What do you get when you combine hip-hop, Broadway style songs, and the Founding Fathers? Apparently, you get the most popular New York musical since The Book of Mormon. Hamilton, written and composed principally by Lin Manuel Miranda, tells the life story of Alexander Hamilton, and is based on the biographer Ron Chernow’s 2004 study of the man on the ten dollar bill. But Hamilton is not your parents’ musical, and besides some costumes and characters, bares little resemblance to 1776.
Rap battles between Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton have replaced the ballads of other musicals rooted in history, like Les Miserables and Ragtime. Despite the show’s perception as hip hop musical, it is not exclusively based on contemporary music. (There are still Broadway showstoppers, and a Beatles-esque breakup song King George III sings to the colonies.) Not only does the music sound different, the cast looks different. Most of the principal characters are played by actors from minority communities. This was a conscious choice by the show’s creative team, who wanted to make this era of history more accessible to today’s audiences. Miranda, the show’s composer, has said, “It is the story of America then, as told by America now.” Hamilton is already being discussed as a landmark for Broadway. But is it a landmark for history, too?
If someone approached you two years ago and said that in order to make the story of the nation’s founding accessible to more Americans, we should tell their story using hip hop, you might have scoffed. But today, that idea is working. If the aim of public history is to generate empathy between the observer and the subject, then Hamilton should be studied inside-out and backwards. The show humanizes its characters, and recreates the men and women of the Revolutionary generation in a way that allows the audience to see beyond their traditional, Gilbert Stuart image.
You can check all this out for yourself. The soundtrack to Hamilton is available in its entirety on Spotify or YouTube. Yale Professor Joanne B. Freeman’s article for Slate, “How Hamilton Uses History” is worth the read as well. And if you love Hamilton, you might be able to score some tickets by the next presidential election cycle.