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Hamilton: how Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical rewrote the story of America

Finally arriving in London, the rap masterpiece turns the story of a forgotten founding father into a Shakespearean drama of ambition and revenge.

On 12 May 2009, a clean-cut 29-year-old called Lin-Manuel Miranda attended a “poetry jam” at the White House. Held four months after the inauguration of America’s first black president, the evening “looked as if it were meant to signal a new White House taste in the performing arts”, Mike Hale wrote at the New York Times. “All of the performers were either of colour or married to [the liberal author] Michael Chabon or Michael Chabon himself.”

With Barack and Michelle Obama in the front row, the composer and actor Miranda – already the winner of a Tony Award for his musical In the Heights, about gentrification in a Hispanic district in New York – announced that he had started a new project. “I’m actually working on a hip hop album,” Miranda said, standing next to his long-time collaborator Alex Lacamoire, ready to accompany him on the piano. “It’s a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.”

The audience tittered politely. It’s hard to remember now that Hamilton is a worldwide hit (opening in London on 6 December), but there was a time when it seemed like madness to tell the story of the founding fathers through rap battles. If American schoolchildren knew Hamilton at all, it was as the face on the ten-dollar bill – a fitting tribute for the first treasury secretary – where he was depicted as a sombre, white-haired figure in a high collar and neck scarf.

Then the music started, and Miranda launched into the show’s opening number, introducing its central character and its themes: immigration, ambition, jealousy and how history gets written.

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?

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 14, they placed him in charge of a trading charter…

The audience’s faces lit up as the exuberance of these lyrics rolled over them. The rhymes come not just at the end of lines but in the middle, too, and not just at the end of words but in their middle syllables (“forgotten”/ “spot in”; “providence”/“impoverished”). Words mean one thing the first time they are used, then flip (“father”/“farther”) or take the listener in unexpected directions. (Look at how that “by” changes!)

The musical that grew out of this performance is – like America – a melting pot. “It’s a classic striver’s tale of a young man, a fatherless orphan trying to achieve great things,” says JT Rogers, the American author of the award-winning play Oslo, about the 1993 Israel-Palestine peace talks. “[Miranda] picked this humdinger story of betrayal and subterfuge and cheating on your wife, but the political act, which is so sublime, is having the founding fathers played by non-white men. It expands the idea of who our story is about.”

In the original production, Miranda – whose father came to the US mainland from Puerto Rico when he was 17 – played Hamilton, with Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and George Washington played by African Americans, and Eliza Hamilton played by Phillipa Soo, whose paternal grandparents moved to the US from China. The only major role given to a white actor was George III, played with an exaggeratedly upper-class accent by Jonathan Groff of the Netflix crime drama Mindhunter.

Echoing this, the musical gleefully mixes show tunes and rap, harpsichords and close harmonies. It is glowingly obvious that Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up listening to R&B and hip hop pioneers such as Busta Rhymes, Biggie Smalls, Brandy and Destiny’s Child, alongside Broadway legends such as Stephen Sondheim (Follies) and Jonathan Larson (Rent), as well as old-school composers such as Gilbert and Sullivan.

Lin-Manuel Miranda. Photo: Hilary Swift / New York Times / Redux / Eyevine

When George Washington introduces himself, he claims to be “the model of a modern major general/The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all/Lining up to put me on a pedestal”. After a big argument breaks out among the cabinet, Thomas Jefferson taunts Hamilton with the line, “Such a blunder, sometimes it makes me wonder why I even bring the thunder” – a clear echo of Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 song “The Message”. (“It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”)

The musical, in effect, speaks all the cultural languages of America, and it echoes Obama’s ability to change cadences depending on his audience: “a more straight-up delivery for a luncheon of business people in the Loop; a folksier approach at a downstate VFW [veterans’ event]; echoes of the pastors of the black church when he is in one”, according to his biographer David Remnick in The Bridge.

Because of the success of Hamilton – it has been sold out on Broadway since August 2015, won 11 Tony Awards and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and is on tour in Chicago and Los Angeles – there is now an industry devoted to uncovering and explaining its references. Yet the sheer ebullience of the soundscape is not enough to explain why it became a hit. To understand that, we need to understand the scope of its ambition, which is nothing less than giving America a new origin story. “Every generation rewrites the founders in their own image,” says Nancy Isenberg, a professor of history at Louisiana State University and the author of a biography of Aaron Burr. “He [Miranda] rewrote the founders in the image of Obama, for the age of Obama.”

