If you asked me who Alexander Hamilton was five years ago, I would’ve maybe remembered that he was the guy on the ten dollar bill. If you asked me what he did with his life, I wouldn’t be able to tell you much at all. My interest in Hamilton: An American Musical began when I was on vacation in New York City. We were walking through Broadway, trying to find the specific theater our show was being performed in, when we passed the Richard Rodgers Theater that was housing Hamilton. I thought that the outside of the theater looked really cool; it was something I had never seen before. However, I didn’t feel the need to look anything up about the musical until later.
When I returned to college for the Spring semester, I was browsing Pinterest when I saw someone had animated Hamilton as a traditional hand-drawn Disney film. I was intrigued that a musical about the Revolutionary War had gotten so popular; not only that, but a hip-hop and rap musical had gotten so popular. I downloaded the soundtrack, looked up the lyrics on Google so I could understand what they were actually singing/rapping, and prepared to see what the hype was all about. I was completely captivated by the musical genius and the story of Hamilton. Thus began my obsession with everything Lin-Manuel Miranda has done. In the process of learning about how and why he created Hamilton, I began to understand how influential Hamilton was—not only as a small glimpse into a lesser known narrative of the Revolutionary War, but celebrating diversity. As Miranda so eloquently puts it, “Hamilton is the story of America then told by America now.”
One of the main criticisms of Hamilton is that while almost all of the characters are played by people of color (POC), there are actually no POC characters in the story. There is one throw away line about Sally Hemmings (a slave that Thomas Jefferson owned and had a relationship with) but that character is played by an ensemble dancer and has no significant involvement in the story aside from taking a letter from Thomas Jefferson. Other than this three second sequence in the song “What Did I Miss?” there are no characters of color in Hamilton.
The phrase, “History is written by the victors” is commonplace now in this age, but no less true. Right now, especially in light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, we are more focused on scrutinizing our media and the way we view and understand history. Many films about race have come under fire for being “White savior movies.” Historical accounts of people of color have been coming forward to highlight how significant their role was in the history of our country—it seems as though diversity has never been more important, analyzed, and talked about. So why did Miranda choose not to include POC characters in the story? After all, In the Heights (Miranda’s first musical) was entirely about POC characters. Couldn’t he find a Revolutionary War story from a perspective of a person of color?
Before Hamilton, my knowledge of Revolutionary War history was very minimal: the British were taxing the colonies without allowing the colonies to have representation in Parliament, we protested, revolutionary sentiment spread , we went to war, George Washington was awesome, and somewhere in between Ben Franklin discovered electricity. That was pretty much it. I had no idea what Alexander Hamilton contributed, or who he even was. Even the lyrics of the opening number of Hamilton acknowledges this: “His enemies destroyed his rep/ America forgot him.”
Hamilton’s first act focuses on a group of revolutionaries that not many people are aware of: Hamilton himself, the Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, and Hercules Mulligan. We are given a very basic story of what they contributed to the war effort, all under the legendary George Washington. The second act takes historical figures we know (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) and deconstructs them into more antagonistic roles while still respecting all that they did for the founding of America.
While Hamilton may be historical fiction and has taken creative liberties, it is a brilliant introduction (and it really is only an introduction) into the complex nature of the founding of our nation. However, I think the historical backdrop is secondary to the actual message of Hamilton.
Who Tells Your Story
Ultimately, Hamilton is a tragedy. The character even refers to himself as “another Scottish tragedy,” comparing his life to Macbeth’s. Hamilton was so caught up in his legacy (a constant theme of the show); he spent a plentitude of time dedicated to his writing and securing that legacy at the cost of his wife and children. He was even willing to die in order to be remembered—and eventually, he did die over an argument about his reputation with Aaron Burr.
The truly ironic thing about Hamilton’s obsession with his legacy is that he would’ve been forgotten if not for Eliza—the wife he neglected for so long. In an earlier draft of the song “Burn” Eliza sings, “And when the time comes//Explain to the children//The pain and embarrassment//You put their mother through//When will you learn//That they are your legacy?//We are your legacy.” The final shot of the musical is Miranda leading Eliza up to the front of the stage, and she sees the audience, realizing that Hamilton’s legacy exists because of her.
Miranda has taken the founding of America—a story told traditionally through the lens of White men—and recontextualizes it to fit the story of modern America. Hamilton is a story about immigration, slavery, feminism, the value of family and marriage fidelity, and the inherent worth of all people regardless of gender, race, or financial status. Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr in the Broadway production, viewed the message of Hamilton as a vehicle for these themes when he addressed Vice President Pence:
“We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values. We truly thank you for sharing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.”Aaron Burr in Hamilton: An American Musical (2015)
Rather than telling the people of color’s story during the Revolutionary War, Miranda instead chose to correlate the struggles of the Founding Fathers then to the diverse America now. Through our own dedication and determination, we have a chance to improve our nation, and leave behind a legacy of good for our children. People of all colors, genders, sexualities, races, nationalities, and abilities have an opportunity to “rise up” and create a better world. And that is a message we so desperately need in our time.