Although I love theatre in general and musical theatre in particular, I am not the kind of person who reads Variety or The Stage and keeps up with every new development. Like many people, I don’t even have the time to try to see every new show that comes out. I think it possible that I had heard of a ‘ghetto musical’ called In the Heights, but I had certainly never heard the name Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Like many people in the UK, the first time I became at all conscious of an entity called Hamilton was shortly after the 9/11 disaster. I refer, of course, not to the famous terrorist attack on New York, but to the election of 2016 (in the UK, we put the month second). The preposterous populist president-elect was tweeting his outrage that some actors had been disrespectful to Mike Pence, his vice-president, when he had gone to see a musical. Not properly concentrating, I assumed that this was some obscure show, and may not, by this stage, have got into the habit of presuming that everything that Trump says needs to be doubted, fact-checked and challenged, as we all have by now. I didn’t realise that, in particular, not only was the phrase ‘Hamilton, which I hear is over-rated’ in the same class as his identical criticism some months later about Meryl Streep, but if possible, it was even wronger. In fact, I am coming close to believing that it isn’t actually possible to over-rate Hamilton. After listening to the cast album an average of about once a day for about the last three months, I am beginning to think that either Lin-Manuel Miranda has found some way of distilling crack cocaine into musical form, or that alternatively Hamilton: an American Musical may be the best thing ever. Maybe both are true. Here’s why.
In the first place, it is an absurd premise for a musical, and on paper an absolute recipe for disaster: first, find the most obscure ‘founding father’, Alexander Hamilton, a person whom even Americans largely know only for being on the ten-dollar bill, and for having had his career, and life, cut short by being shot dead in a duel, and whose major achievements, the creation of a federal bank, coastguard and postal service, as well as a series of essays which form the backbone of the US constitution, remarkable though they are, do not sound like the stuff of musical legend. Second, cast almost exclusively black, Hispanic, or otherwise ‘non-white’ performers in almost every role, ensuring that people like Mike Pence, along with all the other Republican-voting American traditionalists who might otherwise have opted into the theatre because it all sounds patriotic and straight, will have their sensibilities wrenched by the sight of people who are not white playing people who were. You can almost hear them muttering ‘But when we black up, they don’t like it, do they?’ Third, to alienate them further, write the whole thing in the idiom of hip-hop, with raps, scratching and beatboxing used to describe the War of Independence, and – surely theatrical death – the politics of the three administrations following it. Annoy them more by including phrases about the sterling qualities of immigrants. Finally, in the same spirit, tick that ‘E’ box – E for Explicit Lyrics, required of all good rap, by having, for example, Jefferson and James Madison describe themselves as ‘Southern mother-fucking democratic republicans’ ensuring that no children will be allowed in. Matilda this ain’t.
Any idea that sounds this bad on paper must be a work of genius, right? Actually that can’t be generally true – the history of the stage is certainly littered with counter-examples that closed in their first week – but it certainly is here. Like almost everyone who obsesses about Hamilton, I haven’t seen it, because tickets are almost impossible to come by, and until recently, seeing it required a trip to New York. I now have tickets for the London show, but not for another eight months. What we do instead is listen – and listen, and listen, and keep listening, amazed that it doesn’t ever seem to get old. The reason we keep listening is that we realise that each new hearing allows something new to emerge, some new character we hadn’t appreciated, some reference, some deep or delightful detail.
My first hearing was on a car journey, just before Christmas. (How many car journeys must consist of someone saying ‘you have to hear this’ and force-feeding Hamilton to someone else. I have done this myself, such is the evangelistic zeal it promotes.) I was conscious of liking it, but I have to say it washed over me somewhat. I remember someone going on about his shot, and a pleasing song that went ‘look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now’ not at all clear about who was singing, or why they were so lucky, and really very little appreciation that this had much to do with the American Revolution. I remember a slightly camp bloke singing ‘Dadadadada dah. Da-dadada da-eey- a- dah’ and finding it the tiniest bit irritating. My force-feeder had warned me that it was ‘a bit rappy’ in due deference to the fact that, as a white middle class male of a certain age, I had never really got the point of rap. Sing or talk, for God’s sake, don’t mess about with this halfway house, I had thought. I had thought it would die a death with the arrival of Ali G, and watched with some dismay as instead it become the dominant form of pop music. Hamilton was indeed a bit rappy. But I did still like it. Christmas came and went and I didn’t give it much more of a thought. Then I got my own copy and stuck it on while I was doing something else. Then I put it on again. I think by the third listen, there was no going back. Not only did I not mind the rap, it was as if I suddenly saw the whole point of it. I am sure there must be those hardcore rappers, acquainted with the whole history of the genre (as indeed, Miranda undeniably is) who resent or find absurd the influx of suited men not in the flush of their youth suddenly becoming inadvertently familiar with the vocab of the sub-culture (‘spit a verse’), and I am happy to apologise for the absurdity. But part of the price of this kind of success must be wider audiences, and whether or not die-hards want it, my bet is that hip-hop has just radically diversified its demographic.