In doing so, Miranda created a fan base that mirrors the “Obama coalition” of Democrat voters: college-educated coastal liberals and mid-to-low-income minorities. (When the musical first hit Broadway in 2015, some tickets went for thousands of dollars; others were sold cheaply in a daily street lottery or given away to local schoolchildren.) He also gave his audiences another gift. Just as Obama did in his 2008 campaign, Hamilton’s post-racial view of history offers Americans absolution from the original sin of their country’s birth – slavery. It rescues the idea of the US from its tainted origins.

***

Lin-Manuel Miranda got the idea for Hamilton on holiday, where he had taken an 860-page biography of the man by the US historian Ron Chernow. On its release in 2004, the New York Times’s David Brooks applauded the book for its portrayal of the “most progressive and… most neglected” founding father. Brooks added: “He is the most neglected, first because he was a relentless climber (and nobody has unalloyed views about ambition), second because he was a great champion of commerce (and nobody has uncomplicated views about that either) and third because his most bitter rivals, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, outlived him by decades and did everything they could to bury his reputation.”

Miranda faithfully follows this interpretation and has given Chernow a percentage of the musical’s profits in return. His protagonist is part Marty McFly, unable to back down from a challenge; part 1990s rapper, flaunting his wealth and influence; and part Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, an irritating genius who inspires bitter jealousy in those without his prodigious gifts. Fittingly, the musical has its own Salieri, a slightly older man called Aaron Burr who begins as “the prodigy of Princeton College” but finds himself continually eclipsed by Hamilton.

Burr narrates the arc of Hamilton’s life, confessing at the start that he is the “damn fool who shot him”. He takes us from the island of St Croix, where the orphan’s writing ability prompts his town to collect the money to send him to New York, to the early days of the American Revolutionary War, and through the political battle for supremacy that followed America’s victory over Britain.

Throughout this sweep of history, Burr’s and Hamilton’s lives are intertwined. They serve together in the army and work as lawyers in nearby offices, and eventually Burr takes the Senate seat held by Hamilton’s father-in-law, rising to become vice-president. Miranda generously gives Burr the musical’s show-stopper, “Wait for It”, in which he vocalises his jealousy. “Hamilton doesn’t hesitate./He exhibits no restraint./He takes, and he takes, and he takes/And he keeps winning anyway… And if there’s a reason/He seems to thrive when so few survive, then goddammit/I’m willing to wait for it.”

 Some historians feel that Burr gets treated badly by the musical’s mythologising. “Ron Chernow’s Burr is a pure villain,” Nancy Isenberg tells me. “Miranda makes him sympathetic – but he fits him into another trope which is used to attack Burr, which is that he doesn’t have any principles.”

In the musical, the duel in which Burr kills Hamilton is caused by the latter’s decision to endorse Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800 – better a man he disagreed with than a flip-flopper like Burr, goes the reasoning. To Isenberg, this is part of a pattern in the musical of turning principled political disagreements into personal rivalries. To boost Hamilton’s progressive credentials, she says, Burr’s are downplayed. The senator notably educated his daughter Theodosia with as much care as if she were a boy; he was attacked by the Federalist Party for his association with free blacks in 1800.

By contrast, Isenberg says that Hamilton was far more conservative in terms of his class politics than the musical allows (he was aided throughout his career by his wealthy, slave-owning father-in-law, Philip Schuyler). “He supported child labour!” she says, with some exasperation. “Think about a song about that.”

None of this would matter to her if the musical were treated as entertainment rather than a history lesson – particularly at a time when Donald Trump is undermining the very idea of truth. “The last thing we need to do is indulge in this patriotic myth-making,” she says. “For me, history should be jarring, not wrapped up in a pretty bow. I’m not into feel-good history.”

***

There is, of course, a great theatrical tradition of “patriotic myth-making”, and it explains another adjective that is frequently applied to Hamilton: Shakespearean. England’s national playwright was instrumental in smearing Richard III as a hunchbacked child-killer, portraying the French as our natural enemies and turning the villainous Banquo of Holinshed’s Chronicles into the noble figure claimed as an ancestor by the Stuarts, and therefore Shakespeare’s patron James VI and I.

