“If ya don’t know, now ya know, Mr. President,” raps Thomas Jefferson in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s audaciously revisionist, thematically timeless new Broadway musical “Hamilton.” To say it’s taking the nation by storm would be an understatement—the day of its opening night, a crowd of 700 waited outside the theater for lottery tickets in what has become a ritual known as #Ham4Ham. There’s a good reason why the show is so popular: Stylistically, it’s a far more accessible show to the average American than much of what Broadway has to offer. Rather than, say, the slow-burning arias and perfunctory dialogue of the niche exemplified by “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Hamilton” takes an inherently 21st century tack. Miranda casts people of color almost exclusively, highlighting the diversity of what we now consider American and reconciling that diversity with the traditional story of how America came to be. Miranda, whose 2008 Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” was heavily influenced by salsa and hip-hop, has taken those uniquely modern stylings and transferred them to the life and times of Alexander Hamilton, thus converting a Revolutionary War biography of America’s forgotten Founding Father into a “hip-hopera”. This means that, in short, Hamilton raps! So does Thomas Jefferson (played to smarmy perfection by Brown grad Daveed Diggs ’04)! Not to mention George Washington, James Madison, the Marquis de Lafayette, and eventual duel opponent Aaron Burr. And over a backdrop of pounding hip-hop beats and smooth R&B instrumentals, they build a nation as the audience grooves along. Don’t let the catchy tunes fool you, though—through its portrayal of politics, “Hamilton” performs important political work.
The effect is stunning, and is only amplified by Miranda’s tremendous musical acumen and deft touch with narrative. The songs would be great even if they weren’t sung by the Founding Fathers. Inspired choices abound, from writing King George as a possessive ex-boyfriend who saccharinely begs the colonies not to “throw away this thing we had,” to framing those famed debates between Hamilton and Jefferson as old-school, balls-to-the-wall rap battles, complete with Washington playing the part of hype man. These clever re-imaginings of history serve to complement the main storyline, which sees Hamilton rise from a destitute upbringing in the Caribbean, to serving as Washington’s confidante during the war, to creating the National Bank as the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury. Enemies are made along the way, hearts are broken, and ink and blood are spilled in copious amounts—but co-stars Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr. (who play Hamilton and Burr and oscillate seamlessly between snarky and earnest) use every ounce of their charisma to keep the audience rapt.
Their portrayals of these household names are startlingly modern, and feel both reverent and blasphemous at the same time. Take, for example, “Guns and Ships,” Lafayette’s showcase song in which he raps at the fastest rate of anything ever seen on Broadway, according to fivethirtyeight.com (since you’re wondering, it’s 6.3 words per second—and in a French accent, no less). This lyrical swagger makes it easy to realize, given the context, that the then-24-year-old Marquis maybe was a sort of badass—an ambitious young man who no doubt would have spit fire about the French-American alliance. He electrifies the audience in this song, making us as excited about his rap virtuosity as his compatriots were about his sizeable contributions to the war effort. Every one of these characters, these figures of lore, feels flesh-and-blood. They speak in a hybrid dialect in which they drop archaic legalese as often as traditional rap fillers like “man” and “yo.” Sepia-toned no longer, they chase skirts, get in fights, and use period-inappropriate slang in order to convey to modern, jaded audiences the same feelings they inspired in those around them back in the 18th century. It calls to mind the choice made by Baz Luhrmann, in his 2013 version of The Great Gatsby, that alienated so many Fitzgerald fans while introducing Jay Z to those very same bibliophiles. By peppering the soundtrack to 1920s New York with modern musical forms like hip-hop and EDM, Luhrmann attempted to transfer the emotions that those genres currently evoke to the party scene of the Jazz Age. If your parents don’t want you listening to rap nowadays, they most certainly would have objected to jazz.
“Hamilton” utilizes the same trick. Hip-hop is a contemporary art form: young, scrappy, and hungry. It rose from the streets, from ambitious young people of color taking the lessons they’d learned and stories they’d experienced and combining them with new sounds in order to break free of cycles of poverty and institutionalized racism. Miranda has said that he feels no historical figure so clearly embodies the hip-hop spirit as Hamilton, which is in part what drew him to the man’s story. Aspirational language is everywhere in the lyrics; talk of “rising up” and the aforementioned “I’m just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy, and hungry” are just two of the motifs that recur in the songs. Hamilton wants to prove himself, since he started with nothing and knows that he can do and be more. The way to do that, according to Miranda? Write—which happened to be Hamilton’s greatest strength. And inner city kids in the late 1980s and ’90s saw that same pathway to proving the doubters wrong, and worked non-stop to achieve it. In this way, Miranda draws comparisons between a Revolutionary War-era statesman and the pioneers of hip-hop—and they work. Go figure.
The show’s form itself feeds into this loop of remembering. “Hamilton” tells a story of ambition and resourcefulness, and does so using a musical form that embodies that spirit. Though there is an easy comparison to be drawn to similarly individualistic “hip-hop values,” this overlooks the fact that they are also quintessentially American values. We know that Hamilton the man, who was white, worked his ass off to rise above his station. We also know that hip-hop was created by people of color with comparable ambition and work ethic. Now, we see in “Hamilton” the convergence of these paradigms—people of color playing the white Founding Fathers, who are themselves essentially playing the fathers of hip-hop by virtue of the style of music they’re performing. Miranda has made a musical about the birth of American values, using the form that arose from the values themselves. We actually see four births in this story: the man (Hamilton), the values (individualism, ambition, hard work, etc.), the country (the United States of America), and the form (hip-hop), all inextricably linked. Miranda has simply put them all together, and put them to a beat.
The importance of people of color in this cast goes even further than that, politically. Miranda told the New York Times that he sought to represent “what America looks like now”—but what he really does is begin to reclaim a part of history that has been largely whitewashed. Both slaves and free African Americans had an incalculable impact on the outcome of the Revolution, and simply seeing non-white bodies on stage in period dress is both validating and double-take-worthy. Hamilton’s origins as an immigrant, too, come up at various points in the play, mostly used by salty, narrow-minded opponents after he routinely bests them in debate. We live in a time when public figures are expressing fear and hatred over an imagined loss of our country, and it’s striking to hear those same sentiments when there is no country yet of which to speak. These themes are what truly connect “Hamilton” to the landscape, political or otherwise, of today. Though we have major strides to make, there is no doubt that our country is becoming more diverse, more culturally and ethnically heterogeneous, and that barriers that were held to be impenetrable during that era are slowly breaking down. By literally re-casting the famous players of history, “Hamilton” is a fascinating new entry into the age-old conversation on what it means to be American.