For us enthusiasts, the temptation is to start talking about individual songs, and to sketch or make nodding reference to them, is torture. I feel sure I could write a whole piece about each song (and maybe I will) and that’s even despite my doubts about the wisdom or value of writing about music. Here I will confine myself to plot, a few characters, and maybe some stand out songs (oh, but that’s all of them! Calm, calm).
Okay, so who the hell is Hamilton anyway? Well, I’m starting to form the impression that he might be one of the most important figures in the history of the world. If the United States matters – and if it didn’t, thinking people the world over wouldn’t be quite so upset that it suddenly seems to have a clown in charge of it – then the reason it matters is Alexander Hamilton. Born in Nevis in the Caribbean in poverty, the daughter of an unreliable Scotsman and a woman of uneasy virtue, he suffered Job-like tribulations in his early life. His father abandoned them when Hamilton was ten, his mother died two years later, and he went to live with a cousin who committed suicide, before being caught up in a devastating hurricane. Writing about the suffering of his community in that tempest led to a public collection to provide for his passage to New York, where he attended King’s College without graduating, and joined the Revolution, making the acquaintance of John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan and the Marquis de Lafayette.
In a way it’s almost a side issue that he fought in the American Revolution, save to say that it was a good thing he survived it. That doesn’t stop it being the entire subject matter of the first act. Stand by, in due course, for know-nothing Brits, scarcely any of whom have actually studied the history of the Revolution, suddenly to talk like experts about the Battle of Monmouth (where General Charles Lee ‘shits the bed’, in the charming idiom of one lyric) about Chesapeake Bay, about Lafayette and Rochambeau, about Laurens and Mulligan, and most of all about the Battle of Yorktown, where, in case you’re not aware, the most decisive battle against the British was won, leading to the surrender of Cornwallis.
To make myself less know-nothing, I have been reading the same biography of Hamilton that inspired Miranda in the first place, a fat tome by Ron Chernow which strives to overturn much of the negative history and suspicion that has traditionally surrounded the first Treasure Secretary. What Miranda has done, and done with exquisite skill, is turn the extraordinary story of this man into a scintillating musical entertainment that makes no compromises with history or complexity of event or character beyond what dramatic licence allows, and I can’t think of a show that has come close to achieving that.
Two examples must suffice for now. Here is part of Chernow’s description of a significant part of the battle of Yorktown, in which Hamilton had the following decisive role:
To expedite the siege, Washington decided to seize redoubts nine and ten with bayonets instead of pounding them slowly into submission with cannon…. Hamilton and his men then rose from their trenches and raced with fixed bayonets toward redoubt ten. … For the sake of silence, surprise, and soldierly pride, they had unloaded their guns to take the position with bayonets alone. Dodging heavy fire, they let out war whoops that startled their enemies. … Hamilton… sprang onto the enemy parapet and summoned his men to follow. Their password was ‘Rochambeau’ – ‘a good one,’ said one American, because it ‘sounds like “Rush-on-boys” when pronounced quick.
Here is Miranda’s version, from the song Yorktown. Hamilton is speaking. He is celebrating the fact that Washington has at last given him a command, and relishing the challenges of Independence ahead. (‘And so the American experiment begins…’) With the following rap, the above slightly dry account is dramatized and encapsulated. (The ensemble responses are in red.)
Take the bullets out your gun! What? The bullets out your gun! What? We move under cover and we move as one / Through the night, we have one shot to live another day /We cannot let a stray gunshot give us away / We will fight up close, seize the moment and stay in it / It’s either that or meet the business end of a bayonet / The code word is ‘Rochambeau,’ dig me? Rochambeau! You have your orders now, go, man, go!
