tell you that our good friend Aristotle dictated the six elements of drama: plot, theme, character, language, music/rhythm, and spectacle, and that these tenets make up almost everything you enjoy that is a story.)
Ancient Roman culture put a focus on spectacle rather than plot Pure entertainment distracts pretty well, but most people find themselves more intrigued by compelling stories rather than fluff. Though as I type this, I am watching The Great British Bake Off, so what do I know.
But we as humans like really compelling stories. And the story of Alexander Hamilton, as told through a cast made of mostly people of color, with a rap and hip hop infused musical score, checks all the boxes for what strikes all of us at our core.
Alexander Hamilton is a very dramatic figure in American history, and his story lends itself to a dramatic reinvention. And even though the musical re-sequences historical events, which slightly breaks my historical-fact-loving and chronologically based heart, I also know that the best way to tell Hamilton’s story in musical theatre is to tell it in the most dramatically satisfying fashion. The language and the intricacy behind it, just like in The West Wing, are essential to the storytelling in a way that has not been seen in musical theatre in some time.
It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s world, and we are all just living in it. But I don’t consider that a bad thing. We have politicians quoting musicals, school kids getting really interested in the bombastic historical events of over 200 years ago. And mainstream culture is re-examining what it means to tell important stories for all different types of people.
The finale of the musical asks the question: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
While Hamilton answers itself with the very broad theme of “Time,” it seems like it has left the door open for us. To allow us as a culture to ask that of everything we consume. To perhaps allow ourselves to be a part of the narrative.