“Today’s audience is a tough one to impress
Digital distractions put focus to the test
It’s only possible when you settle for no less
Than a masterpiece that sends your heart bursting out of your chest.”
Hamilton on Disney+ is amazing. I am no rapper, but Hamilton’s lyrics are some of the best writing I have ever heard and Hamilton is probably the most outstanding thing that has ever been shown on our TV. This was the first time I have ever finished a 2hr 40min show (that ended past midnight) and immediately wanted to press play and watch it again. Also, it was one of the rare occasions where I was able to block out phone notifications and distractions to focus on a show for more than a few minutes. Theater meets hip-hop meets American history. Technical excellence meets groundbreaking originality meets cultural impact. Hamilton: A storytelling that transcends show business.
My brother first introduced me to the buzz around this show; a Broadway musical chronicling the life of a U.S. founding father. Admittedly, the subject matter and its Broadway adaptation were news to me. I knew little of the protagonist but that his face was on the $10 bill and he was fatally shot by Aaron Burr (which I only learned via an old milk commercial). My brother mentioned show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, a name I only recognized from his work in Disney’s Moana. He continued that the musical, since 2015, has been the most sought-after show on Broadway, with average ticket prices soaring to around $300 and celebrities clamoring for a seat. Miraculously, this exclusive production was about to be released on the Netflix-type online streaming service, Disney+. Essentially, the pitch was that anyone with a casual interest in a highly coveted performance could now watch for a thrifty $7 subscription or a shared password. To recap, I knew “$10 face” was shot by Aaron Burr and Moana’s song writer wrote a Broadway musical about him, available on Disney+.
[Disclaimer: I do not consider myself a competent analyst of hip-hop or theater. Aside from an old 2Pac poster and attending a few other Broadway gigs, my exposure has been sparse for the past couple decades. Additionally, my knowledge or interest in U.S. history is pathetic. Lucky for me, expertise and appreciation are not mutually exclusive.]
For my best chance of seeing what all the hype was about, I thought it best to do a little online prepping beforehand. Apparently Lin-Manuel, a latino from NYC, is a rare combination of theater and hip-hop. It took him 6 years to write Hamilton, only having 2 songs to show for the first 2 years of writing. One milestone came in 2009, when he rapped the show’s opening song for President Obama’s poetry night. These particulars said to me that Lin-Manuel is an outlier, and my intrigue grew. As for the show Hamilton itself, I read through the show’s synopsis for an overview of what was to come.* While compelling, this might have been redundant since the opening song was basically a crash course synopsis anyway. So, with my viewing engine primed, I was ready to be wowed but internally aware that I may have set the bar too high. Boy was I wrong. The show was about to start and Hamilton was about to wow me, again and again, song after song, all the way until the final bow.
*[Something about me is that I don’t mind spoilers. I respectfully disagree with the claim that a show can be spoiled if surprises are revealed prematurely. As an audience member, I feel that keeping me in suspense hinders me from appreciating the subtleties in a scene’s background. It is why I enjoy watching good shows more than once. So fair warning: SPOILERS AHEAD]
I thought the background performers were exquisite. Myself a former background performer for my high school play, I was impressed with their seamless switching back-and-forth between a decorative purpose and a functional one. They elegantly passed telegrams among characters. They floated furniture and props into their correct stage locations, not to disturb the scenes in progress. They even suspended the flight of a bullet for a prolonged, dramatic time stoppage during a fatal gunshot. Twice.
There was also the exceptional wardrobe. Specifically, the boldness or absence of color to direct attention to various sections of the stage. In addition to more conventional lighting and blocking methods, I thought wardrobe color was a creative technique to spotlight the scene-stealing characters among the dozens of moving bodies. This worked so well that it even aided in Lin-Manuel’s vision of certain actors portraying two main characters, like football players who occasionally “play both ways”. At times, this allowed certain main characters to blend-in with the background onstage. I found this ingredient with wardrobe design to be superb.
I can’t remember another show where an entire production periodically “breaks character” to acknowledge the audience. The high-five after the line “immigrants, we get the job done.” The chorus of “The Greatest City in the World” for a Broadway show. The rap-battle rendition of the cabinet debates. There were undoubtedly others, but these stood out to me.
