The Musical Narrative of Alexander Hamilton

by Emily Drouillard

 

The Broadway musical Hamilton is an unprecedented happening in the worlds of both history and musicals. It is a self-aware narrative that actively seeks to dispel the inaccurate portrayal of Alexander Hamilton in the past, which leads to deeper investigation of historical narrative. The musical’s account is unique in that it is being told through the format of a musical. This itself has a great deal of small reasons behind it that make it a very unique and prime for a case study of historical narrative. It is based upon Ron Chernow’s critically acclaimed 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton that was written with the purpose of crafting a ‘more accurate’ narrative that, unlike the alternatives, is not inhibited by the negativity and lack of recognition from many of his peers. This gives the musical a large set of ‘data’ from which to craft its own narrative.

Hamilton, which began previews in New York in the spring of 2015, was already generating a considerable amount of buzz both in publications and through word of mouth. It has gone on to become an unprecedented success that is currently sold out for every show in the next six months and makes around $1.7 million a week[1]. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer, composer, and star, posts often to his Twitter account photographs of himself and the endless flow of celebrities that go to experience the show. It has catapulted the commonly overlooked face of the ten dollar bill from ‘Man Many People Think Was President Because Why Else Would He Be On Our Money? Wait, Franklin Wasn’t One Either?’ to ‘Trendiest Historical Figure of 2016.’

Major politicians and the theatre do not cross paths too often, and when they do, the result is typically not majorly impactful. The lives of the founding fathers and presidents are more often relegated to biography shelves and offensively short paragraphs in American history textbooks. The last musical to be written about a similar topic was Michael Friedman’s rock comedy Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which opened with the aptly and complexly titled “Populism Yea Yea.” The musical did not reach great heights in popularity and did little to change public perception of Jackson or show him in a positive light, although if you ask a Native American or anyone who likes them, he arguably had already done that for himself. Somehow, the tale of Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, outperformed the story of a President that is taught about in much greater detail in American history class.

The musical Hamilton is unlike any other musical, political or otherwise, because of its hip-hop score. The lack of dialogue, which is why it can be considered an opera technically, allows for the use of the delightful portmanteau of ‘hip-hopera’. This results in a great amount of information to be packed into each song due to the quick pace of rapping and typically complex and plentiful lyrics that are rapped and sung.

This unique format for a show makes it far more accessible to a wider audience than its peers. On one hand, it is appealing to a young adult demographic that typically is not interested in nor has the financial capacity to experience Broadway theatre. By using rap music, the show sounds like the music that plays on half of NYU’s headphones and by using fantastically written rap music, the show is transformed from something an entire group is typically ambivalent (at best) to into an experience not to be missed. Broadway shows themselves, especially Hamilton with it’s months-long waitlist and oft-futile ticket lottery, are highly inaccessible to those that aren’t the typical theatre-farers, but because the soundtrack is incredibly accessible and Lin-Manuel Miranda and others from the cast have been doing a great deal of press appearances (often involving rapping), it’s hard not to have heard of the show. This introduces a massive population to Alexander Hamilton, one many have only heard of in passing in history class, and frames the narrative of his life within a context that is informed by hip-hop. This mixing of narratives breaks down the barriers between them, allowing audience members to reframe their perspective and view historical events as narratives.

This phenomenon works in reverse as well. When I went to see Hamilton, the audience looked like that of every other Broadway show: middle-aged, upper middle class, overwhelmingly white, and would probably ask if you were referring to ‘Brooks’ if you asked if they knew what a brother was. I was the only one moving to the beat of every song, yet at the end I was surrounded by voices praising the show and its music. My own parents usually ask if I can play my music elsewhere when it’s rap, or if they’re feeling particularly benevolent, inquire “Why are they so angry about everything, all of the time? This is almost as bad as when you listened to metal. But with many more swear words.” I then introduced them to Hamilton. My dad calls me every time Lin-Manuel Miranda is on TV and records it for me even though I live across the country, “just in case.” My mom is impressed by the intelligent lyrics and complex rhyme schemes, something integral to rap lyrics that she was unable to appreciate prior to hearing ones that she finally enjoyed.