James Shapiro, a professor of English literature at Columbia University, New York, and the author of several books on Shakespeare, first saw the musical during its early off-Broadway run. “It was the closest I’ve ever felt to experiencing what I imagine it must have been like to have attended an early performance of, say, Richard III, on the Elizabethan stage,” he tells me. “But this time, it was my own nation’s troubled history that I was witnessing.”

Shapiro says that Shakespeare’s first set of history plays deals with the recent past, ending with Richard III; he then went back further to create an English origin story through Richard II and Henry V. “Lin-Manuel Miranda was trying to grasp the fundamental problems underlying contemporary American culture,” he adds. “He might, like Shakespeare, have gone back a century and explored the civil war. But I suspect that he saw that to get at the deeper roots of what united and divided Americans meant going back even further, to the revolution. No American playwright has ever managed to explain the present by reimagining so inventively that distant past.” And where Shakespeare had Holinshed’s Chronicles, Miranda had Ron Chernow.

There are Shakespearean references throughout his play. In “Take a Break”, Hamilton writes to his sister-in-law, Angelica:

They think me Macbeth and ambition is my folly.
I’m a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive pain.
Madison is Banquo, Jefferson’s Macduff
And Birnam Wood is Congress on its way to Dunsinane.

Shapiro says that these “casual echoes of famous lines” are less important than the lessons that Miranda has taken about how to write history. “Another way of putting it is that anyone can quote Shakespeare; very few can illuminate so brilliantly a nation’s past and, through that, its present.”

However, these lyrics also show that Hamilton’s self-knowledge is limited: if he has a tragic flaw, it’s not ambition but his belief that his verbal dexterity will protect him. In the second half of the musical, when he is left alone in New York for the summer, trying to get his debt plan past Congress, he begins an affair with a woman called Maria Reynolds. Her husband finds out and begins to blackmail him.

When Hamilton’s enemies threaten to expose him – claiming that the regular payments from his bank account must be embezzlement from the treasury – he thinks he has the answer. “I’ll write my way out/Overwhelm them with honesty.”

It doesn’t work. In revealing the sex scandal, Hamilton successfully clears himself of financial misconduct, but he blows apart his marriage – his wife, Eliza, burns their love letters, depriving the historical record of evidence of his good side – and turns Angelica against him, too, as she chooses her loyalty to her sister over her love for him. He also explodes his chance of succeeding John Adams as the next Federalist in the White House. “You’re never gonna be president now,” sings Jefferson, tauntingly.

These lines gained an uncomfortable new relevance when Lin-Manuel Miranda hosted Saturday Night Live in October 2016, just after a recording of Donald Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women surfaced. “Never gonna be president now,” Miranda crooned to a portrait of Trump on the SNL corridor wall. But it turns out that sex scandals aren’t the dynamite they used to be.

***

I love Hamilton – I think the level of my nerdery about it so far has probably made that clear – but I find it fascinating that its overtly political agenda has been so little discussed, beyond noting the radicalism of casting black actors as white founders. Surely this is the “Obama play”, in the way that David Hare’s Stuff Happens became the “Bush play” or The Crucible became the theatre’s response to McCarthyism. It’s just unusual, in that its response to the contemporary mood is a positive one, rather than sceptical or scathing. (And it has an extra resonance now that a white nationalist is in the White House. One of the first acts of dissent against the Trump regime was when his vice-president, Mike Pence, attended the musical in November 2016 and received a polite post-curtain speech from the cast about tolerance. “The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologise to Mike Pence for their terrible behaviour,” tweeted Trump, inevitably.)

Hamilton tries to make its audience feel OK about patriotism and the idealism of early America. It has, as the British theatre director Robert Icke put it to me this summer, “a kind of moral evangelism” that is hard for British audiences to swallow. In order to achieve this, we are allowed to see Hamilton’s personal moral shortcomings, but the uglier aspects of the early days of America still have to be tidied away.

There’s a brief mention, for instance, of Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings – whom he systematically raped over many years. But the casting of black and Hispanic actors makes it hard for the musical to deal directly with slavery, and so the issue only drips into the narrative rather than being confronted. There’s a moment after the battle of Yorktown when “black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom – not yet”. Another sour note is struck in one of the cabinet rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson, in which the former notes acidly, “Your debts are paid cos you don’t pay for labour.”