Now, one could carp that either way it was probably the British who were looking at the ‘business end of bayonet’, but here I believe is part of the delight of the richness of Hamilton. That part of the song passes you by when you first become familiar with it. It is musically energetic and engaging, but the details of the words flash past and evade you. Only later do you pick up the details, the filigree perfection of it all.
The other example is from the unpromisingly entitled Cabinet Battle #1. Thomas Jefferson was Hamilton’s political nemesis as Aaron Burr was his personal one, and joined with Madison in opposing Hamilton’s creation of a strong centralised state, nurturing dreams of a pastoral idyll in Virginia, untroubled by excessive obligation to, or control by, the federal government. These dreams rankle in the modern mind with the reflection that Jefferson was a large slave holder, like many of the founding fathers, Hamilton himself being a significant exception, having been troubled as a boy by the sight of slave ships passing through Nevis. A major part of Hamilton’s plan was the creation of a strong federal bank, with a serviced debt. How can this worthy historical dispute possibly be made into an entertaining musical number? Like this: (Jefferson is in red)
If New York’s in debt— / Why should Virginia bear it? Uh! Our debts are paid, I’m afraid / Don’t tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade / In Virginia, we plant seeds in the ground / We create. You just wanna move our money around / This financial plan is an outrageous demand / And it’s too many damn pages for any man to understand / Stand with me in the land of the free / And pray to God we never see Hamilton’s candidacy / Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky / Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whisky
Thomas. That was a real nice declaration / Welcome to the present, we’re running a real nation / Would you like to join us, or stay mellow / Doin’ whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello? / If we assume the debts, the union gets / A new line of credit, a financial diuretic / How do you not get it? If we’re aggressive and competitive / The union gets a boost. You’d rather give it a sedative? / A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor / Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor / “We plant seeds in the South. We create.” / Yeah, keep ranting / We know who’s really doing the planting
Just reading this on the page is far from half the story of course. Without the rhythm, you miss some of the internal rhymes and half rhymes. Miranda is deft at making rhymes shade from one sound to another, like those puzzles where you used to have to turn one word into another changing only one letter at a time. Notice the pattern of debt/gets/credit/diuretic/get it/competitive/sedative and slaver/neighbour/paid/labor. If you think that the tone of is too street, too rappy, too offensive, you should take at look at Chernow’s original for some reminders of how vituperative the exchanges between the architects of the United States in fact were.
Of course, all of this starry-eyed appreciation comes from having very little idea of how the whole thing is staged and choreographed. We’ve seen the set and the Youtube videos, and are only filled with relish for that extra dimension.
As the 45th President of the United States does his best to undermine the legacy of the first ones, it seems to me a fitting irony that the freshest retelling of the work that he is messing up is being done from the perspective those who most represent the success of that legacy – the immigrants, the non-establishment, the sub-culture. It seems that Miranda has given American history to the new Americans, and hip-hop to those who, like me, felt alienated by it. Mr Trump may well ignorantly believe those who have told him it is over-rated, but what will future generations sing – or rap – of him?
 He couldn’t have gone for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin? In fact, all of those are in Hamilton, the first two as major characters, the last as a single line in a song. But Hamilton is the star.
 it also cut short the career of Aaron Burr, the ‘damn fool who shot him’, but we feel less sorry for him
 To add to the fun, Javier Muñoz, the new performer to take over the Hamilton role, is gay and HIV positive…
 Both Hamilton and Lafayette were such, and sing ‘Immigrants – we get the job done!’ to huge applause each night; Hamilton is ‘another immigrant, coming up from the bottom’.
 Brits – and I would guess a fair few Americans too – may need to do a bit of research to understand the fact that the party system wasn’t quite the same then as it is now. In fact, as the opening to Act Two says ‘Someone came along to resist him – pissed him off until we had a two party system’
 But please don’t call it cultural appropriation. You’re better than that.
 To include people who use phrases like that for a start…
 In writing that, I have consciously had to avoid using the words of the opening song Alexander Hamilton, which convey the same information with greater economy and panache.
 I don’t, for example, have a clue how an adult actor convincingly portrays nine-year-old Philip Hamilton.