Some of you may have heard of a little musical called Hamilton… If, however, you are not a Broadway fan, a history nerd, a consumer of North American pop culture, or some combination of these, it may (as of yet) have escaped your notice. For me, however, my interests and artistic tastes combined to create the perfect storm for a full-blown Hamilton obsession… And I am far from alone in this. Hamilton has been called a cultural phenomenon. It has received resounding acclaim from critics and audiences alike, and has been breaking record after record since its Broadway debut in August 2015. Hamilton’s creator, writer, musician, and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his creation, and the chart-topping cast recording won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. Just a few weeks ago, the show won 11 Tony Awards after receiving an unprecedented 16 nominations, more than any other show in Broadway history.
But wait, what is this Hamilton even all about? Why are audiences willing to pay hundreds of dollars (this past winter and spring, first available orchestra seats averaged USD$800…) to see a work of musical theatre? The answer is probably not what you would expect.
Hamilton is a hip-hop and rap musical which tells the story of the life of Alexander Hamilton, an American Founding Father who, until now, has mostly been known simply as the guy on the American $10 bill, or sometimes as the guy who died in a duel on the banks of the Hudson River. But Hamilton’s life and accomplishments were hugely influential in the development of the modern United States of America; he established the national bank, served as the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and called for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, to name just a few of his significant contributions.
When browsing books in an airport back in 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda casually picked-up a copy of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and was blown-away by the narrative of Hamilton’s life and the dynamism with which he lived it. Still, the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury seems an unlikely character on which to base a “hip-hopera,” but Miranda’s genius brain had other ideas:
“I Googled ‘Alexander Hamilton hip-hop musical’ and totally expected to see that someone had already written it. But no. So I got to work.”
And good thing that he did. Hamilton has launched civic history into a whole new, very trendy light, and students across North America are realizing that history can speak their language. When young Americans watch or hear Alexander Hamilton compete in a rap battle against Thomas Jefferson, how can they be anything but enthralled? I know I was…
The show’s racially diverse cast also brings an additional level of accessibility to U.S. history, one which resonates with American teens. References to feminism, multiculturalism, and immigration are empowering features during this tumultuous time in American society. Even the hip-hop beat pauses for dramatic effect when Hamilton and de Lafayette shout in unison:
“Immigrants: we get the job done!”
This past weekend saw the final performances of a number of Hamilton’s original cast, Miranda included. But regardless of whether or not Miranda plays the titular role, his legacy and that of the show at large will have, and is already having, a resounding effect. It has changed, not just the face of musical theatre, but also historical education and the important field of public history. Hamilton’s success is proof that history, even political and economic history, is more than dusty books in stuffy classrooms; these stories have the potential to jump from the pages and inspire modern minds, if only they are once again imbued with the vibrancy of those who originally lived them.
Back in May, the prominent historian Simon Schama delivered a lecture on precisely this subject at the University of Oxford. Inside the storied walls of the Sheldonian Theatre, Schama played part of the cast recording, praised the genius of the work, and discussed the importance of public history and education. “Is this a first, actually, to have rap in the Sheldonian?” Schama posits early in his lecture, “It shouldn’t be the last!”
I completely, concur, Professor Schama. And so, I am sure, would Alexander Hamilton.
Photo: From left, Okieriete Onaodowan, Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times).
 0:18, “Yorktown,” Original Cast Recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8E-dhLxBo4