Another layer that I thought added to Hamilton’s appeal were the comedic and tragic moments. For most of the show, I found myself tapping my foot and nodding my head to the rhythm of hip-hop. Then King George’s cameos had me laughing and singing along to da-da-dai-ah-dah. These transition scenes moved the story along while concurrently giving the audience a nice rest from intense lyric processing. It was a bit of light-heartedness that complemented the main plot line delightfully. Conversely, the moments of sorrow were equally notable. Philip’s funeral was an emotional change of pace I didn’t see coming. I already knew of the synopsis “spoiler” that Alexander and Eliza would lose their son, but the scene’s significance was irreplaceable. This touching depiction invites the audience to grieve and we finally see a vulnerable side of Alexander and, more importantly, Eliza. This was one of 2 examples where the perceived “spoiler” (Philip dies) actually enhanced the scene for me as opposed to ruining it. I will mention the other later.
This next bit may be far-fetched, but I have a theory. In my opinion, Lin-Manuel’s decision to portray the lead role was genius. Not only did he get to bask in the greatness of spitting self-written lyrics as the main character, he got to savor the execution of the other brilliant actors bringing his dreams into reality. When I noticed Lin-Manuel, as Alexander Hamilton, quietly observing the monumental performances of his cast-mates from the stage’s shadows, I had a eureka moment: the best seat in the house is not in the front row, it’s onstage. This is what Lin-Manuel created for himself. I doubt this is what he was trying to do, or if he even acknowledges that it might have been happening. Regardless though, I think there is no question he deserved it.
[Perhaps I should take a step back and remind myself that Lin-Manuel did not create this masterpiece on his own. Like I previously stated, I am no competent analyst. I am sure there are others who deserve a lot of credit and I am doing them a disservice by not acknowledging them. But I only know Lin-Manuel, and this is my opinion. So I choose the rules, and I am more interested in expressing what I thought as opposed to making sure no one is snubbed. Moving on.]
In my mind, the core of what sets Hamilton apart from its contemporaries is its use of hip-hop lyrics. Lin-Manuel’s contribution to theater greatness is one that seems to care about the younger generation. Dare I say, Hamilton is for the millennials. It is like a boy who proudly shares tales of his grandfather’s war stories to immortalize his legacy. I have always thought that a story is only as sustainable as the storytellers who keep the story alive and relevant. This means enriching it, molding it, and cultivating it for the sake of its audience. The story in Hamilton is told skillfully because it first invites the audience to listen.
Hamilton is not just another Broadway show. It is not just another lesson on U.S. history. It is not just another hip-hop album. Hamilton is much, much more. Aside from the narrative, Hamilton uses lyrics and arrangement in a way that I have never heard before. The hip-hop style makes it cool to be interested in theater and in learning about the chronicles of Alexander Hamilton. Just like spoilers can provide the “what happened” better than the “how it happened,” the same is true for history. If Alexander Hamilton had a rivalry with Aaron Burr, the show reveals how. If he had a flirtatious relationship with Angelica Schuyler, the show reveals how. If he had an impact on the United States rising to independence, the show reveals how. Hamilton is a magnificent blend of “here’s what matters, here’s what doesn’t”. Our founding fathers were not hip-hop lyricists, but that… does… not…. matter. Not on this stage, not in this show, not for this audience.
While the hip-hop lyrics and arrangement efficiently convey the story, they also add personality to the characters through different lyrical styles. LaFayette and Angelica spit lyrics with Busta Rhymes hyper-quickness which tells me they are confident and have more to say. Jefferson’s dance jig during “What did I miss” reminds me that he was more optimistic since he was overseas during America’s earliest struggles. Eliza’s singing in lieu of rapping was a sign of her sweetness and innocence among a flurry of complex characters. George Washington was bold yet hesitant, torn between wanting a better future for America but unsure if he was successfully leading them in that direction. Charles Lee (poor guy) could not even get his lyrics out without constant interruption from divided opinions. (I felt bad for the character Charles Lee but praised the actor for delivering on what were probably some difficult rehearsals.) King George was pompous and flamboyant, like England might have been during the birth of a very young America. Aaron Burr, in many ways the equal of Alexander Hamilton, was probably playing it safe with his “talk less, smile more” indifference and did not anticipate transforming into the antagonist. This element of hip-hop interpretation opens the door to countless discussions and ideas, most of which I think would be a joy to unpack. A blind audience could have enjoyed this show… but then they would be missing the visual marvel of the ethnically diverse cast.
