History has its eyes on our managing editor, Janine Pumilia, as she travels to New York to see Broadway’s “Hamilton.” See the story of our newborn nation through her perspective.
So, who’s that guy on the $10 bill? A president? Nope.
He’s Alexander Hamilton – a founding father, immigrant, New Yorker and Revolutionary War hero most of us forgot about, if we ever knew him.
He’s also the namesake of “Hamilton,” a new musical composed and written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the son of an immigrant, a New Yorker and a revolutionary figure in musical theater.
Thanks to a Christmas present from our kids, hubby Gary and I attended “Hamilton” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway recently. (Our Coronado is much lovlier, by the way.) The show’s next stop is Chicago, and the timing couldn’t be better.
At a moment when many of us are embarrassed from head to toe by the freak show that has become American politics, “Hamilton” reminds us that people just as flawed as ourselves built America. Miranda even sends us out of the theater inspired.
Miranda himself was inspired by the 2005 best-selling biography Alexander Hamilton, written by historian Ron Chernow, who’s now at work on a bio about our own Ulysses S. Grant. Miranda captures the out-of-control energy our newborn nation felt and the “young, scrappy and hungry” quality Hamilton shared with it.
Unlike wealthy slave-owning contemporaries Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, Hamilton was born illegitimate on a small West Indies island with no advantages except a keen mind and exceptional drive; businessmen recognized his potential and sent him to New York City to attend college, after his mother died and his guardian cousin committed suicide.
Not everyone living in the late 1700s understood the rare moment in world history they inhabited, but Hamilton did. Aaron Burr, a man Hamilton prevented from becoming president – who would mortally wound Hamilton in a duel – is the chief narrator of Hamilton’s story. (Andrew Lloyd Webber likewise chose antagonists to narrate “Evita” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”)
In the opening lines, delivered in hip-hop, Burr frames the main question:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
From there, Hamilton’s story unfurls in 34 musical numbers (34! And each one lyrics-packed) that stand traditional musical theater on its head. Miranda mixes pop, sweet ballads, R&B, big show-tune styles, boogie-woogie and lots of hip-hop into something that audibly resembles the nature of America – a million moving parts mashed together, bumping and scraping, wowing and wooing. The constant tension between individualism and federalism, personal ambition and duty to others, sweeps through everything. The ballad harmonies are gorgeous, the rap battles exciting. In an example of the latter, Jefferson and Hamilton hash out issues related to the federal monetary system in rap:
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.
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.
And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment
Don’t lecture me about the war; you didn’t fight in it.
It’s intentional (not just “color-blind casting”) that every major character, except King George, is played by a person of color; a reminder that our history was recorded by white men, but our country was built by men and women of all colors. The characters are in constant motion, caught up in the swirl of revolutionary momentum. Ben Brantley says it like this, in the New York Times:
“Before they were founding fathers, these guys were rebellious sons, moving to a new, fierce, liberating beat that never seemed to let up. Hamilton makes us feel the unstoppable, urgent rhythm of a nation being born.”
I’m reminded of when Truman Capote was lauded for introducing a new form of the novel – the “non-fiction novel” – with In Cold Blood. I expect that Miranda will have a similar long-term influence on musical theater. He’s not trying to bash tradition; he’s bringing it into a new century, opening blocked arteries and allowing blood to flow in new directions.
Miranda doesn’t idealize Alexander Hamilton; he presents a well-rounded bio. But he’s clearly impressed that this poverty-stricken immigrant earned a law degree and the trust of then-Gen.George Washington, all before he was 25. Hamilton not only led battles courageously, but played a strategic intelligence role as Washington’s most trusted aide. Washington recognized his intellect and ability to harness the power of words. To me, this says a lot about Washington. Capability apparently meant much more to him than pedigree – such a very American notion.
Among Alexander Hamilton’s accomplishments:
• Wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers, which helped to overcome strong public opposition to ratification of our Constitution. They were anonymously published in U.S. newspapers in 1788.
• Commanded three New York light infantry battalions at Yorktown, Va., helping to defeat the British.
• Served as our first Treasury Secretary, stabilizing the U.S. economy, paying off war debts, establishing the gold-backed dollar and setting precedent for feds to respect individual property rights.
• Supported John Jay’s Manumission Society, which was committed to abolishing slavery in New York City, 76 years before the Civil War.
• Helped to shape President Washington’s foreign policy of neutrality.
• Advocated for a paid military, founded the U.S. Coast Guard and introduced a bill to establish the West Point Military Academy.
So, why wasn’t Hamilton a president?
Being an illegitimate immigrant didn’t help, and he was outspoken, which earned him foes. (“Talk less, Smile more,” slick Aaron Burr advises him in “Hamilton.”) And, opponents publicized Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds, whose husband extorted him for years.
Hamilton (a Federalist) did, however, play a key role in causing third U.S. president Thomas Jefferson (a Democratic-Republican) to win the 1800 election over Aaron Burr, despite his many differences with Jefferson. Hamilton believed Burr lacked character.
Like the excellent HBO miniseries “John Adams,” based on historian David McCullough’s book of the same name, “Hamilton” makes me think hard about the personal sacrifices and darker ambitions with which our leading families have always wrestled. It also reminds me of spectacular things we should never take for granted, like our nation’s (mostly) peaceful transfer of executive power, something that’s still the envy of much of the world.
Building a democratic republic was painfully difficult work for everyone involved. Perhaps the only thing more difficult is keeping it, a point King George comically croons in “Hamilton”:
“What comes next? You’ve been freed.
Do you know hard it is to lead?
You’re on your own. “Awesome.” “Wow.”
Do you have a clue what happens now?
Remarkably, “Hamilton” is praised by today’s Democrats and Republicans alike. If that’s not an accomplishment, what is?
It’s gratifying to encounter authors and composers who don’t talk down to us but expect us to listen hard, use our brains and keep up. Chernow did that in his book. Miranda does that in this musical. And Alexander Hamilton did that when he educated and convinced a skeptical public, through the power of reason, to get behind our Constitution.
If only today’s politicians had such faith in us, instead of leveraging our worst fears and lowest impulses.
One thing’s sure. The next time I look at a $10 bill, I’ll see more than a stuffy-looking guy with no relevance to my life. I’ll see a scrappy, hard-working, somewhat insecure immigrant who vowed, “I’m not throwing away my shot!” – and didn’t.