By placing within a musical a genre that typically wouldn’t appeal to musical-goers, the genre itself becomes more accessible to the audience because it allows them to experience music they typically would not give a chance on their terms. This introduces the narrative properties of the genre to them in a way that highlights the similarities between two typically unrelated sounds. The storytelling aspects of most musical numbers are very present in rap which allows them to appreciate rap’s more nuanced aspects, such as intricate rhyme schemes, complex beats, a much faster speed which allows for more information to be communicated, as well as the obvious influences of black culture in the music itself. Miranda’s music synthesizes those within the already accepted narrative of musical within that demographic, which allows him explore ideas of race, slavery, discrimination against immigrants, and sexism in a seamless way.

The skeletal narrative concepts of the show, the musical genres, and the audience themself appear at ends with each other but what Miranda does is not soften his words so as to avoid being confrontational. Rather, he combines the strengths of both and uses the dichotomies that are created to incite discussion and a force us to step back and reevaluate the narratives we have ingrained about them. The almost all black and Latino cast contrasts with the one white member that plays King George III, who, in frank symbolism sings only whiny pop ballads, forcing us to question why a cast like this is such an usual occurrence. Many that listened to the show have, be it live or online, become connected with a genre of music that was in some capacity inaccessible to them. Before even touching the concept of Hamilton the man, who is at the center of it all, yet is also simply a vessel for understanding these concepts, the creation of such an unusual musical necessitates the need to shatter rigid forms of comprehension and understand that they are not mutually exclusives lenses through which to view the world. Like Benjamin Franklin’s glasses in National Treasure, is it through a combination of different perspectives that greater understanding of narrative construction can be achieved.

While it is obvious that a musical rendition on the entire lifetime of a incredibly accomplished man will not be entirely historically accurate (in terms of currently accepted historical narratives on the topic, and especially not in terms of reality which is an exercise in extreme futility) it is not the focus of the paper to simply compare the sources and point out the differences. Rather than belabor the minute details of the differences, major changes that occurred and artistic liberties taken will be highlighted. This will allow for not only the understanding of blatant inaccuracies, but also for the exploration of the mechanisms used in order to craft a particular narrative.

By shaping the characters in a way that the perceived Hamilton would have viewed them, the inherent bias allows for the talents and actions of Hamilton to be highlighted and the political tensions to be heightened, often at the expense of characters such as Thomas Jefferson. This shifts focus from other characters, which delegates them to ‘minor’ status while putting greater focus on Hamilton. This in conjunction with the sentiments expressed in “Finale” create a more compelling character and garners sympathy in terms of his treatment by both his peers and later historians.

This can be seen prominently in the opening lines of the musical, which simplify the character of Hamilton yet make more extreme the circumstances of his youth.

“[Burr]

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?

 

[Laurens]

The ten-dollar founding father without a father

Got a lot farther by working a lot harder

By being a lot smarter

By being a self-starter

By fourteen they placed him in charge of a

Trading charter”[2]

 

This simplicity exaggerates the reality of Hamilton’s familial situation in his youth. According to Chernow[3], Hamilton’s mother was not necessarily a whore. She owned a shop in St. Croix and there are no records of her being involved in prostitution, only her husband’s (not Hamilton’s father, and thus the reason for his illegitimate birth despite living with James Hamilton, his father, at the time of his birth) slanderous words in retaliation for leaving him at a time when divorce was not a privilege afforded to many women. There may have been behavior that would, in the social atmosphere of the time, constituted her being considered whore-ish, but the quick lyrics do not convey the depth of the situation. Instead, an impression of Hamilton being born into a very unfortunate youth is left upon the audience, which makes the dedication and subsequent accomplishments of him even more impressive by comparison.

