Hamilton and the Construction of Post-Obama Americanism
A Broadway musical that uses hip hop to tell the story of one of America’s founding fathers? At first glance it sounds like a School House Rock music video that tries to make learning history “fun” for the younger kids. However, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical creation, Hamilton, has come to define a cultural moment in American history, as many musicals have done in the past. Hamilton is part of a long and rich legacy of American musical theatre and its seemingly constant need to answer the questions “Who is American?” and “What is America?” Musical theatre scholar and historian Raymond Knapp says, “American musicals become, in part and in some form, enacted demonstrations of Americanism, and often take on a formative, defining role in the construction of a collective sense of ‘America.'” 1 Hamilton opened more than a year ago, and this article explores the intentional and unintentional relevance of the revolutionary musical in the twilight of the Obama administration and the dawn of the Trump era, and the conventions and tactics it has adopted.
Please Note: The topics that relate to this musical are vast and cannot be covered by a single article. If you have any further insights (especially on the new Hamilton Mixtape), do not hesitate to share it in the comments section!
The Ten Dollar Founding Father
In every election season, there is much talk of the founding fathers and what they would or would not stand for if they were alive today. This process of speculation mythologizes these men and glorifies them into paragons of (read: Christian) virtue. 2 In addition to modern-day political rhetoric, the many representations of America’s founding fathers in art portray them as almost god-like beings: brave, poised, strong, and intelligent. Any sense of doubt, fear, or fallibility that these men may have experienced often gets lost along with other dirty details: many of these men owned slaves, they drank a lot, some smoked a lot of hemp (among other drugs), they had several mistresses, and they made a lot of mistakes (personal and otherwise) as they shaped a new nation and changed the course of history. 3 If anything, our founding fathers were ordinary men who did extraordinary things.
Alexander Hamilton, however, is unique in that he had nearly every disadvantage a person could have had stacked against him when he boarded a ship for New York City. Born in the Caribbean to unwed parents, he was denied education because of his “illegitimate” status. He became a self-educated clerk and after a hurricane destroyed the town of Christiansted, he wrote an essay describing the destruction. The community was so moved by his writing that they gathered a collection to pay for his passage on a ship to the Thirteen Colonies to continue his education. He was a student at King’s College (Columbia University) when the American Revolution began. In those days, war provided opportunities for men to rise above their station. Already an avid “patriot,” Hamilton joined a militia and rose to the rank of captain, eventually being recommended for George Washington’s staff. Still believing that his place was on the field, he threatened to quit if Washington did not give him a field command. Hamilton was assigned to lead three infantry battalions in the Battle of Yorktown which was the definitive final standoff between British and American troops.
After the war, the central conflict of the formation of a new nation was the question of whether power should reside in the federal or state governments. Many feared that a strong federal government would be too powerful, like having a monarch, while others feared that a weak federal government would leave the new states decentralized and vulnerable. Hamilton found himself in the later group and worked to create a strong central government. When it seemed that the Constitution would never become a reality, he helped pen the Federalist Papers, a series of essays defending the Constitution allowing for the popular support needed to ratify it. Hamilton became the first Secretary of Treasury in the new United States of America and founded the US Mint, a national bank, and the US Coast Guard.
It was during this time that he made many enemies among his fellow founding fathers including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams and many others because of political differences. Hamilton’s life was also shaken by scandal when news of his extramarital affair with Mary Reynolds became public and with the death of his first born son Phillip in a duel.
When the presidential election of 1800 ended in an electoral tie between Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton was instrumental in securing the presidency for Jefferson even though they were opposed ideologically. Hamilton believed that Burr was morally unfit to be president and Burr, insulted by Hamilton’s attacks, challenged him to a duel. In those days, duels were matters of honor and gentlemen would often fire their shot in the air (it was enough just to show up). However, because Hamilton was wearing his glasses, Burr believed that Hamilton would actually shoot to kill. Burr fatally shot Hamilton after Hamilton had nobly fired in the air. Hamilton died the next day.
This story is naturally dramatic and when Lin-Manuel Miranda read the 600 page biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow, he thought, “Somebody’s already made this into a musical. How can anyone not have made this into a musical?” 4 Miranda recognized not only the theatrical potential of the story of Hamilton’s life, but as an avid musical theatre fan, himself, Miranda recognized that the underdog story of a man who embodies American values would be perfectly translatable into the American musical theatre structure because of the way American musical theatre and hip-hop embodies national values.
I Wrote My Way Out
As stated above, the lives of the founding fathers have been mythologized. Their vices, their shortcomings, their doubts, and scandals hardly ever make their way into America’s national narrative. This lack of nuance makes these figures “larger than life” in the American consciousness, affecting not only which parts of the story get told, but who is included in this story and how the story gets told. One of the major themes in Hamilton is the telling of history itself. Songs like “History Has its Eyes on You” and “Who Lives Who Dies Who Tells Your Story” address this along with their many reprises.
