Review: Hamilton The Musical
Prior to seeing this stage play, the most I could tell you is that he was the 1st American Secretary of Treasury and created the first national banking system. I could probably ‘convince’ you that I knew he was the creator of 1st tariff system in the US and that he drove forward industrialization, but if you really studied Hamilton you would probably know that I knew very little there. And, now, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, this lost founding father has not only been found to have lived a life well beyond the milestone of having his face on a $10 bill, but his story is suddenly a cross-cultural milestone in musical theater.
Miranda, who produced and starred in the production, teamed up with Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler to merge hip-hop and Latin rhythms into a conventional musical that, for starters, was Broadway’s first Latin American produced musical starring a Latin-American artist, is pretty dope.
The program cover asks “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” I bet you if Hamilton was alive today he would never have imagined who would tell this one.
But, fresh off of watching the production, what I am struck by when I watch it was the hip hop and fused into the 34 song production. What makes my eyebrows push even FURTHER north was how familiar the audience was with each of the songs.
I think its ‘extremely’ important to understand that ‘Hamilton’ is a ‘hip-hop musical on the life of Alexander Hamilton’, because if you grew up around the time I did [I’m a child of the 80s, which means I remember having a trapper keeper, being part of the Book-it Reading club, trading Garbage Pail Kids cards with my cousins, them hot ass metal seatbelts in my mother’s 1982 Olds Cutlass, and other things that any child of the 80s would remember quickly and vividly] you too are roughly the same age as Lin-Manuel Miranda. You remember what hip-hop was like in the 80s and you remember how fresh and taboo (in some spaces)the music was in your life. What was considered to be a fad, had captured the very soul of a generation. It wasn’t premised off of record sales or attached to some unnecessary product that someone wanted to sell you for $5.99. It didn’t have a clothing deal or drive the latest high-end luxury sedan. It was serious, but could also be funny and charming. It paid homage to the artists who made it possible, while looking forward to the future. It was simple, yet groundbreaking in transforming the lives of the people performing it and listening to it. And, yet…
… It was something thought to be kept in the black circles of the United States.
Think about it — it’s been 30 years since they began to allow space for rap at this award show, and the beginning of that added space was a struggle with a boycott by Hip Hop’s elite in 1989 (this was also the year that the academy threw hip-hop a bone and gave DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a Grammy for Best Rap Performance). The 1st Grammy for Rap Album of the Year wasn’t until 1995. And, up until a couple years ago, the performing arts allowed hip-hop to hit the stage in this major way (i.e.- Hamilton). To me, Rap/Hip Hop has always been a signifier for ‘blackness’ and considered devoid of structure, talent, and deemed secular in its audience. To suggest that it was ‘music’ and needed to be taken with the same gravitas as Rock or Folk was absurd and premature some 30 years ago.
Often in my childhood and young adult years, I too felt that stigma — an unwanted character who unknowingly found his way into the same social constructs and being overlooked and perceived contrary to what my story and my experiences truly were. That feeling can leave one feeling small, resentful, and bitter.
If there was any initial reluctant to see and experience Hamilton on my part it was because Hamilton came off to me as a similar dynamic given the very little I knew about it early on. Remember that the music was first made by those who high-society called ‘untalented’. Those who were brave and talented enough to write their own narratives to an audience who really were unwilling to listen are now being used to tell the story of a white man . Many of the all-time greats have been able to tell the story of a person who is constantly reinventing and declaring themselves; lyricists have the enormous power to own their own stories, whether on the outskirts of mainstream American culture or in the very close proximity. Hip-hop as a whole delineates a ‘proudly black’ space where those lyricists’ unique signifiers, references, and vocabulary — are shared, valued, and understood. Removing rap from this supportive space can undermine its power and silence its originators.
That’s one of several things I thought Hamilton was able to pull off in a not so direct fashion. It appeared that the ultimate point of Hamilton was to tell the story that no one wanted to hear. Allowing Hamilton to control the narrative and tell the story on his own terms. Or, in this case, allowing Lin-Manuel to ‘tell that story’ in a way that was not always in a manner that people sought to hear.
Since 2010, I have found myself trying to reconcile my two American histories. It’s an especially personal project to me as I am seeing how far I am away from that kid listening to hip hop in my room and have a newborn son of my own who I thank God for every day. I begin to see America — both historical and contemporary — through not only my lens but also the ones of my parents. And, the ones of my loved ones… And, my neighbors… And, the people I encounter everyday. Since 2008, I think there has been a coming of age for me and many others in seeing the election of the first Black president. On the other hand, we are also coming of age at a time when every week seems to bring new evidence that there are many voices still not feeling or ‘seen’ as apart of the narrative of this great country— not even as it unfolds in real time. Look no further than the reporting and subsequent dialogue that took place in Ferguson, MO where on Instagram and Twitter, I saw tanks menacing citizens on American streets with lack of concern. And if one was to turn on one of the major networks you were to see people described as rioters or looters as they expressed their outrage at the extensive and long history of civil rights infractions.
In Hamilton, the “Founding Father without a father” believes himself the hero of a story he must finish before ‘it’s too late’. Aaron Burr, his historical nemesis, struggles along, railing against being dragged in Hamilton’s wake. In the end, not even killing Hamilton in that infamous duel frees Burr from the narrative. Yet, when the tale has been told, we realize that the historical record was actually preserved by Alexander Hamilton’s wife Eliza, someone who had even less agency — far less — than Burr. She is the one who has written the story Burr is narrating; by claiming the right to tell this story, even though she had little power to affect the ongoing events, Eliza has ultimately made it her own.
The play was vastly rich in symbolism in so many ways that I must see it again at some point. In its casting, in its nimble use of art forms, and in its use of making an American story ‘everyone’s’ story. A must see!