The character of Hamilton in the musical is one of great magnetism that is able to remain sympathetic throughout, despite his large blunders. Why should we still care for a man that turned his back on France after making a promise to help their revolution, or cheated on his wife and paid off his mistress’s husband? He is seen as the Federalist failure to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican victory in every history class. Yet, it is Hamilton’s financial system that is in place and has influenced the political and economic tides of the world due to their fundamental roots in American economic systems which went on to achieve power of incredible magnitude. As for the affair? Beginning it was certainly dastardly, but in the show Hamilton is portrayed as seduced during a weak moment and then blackmailed into paying, which he does to protect himself and his family.

It is in another cabinet clash with Jefferson that Hamilton opposes aiding the French, despite a promise made to Lafayette that helped secure victory for the Colonies in the Revolutionary War. Jefferson, having spent much time in France and having befriended Lafayette, views the decision as a betrayal while Hamilton sees it as protecting the interests of the nation and avoiding war. The Jay Treaty, which expanded trade between the United States and England while the latter was warring with France, was not mentioned at all in the musical despite there being a song dedicated to the cabinet battle on the topic of upholding French alliance, “Cabinet Battle #2.”

Chernow claims “the Jay Treaty represented, in its rawest form, a Federalist capitulation to British hegemony and a betrayal of the historic alliance with France,” however, “from the Federalist perspective…Jay had won peace with Britain at a time when war seemed suicidal for an ill-prepared America…aligning the country’s fortunes with the leading naval power…[which] guaranteed access to overseas markets for American trade. “Joseph Ellis has written of the treaty, “It linked American security and economic development to the British fleet, which provided a protective shield of incalculable value throughout the nineteenth century.””[4]

While time and lack of relevancy in comparison to other issues are most likely why this major segment of the situation was cut from the show, it is possible that showing Hamilton’s support of British allegiance so soon after fighting against them as well as the depth of which Hamilton went against the promise to the French would not reflect as well upon the portrayal that heavily emphasizes him as a man that came from nothing while political opponents of the time painted him as money-hungry and venal.[5]

These choices in narrative composition make Hamilton more likeable, and are pillars of the show’s “humanizing focus on [his] vulnerabilities and ambitions.”[6] While the musical may not have necessarily pushed the narrative as far in the pro-Hamilton direction as it purports history to have done in that of the opposite, it still must be viewed as just a single perspective with its own agenda and inherent biases. By nature of having a mostly black cast, the issues of slavery that are raised become even more poignant. Jefferson particularly is targeted:

“[Hamilton]

A civics lesson from a slaver. Her neighbor

Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor

“We plants seeds in the South. We create.”

Yeah, keep ranting

We know who’s really doing the planting.”[7]

 

In this context, during the cabinet battle (“Cabinet Battle #1”) that preceded the Compromise of 1790, which secured Hamilton’s financial system, the irony of a black man playing a character being assailed for his and his state’s reliance on slave labor is more intense and the character of Jefferson is cast in a less flattering light. Through marring Jefferson, his political rival Hamilton prevails in the minds of the audience.

 

The character of Alexander Hamilton, while much closer to reality than the emo Andrew Jackson, is the central construction of the musical narrative, which itself was crafted for the purpose of focusing a narrative on the character himself. The musical is written with a meta perspective that ponders legacy, impact upon history itself, and ‘throwing away one’s shot’ which is a an idea that not only gets it’s own song, but is repeated throughout the show as a sort of mantra of Hamilton’s. This exclamation, “I am not throwing away my shot!”[8] is incredibly self-aware in that is a modern perspective that utilizes hindsight and is injected into the past, as also seen in the repeated lyric, “History has its eyes on you.” These statements keep in the audience’s mind the role of history and the construction of the narrative itself in perceiving it.

While Hayden White would argue about the validity of the [History has its eyes on you] lyric [SOURCE], they both speak to common perception of history in terms of both self and past. We seek remembrance in terms of legacy and history, yet it is not a matter of being recognized by the gaze of history. Hamilton’s story proves more than most the power of narrative in what we consider historical ‘truth’. The focus on being remembered is present throughout, begging the question of just how much this was exaggerated for the purpose of creating the narrative of a Hamilton that history relatively pushed aside. The biography itself was written to finally fulfill the long-ignored wish of Eliza Hamilton to have her late husband memorialized as she thought he deserved to be[9] and the musical shaped immensely by this goal. As Eliza sings, “Every other Founding Father story gets told. Every other Founding Father gets to grow old” (“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”)[10].