To say that something is a “myth” is not to imply that it is a false or made-up story. The “American Dream,” for example, is an American national myth as a combination of historical examples of men and women who have risen above their station and achieved greatness based on the American ideals of individualism and self-determination. As Knapp says, “In adapting the European model of nationalism to their own circumstances, Americans constructed their own national myth of origins, where a European immigrant population and its descendants tamed a rugged American landscape, conceiving and instituting a cultural and political environment of individual self-determination.” 5
In 2009 when Miranda was invited to the White House Poetry Slam, he proclaimed in front of President Obama and other prominent statesmen: “I’m actually working on a hip-hop album… about the life of someone who I think embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton.” This announcement was met with laughter, but Miranda went on to defend himself saying, “You laugh, but it’s true… he was born a penniless orphan, in St. Croix [in the Caribbean],… became George Washington’s right hand man, … became Treasury Secretary, caught beef with every other Founding Father, and all on the strength of his writing. I think he embodies the Word’s ability to make a difference.” Then Miranda nervously began to sing the lyrics to what would eventually become the first song in his hit new musical.
It all begins with a question:
“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 musical, itself, does more than answer this question. Miranda is able to distill decades of events and hundreds of years of historical analysis through different contemporary music styles, multicultural, cross-racial casting, and traditional musical theatre conventions, into a two act Broadway show which presents America’s founding for a 21st Century audience in a way that is profound. While not the first hip-hop musical, the style is appropriate for the story of Alexander Hamilton because as Lin says, “The hip-hop narrative is writing yourself out of your circumstances” just like Hamilton who sings the song “Hurricane” in Act II about the essay he wrote which inspired people to send him to school in the American colonies. 6 The marriage of the two makes sense. Beyond the fact that these are two genres of performance created in America, they are both steeped in American values such as self-determination.
Musical theatre includes many conventions; among them, the “I Want” song. This is a song, usually placed early in the show, in which the protagonist exclaims his or her objectives. In Hamilton, the “I Want” song is “My Shot” where Hamilton and his friends all sing about their dreams. Miranda claims, “All of my favorite hip-hop songs are all really good musical theatre “I Want” songs.” The musical’s emphasis on myth and the telling of history hearkens to the way in which a large part of hip-hop culture is the building up of a star persona which is in many ways “larger than life” and the creation of each artist’s own individual myth.
Hip-hop is also a genre that actively calls for social change. It a revolutionary style which calls for revolutions. Hamilton is not the first hip-hop musical or even the first successful hip-hop musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 hip-hop musical, In the Heights, won the Tony Award for Best Musical and was met with much acclaim. The mega-success of Hamilton goes beyond the use of a popular music genre like hip-hop. The most revolutionary aspect of the musical, therefore, is not the hip-hop, but the cross-racial casting of America’s founding fathers by actors of color. “This is the story of America-then told by America-now,” said Lin when the show was still playing Off-Broadway. By telling the story of one of America’s founding fathers though the style of hip-hop and with actors of color, Miranda reclaims American history, musical theatre’s American heritage, and the implied “American Dream” as belonging to all Americans.
Hamilton not only includes a title character who embodies the ‘American Dream’ and other shared values, it is the culmination of the American cultural heritage which musical theatre embodies; a culture which Miranda is very much aware of, being an avid musical theatre fan himself. 7 .
Musical Theatre and the Formation of National Identity
Hamilton may use hip-hop as a vehicle to tell the story of America, but don’t be fooled. It is 100% the descendant of musical theatre traditions. The story of musical theatre begins around the time of Alexander Hamilton. After the founding of America, many people of the new nation felt culturally inferior to their European parents. To this day, Europe is believed to be culturally superior by many; however, to assert cultural superiority of Europe over America is to compare apples and oranges. American cultural tastes have been shaped by uniquely American experiences; thus, not a lack of culture, but a different culture which is often embodied in the form and style of American musicals.