In early workshops, there was a third cabinet battle over slavery – and the song is available on The Hamilton Mixtape, a series of reworkings and offcuts from the musical. When a proposal is brought before Washington to abolish slavery, Hamilton tells the cabinet:

This is the stain on our soul and democracy
A land of the free? No, it’s not. It’s hypocrisy
To subjugate, dehumanise a race, call ’em property
And say that we are powerless to stop it. Can you not foresee?

Ultimately, though, the song was cut. “No one knew what to do about it, and [the founding fathers] all kicked it down the field,” Miranda explained to Billboard in July 2015. “And while, yeah, Hamilton was anti-slavery and never owned slaves, between choosing his financial plan and going all in on opposition to slavery, he chose his financial plan. So it was tough to justify keeping that rap battle in the show, because none of them did enough.”

***

In March 2016, Lin-Manuel Miranda returned to the White House. This time, one of the numbers he performed was a duet from the musical called “One Last Time”, sung with the original cast member Christopher Jackson playing George Washington. After Alexander Hamilton tells the first US president that two of his cabinet have resigned to run against him, Washington announces that he will step down to leave the field open.

It is the political heart of the play’s myth-making, comparable to Nelson Mandela leaving Robben Island. The decorated Virginian veteran was the only man who could unite the fractious revolutionaries after they defeated the British. Washington could have become dictator for life; instead, he chose to create a true democracy. “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on./It outlives me when I’m gone.”

For a nation just beginning to think that Trump could really, actually become its president, seeing the incumbent acknowledge that his time was nearly over was a powerful moment. For Obama watching it in the audience, it must have felt like his narrative had come full circle.

Towards the end of the song, Hamilton begins to read out the words of the farewell address he has written, and Washington joins in, singing over the top of them. It was a technique cribbed from Will.i.am’s 2008 Obama campaign video, in which musicians and actors sing and speak along to the candidate’s “Yes, we can” speech.

In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama had written, “I learnt to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.”

This was the promise of his presidency: that there was not a black America or a white America, a liberal America or a conservative America, but, as he said in his breakthrough speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, “a United States of America”. The man who followed him clearly thinks no such thing, but nonetheless the nation must learn to move on.

In his farewell address in January 2017, Obama returned to the “Yes, we can” speech, using its words as the final statement on his presidency:

I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: yes, we can. Yes, we did.

For the playwright JT Rogers, this is the true triumph of Hamilton – giving today’s multiracial America a founding myth in which minorities have as much right to be there as Wasps. It is political “in the sense of reclaiming the polis” – the body of citizens who make up a country. “The little village we live in outside the city, everyone in the middle school knows the score verbatim,” Rogers adds. “They recite it endlessly and at length, like Homer.”

“Hamilton” opens at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London on 6 December. For details visit: hamiltonthemusical.co.uk

Who’s who in Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Born around 1756 in the Caribbean, Hamilton came to the US mainland and fought in the American Revolutionary War, becoming chief staff aide to George Washington. Afterwards, he served as his treasury secretary, established a national bank and founded the coastguard and the New York Post. He died in a duel in 1804.

Aaron Burr

A soldier, lawyer and the US vice-president under Thomas Jefferson, Burr was born in 1756 and orphaned young. In 1782, he married an older widow and educated their daughter, Theodosia, in a strikingly liberal way. The duel with Hamilton ended his political career.

Maria Reynolds

As a 23-year-old, she had an affair with Hamilton, who was a decade older. When confronted over his payments to her husband, Hamilton confessed to the relationship in The Reynolds Pamphlet.

Thomas Jefferson

Born and educated in Virginia, Jefferson became America’s minister in France in 1785 and later secretary of state. Associated with the Democratic Republicans (the rivals to Hamilton’s Federalist Party) and a proponent of states’ rights.

George Washington

The commander-in-chief of the continental army during America’s war with the British, he later became the country’s first president. He always stayed non-partisan and did not join a party. His retirement after two presidential terms established a tradition.

Eliza Schuyler Hamilton

The daughter of General (later Senator) Philip Schuyler, and part of an influential New York dynasty – something that might have influenced Hamilton’s desire to marry her in 1780. They had eight children together, with the eldest, Philip, dying in a duel two years before his father.

Angelica Schuyler Church

Eliza’s elder sister, who married a British MP called John Church. She once wrote to her sister about Hamilton, “If you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while.” 

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world