Another thing that doesn’t matter in Hamilton is that America’s founding fathers were all white. On the contrary, it does matter that Hamilton’s cast is not all white because America is not all white. The ethnically diverse cast is impossible to ignore and feels wonderful to embrace. Another emphasis is that Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant. So were my parents, and so are millions of other American residents. This probably matters now more than it did even then. One message that Hamilton drives home is one that Americans have been tip-toeing for generations: throughout history, America’s ability to thrive is only possible with the help of immigrants. I am only one viewer, but Hamilton reminds me to be proud of my immigrant roots and grateful to have a chance at living the American dream.
Aside from the hip-hop and diversity, Hamilton takes risks that I think work out extraordinarily well. I was holding my breath from the heightened chance of a lyrical error due to the amount of syllables recited quickly and authentically. Alexander’s scandalous infidelity with Maria Reynolds was risky for a Disney+ show but proved integral to the chain of events that transpired as a result. The revolving stage was confusing at first but then cleverly allowed access to different vantage points and even a sequence back in time during Angelica’s “rewind” scene. This was the 2nd instance where the “spoiler” (Angelica is jealous of Eliza’s marriage) enhanced the scene instead of ruining it. It is also one reason why Angelica was one of my two favorite performances of the whole show, the other being Jefferson. It was exciting to see Hamilton take so many risks as a production but have it all add to the show’s excellence instead of taking away from it.
My favorite risk was how certain lyrics, characters, and actors kept popping into and out of the story. I found myself constantly asking, “Did I see/hear that earlier?” LaFayette is Jefferson! Laurens is Philip! Peggy is Maria! These intentional coincidences were what I considered an achievement in storytelling organization. Hamilton takes a linear script and weaves it into, out of, through, and around itself. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” “Never be satisfied” “In the room where it happens”… the list goes on and on. All 46 songs each had their own identity but smoothly merged and overlapped with each other to give the audience a harmonious combination of familiar and refreshing. Stand-up comics have a similar gambit to engage the audience where they bait you with something you recognize and then hit you with something new. By then, I was starting to admit: Lin-Manuel Miranda is not just an outlier, his work in Hamilton is unparalleled.
Think I’m exaggerating?
You are going to want to watch it again. My wife heard from a friend that, every time you watch Hamilton, you catch something new. That was true for me from just watching the first song a 2nd time. “Me, I died for you,” is said by the one actor who plays Laurens and Philip, both of whom die in the show. “Me, I loved you,” is said by Eliza and Angelica but also by Peggy because that actress also plays Maria. I already know I could not catch all the details or lyrics the first time around, so I can only imagine what kind of surprises are in store for repeat viewings.
Hamilton will draw your attention from the opening song to the final bow, then beyond. We live in a time of instant gratification, smartphones, binge watching. It sounds good in theory but, realistically, it can be too much. I usually could barely get through a movie trailer without glancing at my phone or thinking about some to-do list for the next day. Along came Hamilton. I found myself intuitively concentrating on the show’s content. My mind wandered, but only to thoughts about the show. How had I knew so little about Lin-Manuel Miranda? Or Hamilton? Both the man and the show? Why did Lin-Manuel choose to write a Broadway musical about his life? Was it their common style of impacting the world through writing? Was NY the nation’s capital before DC? How many lyrics were actually more about current times as opposed to historical ones? “There’s a million things I haven’t done,” “I am not throwing away my shot,” “History has its eyes on you,” “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”
Hamilton has been an inspiration. I have been inspired to learn, perform, tell stories, explore, reflect, and appreciate. Time will tell if my interest in theater, hip-hop, or history will continue to grow. Regardless, my inspiration to write has been rejuvenated. Michael Jordan got me to pick up a basketball, Tiger Woods got me to pick up a golf club, and now Lin-Manuel Miranda got me to pick up a pen.
“If you don’t know, now you know”