‘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?” That is the first in a set of questions that Hamilton, this season’s Broadway blockbuster, asks about individual excellence, American exceptionalism, and democratic memory.
Hamilton is the brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda, a composer, playwright, and polymath performer who, at 35, has already racked up an Emmy, a Grammy, some Tonys, and a MacArthur “genius” grant. A few years ago, he picked up for a little beach reading a copy of Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography of Alexander Hamilton, whose tumultuous life and times suggested songs and scenes that Miranda ultimately assembled into a fully staged musical. Hamilton sold out months in advance, the cast recording has set sales records, and there is already talk of a film.
Miranda himself stars in the title role, depicting major episodes in Alexander Hamilton’s life—from his childhood on the island of Nevis to his service in the revolution to his support for the new Constitution to his time as the first secretary of the Treasury—all the way to the infamous duel that killed him in his 50th year. These are interwoven with the lives of other Founders, including George Washington (Christopher Jackson as Hamilton’s indispensable mentor, boss, and shield), Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Daveed Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan playing Hamilton’s greatest political rivals on the national stage), and Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) as Hamilton’s frenemy and opponent in that fatal duel.
Matters of statecraft and honor intersect with matters of the heart. The ladies’ man Hamilton sets his sights on New York’s most eligible bachelorettes, the glamorous Schuyler sisters. He courts and marries Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), but her older sister Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry) loves him, too. Historians have long read between the lines of the letters Angelica and Alexander exchanged; Miranda puts their flirtation, and feelings, center stage. Meanwhile, another relationship—a messy affair that leads to blackmail—is kept quiet for years until it finally blows up his political career.
Hamilton takes a handful of liberties with the factual record to simplify and dramatize the story, but evidently none that Chernow, a historical consultant for the show, couldn’t live with. (The paperback edition of Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is sold alongside other swag at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and Miranda has been known to exhort his social media followers to “get thee to Chernow.”)
Hamilton has been deservedly praised for its innovative use of rap. The rapid-fire pacing and the live-fast/die-young ethos of hip hop culture gives Hamilton a drive that befits the circumstances of the new nation and its Founders. As Miranda put it in 2009, when he was just beginning work on the project, Alexander Hamilton “embodies hip-hop,” from his chaotic childhood to his meteoric rise, and the way he “caught beef with every other Founding Father,” clashing over ideas as well as reputations and personalities.
Moreover, the sheer wordiness of rap is a good match for the subject matter. According to an analysis by Leah Libresco for the website FiveThirtyEight, Hamilton stuffs up to an order of magnitude more words into the soundtrack than your standard musical. The torrent of clever verbosity—not since Cole Porter has a Broadway lyricist demonstrated such mastery of internal rhyme—is well suited to our Founders’ lively exchanges of ideas and insults. Hamilton and Jefferson didn’t really settle their cabinet disputes through rap battles, but one almost wishes
Still, the label “hip-hop musical” does not do justice to Hamilton’s mashup of genres. Phillipa Soo’s solos as Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, concerned with themes of love and family life, have a timeless Broadway feel. The adulterous liaison is given a steamy rhythm-and-blues treatment that makes the foot-tapping audience complicit in Hamilton’s betrayal. Daveed Diggs’s debonair Jefferson gets a jazzy entrance; a drinking song has a touch of reggae. George III, played in the cast recording (and until recently on the stage) by Jonathan Groff, sings a campy love-and-loss tune—“You’ll Be Back”—worthy of Freddie Mercury.