I don’t know about you guys, but I hadn’t seen Hamilton until this weekend, when I watched it, like thousands of others, on Disney +.
In typical naysayer fashion, I had assumed most of the Hamilton hype was undeserved. I’ve never been a big fan of Broadway – though Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was amazing – and the concept of putting American history to song sounded pretty awful to me.
Late to the party but glad to be here
Cut to last weekend. The thought of watching a recorded musical about history on TV was just about the most un-fun thing I could think of doing. So, obviously, it was the perfect watch for 4 July, America’s birthday — a day I didn’t know how to mark this year anyway.
And guess what, I was proven wrong. Hamilton was riveting and so overwhelming I don’t think I was able to breathe until intermission. I was late to the Hamilton party, but now that I’m here, I need to discuss.
Witnessing the birth of a nation, my nation, from the perspective of 2020’s London — where protesters have gone as far as defacing Churchill’s statue, against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, Donald Trump’s presidency, and a pandemic — was a wild ride.
The ideals expressed in Hamilton reminded me of America’s original promise, for which protesters are risking their lives right now on the streets of every major American city. Meanwhile others (like me), have become disillusioned with a country we feel has fallen from grace. Of these two, the protesters are the true patriots, holding America to the founding beliefs expressed in Hamilton.
It’s about time for another revolution
It’s hard not to get fired up watching this musical. It’s made me believe that maybe there is something worth fighting for, that maybe America is not over after all. I am starting to believe we might be going through another revolution. And that it’s about time.
Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda agrees. In a recent interview on E TV he discussed how the show “brushes up against the roots of that systemic racism, against the roots of the original sin of slavery, against the roots of gun violence in this country.
“Now…we are having this incredible movement which uses the language of revolution to remake the country closer to the ideals with which we’ve fallen short since the moment those ideals were written down,” he added.
That Hamilton was made with a predominately black and brown cast only strengthens these parallels. That includes Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson was a proponent of democracy, individual rights, and religious freedom, penning the famous words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But Jefferson is also known for owning up to 600 slaves during his lifetime. One of them, Sally Hemings, was the half-sister of his wife and bore him a bunch of children.
Reminding the American public what they stand for
The characters in Hamilton are surprisingly well-drawn. They are not the one-dimensional paper dolls that populate our current media, with a stock “good guy” and “bad guy.” Miranda captures the complexities and contradictions inherent in love, and also in ambition. He humanises characters made wooden over time, so that the audience can remember why they were fighting and for what.
Backstories are rich in information about who the characters were, where they came from, and how their lives intersected leading up to that fateful point in time. Miranda succeeds in making history about the people, their pasts, passions and visions for the future.
King George III was a joy, and his break-up ballad, You’ll Be Back, made brilliant use of a British Invasion pop sound firmly rooted in the 1960s. We never got the British perspective when learning about American history in school and this re-imagining provides some delicious and necessary comic relief.
A few lines especially stand out: “You say our love is draining and you can’t go on. You’ll be the one complaining when I am gone. And no, don’t change the subject. Cause you’re my favourite subject. My sweet, submissive subject. My loyal, royal subject.”
New York, New York
The City, my home city, plays a starring role in Hamilton. There are no cardboard skyscrapers or other stereotypically New York-looking set pieces used to convey its energy. Instead, you’re transported to a city that feels alive and engaged. New York, in my opinion, epitomises America at that time, with a sense of revolution and change in the air.
It’s where big plans are made by the smart, capable people who call this city home. Hamilton’s portrayal of New York as a place where anything is possible is still part of the city’s ethos, and in line with its pop culture, all the way from Sinatra’s New York, New York to the more recent Alicia Keys and Jay-Z hit Empire State of Mind.
The lyrics to “Alexander Hamilton” contribute to the mythology: “planning for the future, see it now with his hands. On the bow of a ship, heading for a new land. In New York, you can be a new man. In New York, you can be a new man (Just you wait) In New York, you can be a new man.”
Finally, let’s talk about the music for a second. It is heavily reminiscent of the 1990’s hip hop that I love and weaves it into a tapestry of American music and pop culture. In My Shot, whose melody hints at Eminem’s Lose Yourself, Miranda-Hamilton raps, “Only nineteen but my mind is older,” much like Prodigy’s line in Shook Ones Pt II: “I’m only nineteen but my mind is old.”
Then there is a song called Ten Duel Commandments – because it’s the 1780’s – that might remind the audience of Notorious B.I.G.’s Ten Crack Commandments. Along with that, there are a million other ways Lin-Manuel Miranda pays homage to the music that inspired him.
Miranda believes hip-hop is the language of revolution. He calls it “our greatest American art form.” In a chat with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe on July 7, he explains that “it was the fact that Hamilton got everywhere on the strength of his writing. That was the whole idea. Well, that’s what my favourite MCs do.”
And damn. Lin-Manuel Miranda. He is a composer, lyricist, actor, singer, rapper, producer, and playwright. In addition to Hamilton, he also created and starred in In the Heights. He has won a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, three Grammy Awards, an Emmy Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2018.
I’m speechless. Really. And kind of glad I waited to watch Hamilton until 4 July 2020.
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