By Jonathan McQuarrie
It turns out rap is a perfect medium for history. Hamilton has become a touchstone musical, winning laurels from a range of audiences from musical aficionados to people (like me) who are never quite sure why everyone is singing. Its wide appeal has made it a notoriously difficult ticket to get—as of this writing, the tickets are “extremely limited” and ticket resale sites ask for $500 to $700. As the New York Times reviewer noted, “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to attend a hit Broadway show. Hamilton, directed by Thomas Kail and staring [Lin-Manuel] Miranda might just be worth it[.]” For those unwilling to resort to such extreme measures (including myself), the cast recording is widely available, and captures much of the energy and power of the work. It has the feel of being one of those generational musicals with the power to define how many people understand a historically significant figure, much as Les Misérables shaped understanding of the French revolutionary period.
Hamilton is a lasting success. So, we need to pay attention to this cultural moment. Here’s why.
- One need not read a fully footnoted work to find some analytically rich and complex material. The creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, demonstrated an impressive commitment to historical accuracy. He drew rigorously on Ron Chernow’s popular, but extensive, biography of Alexander Hamilton, and Chernow contributed as a consultant to the production. Other historians have largely praised the work’s portrayal, noting only minor omissions or confusions. Indeed, the approximately three hour work is remarkable for how much detail it does include, from Hamilton’s efforts to form a new financial system to an intricate detailing of the rules of dueling. The “Cabinet Battles” are must-listens.
- The musical is painfully human. There are no archetypes for simple emulation here. The Founding Fathers are conniving for improved station. Aaron Burr serves as the antagonist (“the damn fool who shot him,”) but he is supplied several important moments to vent his frustrations and anxieties (Burr’s portrayer, Leslie Odom Jr., gives one of the best performances of the piece). Miranda’s Hamilton is in turns invigorating, awesome, infuriating, and conceited. In “Non-Stop,” Burr asked him “Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room?” and I could only nod vigorously in shared frustration. Burr is salvageable.
- Women are provided a larger role than is typical in stories about the Founding Fathers. Angelica Schuyler grapples with the role she has to play as the eldest daughter of a wealthy father, and her need to defend the estate of her sonless father. The emotional toil Hamilton inflicted on Elizabeth Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), through absence and infidelity, is presented in wrenching detail, and Schuyler’s role in curating the memory of Hamilton is compellingly commented on in an AHA blog piece about the musical.
- The show understands that lives are never presented neutrally. Throughout it asks poignant questions about who tells the story of a life of a dead person, and the role of an author in presenting lives lived. These questions are at the heart of historical inquiry.
- Voices of minorities shape a story usually told by the white majority. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are played by African American actors (Christopher Jackson and Daveed Digges), and all the major roles are filled by visible minorities. The only exception is George III, played with a delightful blend of humour and malice by Jonathan Groff. Such casting carves unexpected space for alternative readings of well- trodden narratives about white the founding fathers. Hamilton’s abolitionist views come to the forefront—as does Jefferson’s defence of slavery. The musical also helps to disrupt the presumed whiteness of higher political office. Hamilton is no longer just a figure for white people to admire or emulate—his life and legacy are opened. There is a reason that President Obama was an early admirer of the work.
- Relatedly, Hamilton and other figures, like Lafayette, are presented as immigrants who made foundational contributions to the building of the United States (“Immigrants: we get the job done!”), a most welcome message given the political climate around the movement of non-white people.
- As a discipline, history needs compelling shows like this. It is widely known (and fretted upon) that universities see proportionately fewer students major in history or take history courses. Certainly, public interest in Alexander Hamilton has spiked since the musical. Performances that asks questions of its audiences, which take material about debates over the power of government or the role of women and make it exciting and accessible are invaluable to demonstrating why history can matter. People can be swept into very human and emotional dramas while contemplating the mutability of political systems.
- Its success demonstrates that there may be a stronger public appetite for history than is appreciated. More importantly, it demonstrates that there is public appetite for non-white interpretations of national histories. These are vitally needed, particularly after a period of several years where public commemoration in Canada has been dominated by traditional (read: dull and exclusionary) presentations of Sir John A and the War of 1812. It is near impossible for a Canadian production to reach such a wide audience, but it seems to offer some possibility for reconsidering how our own early history is staged. There have been efforts to present Canadian history on stages—Michael Hollingsworth’s series “History of the Village of Small Huts,” a “video-cabaret” that humorously and emotively presents some major moments in our national history, or the nationally funded opera from 1967 about Louis Riel come to mind. But there may (and ought to) be space for more.
Words can never quite capture a musical performance. For those far from New York, there are plans for touring productions (and spare me the “controversy” about the casting calls for non-white actors—the protests miss the point and are in the same insufferable tenor as “All Lives Matter” responses to Black Lives Matter protests). And, for anyone who has yet to listen, I promise the cast recording is worth looking into. Hamilton is a potent reminder that historians are not the only custodians of history, and of how meaningful questions about our past can circulate widely.
Jonathan McQuarrie holds a PhD in history from the University of Toronto.