Broadway sensation Hamilton makes its long-awaited debut on Disney+ today. The filmed production, starring the original cast, is one of the new streaming service’s headline attractions.
With Hamilton, creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda retold history in a way that felt powerful, exciting and modern. Questlove, drummer for legendary hip-hop act The Roots, couldn’t decide whether the show was “the most revolutionary thing to happen to Broadway, or the most revolutionary thing to happen to hip-hop.”
Who Tells Your Story?
The show tells the tale of American independence through the eyes of Alexander Hamilton, one of the country’s founding fathers. Hamilton was an immigrant who became the first Secretary of the Treasury, putting into place the financial systems that would shape the nation going forward.
Taking inspiration from Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, Miranda decided to map this unlikely story onto the structure of a Broadway musical.
It is a show steeped in history – what happened, how we remember it, and why. The closing number, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’ addresses these issues explicitly.
However, in researching, Miranda found there were moments when the history let him down. There were gaps in the record at key moments of Hamilton’s life.
Whereas the more traditional solution may have been to just make something up, Miranda looked for another way around the problem. He instead turned expectations on their head, writing songs that directly confronted the absence of history. The results became two of Hamilton’s most resonant and popular songs.
The Room Where It Happens
The first comes early in the production’s second half. Hamilton went into a negotiation with future presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison needing to pull a rabbit out of the hat. And he did. The problem is, no one knows how he did it.
‘The Room Where It Happens’ tells Jefferson and Madison’s accounts of what happened. Their different descriptions don’t add up – each making themselves out to be the hero of the negotiation.
There is no way of corroborating what really happened because, as the song tells us, no one else was in the room; history had no observers behind closed doors.
The song is a pivotal moment in Hamilton’s own mythology, but it is an even bigger moment for the show’s other key figure, Aaron Burr. Burr is Hamilton’s friend and rival, and the story’s narrator. This song marks a shift in his own mentality, outlined earlier in ‘Wait For It’ and mocked here by a triumphant Hamilton.
From the start, Burr preaches caution but has to watch as Hamilton’s impulsive and confrontational style brings greater success. On the outside looking in, Burr decides it is time for a change of tack.
Ironically, Hamilton begins the song by admitting that he has finally decided to follow Burr’s advice. Nonetheless, Burr decides that now is the time to take a leaf from his competitor’s book. It is a decision that will lead to the end of their friendship, and seal Burr’s fate as a tragic hero.
Miranda weaves all this from a song about not knowing the facts of what really happened. This lack of access infuriates Burr, who realises that he desperately wants to be involved in making history. He wants that privileged insight, and is willing to abandon his own principles to make sure that he is in the room next time.
Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, and her sister Angelica are major figures in the story. This creates a problem later on in the show, when Miranda wants to depict Eliza’s reaction to Hamilton’s public disclosure of events in their private life.
Following Alexander’s betrayal, Eliza apparently destroyed letters between the two of them, leaving little evidence of how she felt. Miranda has to make guesses and assumptions in order to fill the gap.
Once again, Miranda looks for a way to turn a problem into an opportunity. Eliza sings “I’m erasing myself from the narrative”, while destroying these letters in the song ‘Burn’. “The world has no right to my heart,” she declares, as she temporarily wrests herself from Alexander’s story.
The song allows Miranda to speculate at Eliza’s emotional response of pain and anger, while admitting he doesn’t really know. Not only that, he manages to apply this act of removal to his theme of who tells history. ‘Burn’ is an extraordinary act of agency, as Eliza establishes a boundary. History can come this far, but no further. This is her personal life and her inner life, and she will not surrender it to the public domain.
It is in stark contrast to Hamilton’s own approach, and a challenge to his obsession with his own legacy. She accuses him of letting the world “into our bed”, forgetting that he has personal as well as public obligations.
He is so obsessed by the thought of being a Great Man that he has handed his family’s privacy over without a second thought. Hamilton’s disclosure backfires, humbling him, where he goes on to lead a more private life.
History Has Its Eyes On You
In these two songs, Miranda turns a void in his sources from a negative into a positive. He resists the urge to invent new scenes and present them as history. Instead he takes the opportunity to deliver crucial character moments, while questioning where the limits of history rest.
All stories based on fact are subject to a little poetic licence, and Hamilton is no different. However, Hamilton is unusually open about its fascination with the ways in which we learn and consume history.
It is in these two songs, when the history is the weakest, that the show’s fascination with that history shines through the brightest.
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