This yearning for remembrance in a show written because that yearning was not fulfilled shows just how much history is not merely a transcription of the past. Hamilton’s influences on and contributions to the United States are not ignorable – establishing a national bank and currency, establishing credit and assuming state debts, all of which laid out the American economic system which has gone on to influence the economy of the rest of the world – yet many people only know him as the guy on the ten dollar bill, at most. His influence is immense yet because of the political enemies he made and the sex scandal that retarded his career, he is less prominent in our greater historical narrative.

By nature of those negative aspects being influential enough for him to be hindered by history, they prove that history itself is moldable and its light can be focused on or away from an event or person. Historical narratives, both positive and negative, are created and utilized to push agendas both large and small. In terms of Hamilton, the positive narrative of Alexander is pushed while negative narratives of both some of his peers and his treatment by history itself aid in pushing the positive even further.

Hamilton adapts its narrative of Hamilton from the Chernow biography with the purpose of painting the titular character in a more positive light than his historical context previously did. The show having such a purpose, both in its reason for existence (that Hamilton was not remembered ‘correctly’) and in its goal (to change this narrative) show just how fragile history is in comparison to the way it is typically viewed as immovable and factual.

Hamilton took many artistic and historical liberties and created a narrative that is immensely popular and has in a sense accomplished its goal. The show and soundtrack are not accessible to all but for those that do see or listen, a mental shift occurs. We are made aware of how much Hamilton accomplished and the way history is shaped, which thanks to its overseeing by Chernow himself for as much historical accuracy as possible, makes it a valuable historical narrative. While it cannot be taken as such in searching for factuality as the above investigation of historical inaccuracies proves, it is valuable in other ways. Having been written in the present, it gives a sense of what is valued currently, as shown through the focus on hard work, coming from nothing, tensions surrounding immigrants, and political gridlock.

It also reveals things about the man that chose to focus on them, Lin-Manuel Miranda. He plays Hamilton and is quite similar to him in terms of voracious focus on his art. Miranda wrote his first musical, In the Heights, at age 19 while still attending Wesleyan College. He starred in the show on Broadway and won the Tony awards for Best Musical and Best Original Score in 2008. Miranda was also nominated for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, showing the span of his talent as well as the dedication of the man to his craft. Because those are values close to Miranda, it follows that the same values would be played up in the character he both wrote and played.

Hamilton is a slightly fictionalized historical narrative that is a musical phenomenon perhaps because of the wide pool it draws from. Miranda, in writing the show, synthesized the Chernow biography and guidance of Chernow himself; the previously prevailing accounts of Hamilton’s life, importance, and character; and the lens of musical theatre and all it entails and equally, if not more so, that of hip-hop and the unique visions of storytelling they provide both individually and in congruence. The musical, through its revitalization of interest in Hamilton, history, and theatre, has accomplished its goals of drawing to attention to not only Hamilton as a historical figure, but to the construction, perception, and efficacy of historical narratives themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources

 

“Broadway Grosses – HAMILTON.” Broadway World. Wisdom Digital Media, n.d. Web. 10 May 2016.

 

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin, 2004. iBooks digital file.

 

Freeman, Joanne B. “A Hamilton Scholar on How Broadway’s Hamilton Resembles the Historical One.” Slate Magazine. The Slate Group LLC., 11 Nov 2015. Web. 10 May 2016.

 

Miranda, Lin-Manuel. “Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording) by Lin-Manuel Miranda.” Genius. Genius Media Group Inc., 15 Sept. 2015. Web. 10 May 2016.

 

 

 

 

[1] Broadway Grosses – HAMILTON

[2] Miranda

[3] Chernow 37

[4] Chernow 783

[5] Chernow 778

[6] Freeman

[7] Miranda

[8] Miranda

[9] Chernow 25

[10] Miranda

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