It took nearly a century for America to create its own cultural voice. Many historians point to the Civil War as the defining event which led to a definitive sense of Americanism. Importantly, the first American “musical” premiered in New York not long after the end of this war. The Black Crook was an American adaptation of a German and French fairy tale musical revue complete with a plot, musical numbers, and ballet. However, where the characters in the original German version had their lives affected by outside forces such as divine providence, the American version gave more agency and self-sufficiency to their characters; infusing the plot with American virtues and supplementing it with a spectacle like the country had never seen before. The American Musical was born. Knapp describes the way in which the birth of American musical theatre coincided with the birth of American nationalism:
“The specific task of reunification in the recently re-United States, along with Western expansion, the approaching Centennial celebration, and the rise of nationalist ideologies in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century- all served to heighten the need to define and refine what precisely it meant to be American. Musicals eventually proved to be a particularly effective place to do that, since what happened on stage not only brought a specific audience together within a constructed community, but also sent that audience out into a larger community armed with songs to be shared, providing at least some basis for achieving a sense of unity among the increasingly varied people of a country expanding rampantly both geographically and through immigration.” 8
It was around this time (the late nineteenth century) that nationalism was becoming prevalent in European countries. As Knapp defines nationalism, “The alignments proposed within nationalist ideologies specified who belonged to a particular land… and who did not belong.” 9 Americans, however, realizing that they and their families originated somewhere else, did not have the same claim to the land and tied their sense of nationhood to ideals instead of Old World entitlements. Early incarnations of musical theatre such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta
H.M.S. Pinafore were popular in the U.S. because they parodied Old World behaviors and philosophies. This signaled American citizens being able to separate their identity from their European origins. 10 From the late 19th Century on, musicals have carried on the tradition of uniting American communities by “defining and refining” American identity as it pertains to each cultural moment.
These American traditions. going all the way back to the 19th Century, are represented in Hamilton. One reference to Gilbert and Sullivan is quite obvious in George Washington’s song “Right Hand Man” when he sings: “Now I’m the model of a modern major-general” in reference to the “Major General Song” in The Pirates of Penzance. Another more subtle link is the character King George III, who is set apart by his over-the-top British-ness both musically (his song “You’ll Be Back” is a break-up song to the Colonies in the style of British pop, sharing similar chords to certain Beatles’ songs, and carrying the style of Elton John or David Bowie) and though the flamboyant performance of actor Johnathan Groff. Groff’s performance is similar to the lampooning of British masculinity (or a lack, thereof) present in Gilbert and Sullivan numbers such as “I am the Captain of the Pinafore” and the “Major-General Song.” Note the similarities of presentation in the pictures of King George and Captain Corcoran. The fact that Johnathan Groff is openly gay also adds to the tradition of gay sensibilities and “camp” in American musical theatre, going back to the gay subtexts and homoeroticism of Gilbert and Sullivan all-male choruses. 11
One more evident aspect of King George in Hamilton which sets him apart is the fact that in a multicultural, cross-racially cast history, King George remains Caucasian, connecting whiteness to colonialism, power, privilege, and performance. In the tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan where the British represented the “Old World”, to tie whiteness to Britishness and “Old World” racially and economically motivated imperialism makes a strong statement in a nation who is still reeling from the War in Iraq and asking itself questions on globalization and foreign intervention, which were defining issues in the 2016 presidential election. The “New Nationalism” of the 2010s is characterized by nativism, anti-globalization, protectivism, anti-immigration, and ties to the newly mainstreamed “Alt-Right” with its associations to white nationalism, white supremacy, and (appropriately) neo-monarchism. 12
As far as internet trolls who claim to be “Alt-Right” for the “lulz” go, their own “Troll King” or “King of Trolls,” as he has been labeled, Milo Yiannopoulos is very similar to Hamilton’s King George with his British accent, over-the-top performances of queerness and whiteness, and verbal brutality. This, of course, was not originally intended as a parallel for the character, but it is one of the many “happy accidents” of this musical which place it in a specific cultural moment. The members of this “other” “Alt-Right” are known for their confrontational shock value and love of watching chaos unfold. This is similar to King George in Act II who revels in the dawning contention of the Adams administration with the line “They will tear each other into pieces. Jesus Christ this will be fun!” The message in Hamilton is clear, however, to leave the “Old World” behind. With each changing cultural moment in the 20th Century, American musical theatre has adapted and the form and conventions, themselves, have reflected the changing nation. Just as America in 2015-2016 is one of these pivotal moments, so too does the structure and form of Hamilton bear the mark of each of these changes like the rings inside a tree.
Immigrants. We Get the Job Done 13
If one of the negatives of myth is that it eliminates the more unsavory parts of the story, the plus-side of such myths is that the oversimplification of history creates a more inclusive narrative. The omission of doubt and struggle from the story or the absence of factors such as racism, creates a narrative that anyone can be considered American if one embodies American values.
It was this inclusiveness which compelled Jewish and Irish immigrants and children of immigrants in the early 1900s to create popular American music and shows in a district of New York City called Tin Pan Alley which would eventually become “Broadway.” Their music blended the traditional styles of their homeland with contemporary American classical music and jazz, and American slang lyrics to create popular songs which spoke to an idealized America. A Russian Jewish immigrant named Irving Berlin created some of the most iconic patriotic music in America including the song “God Bless America.” Thus, immigration, themes of outsiders overcoming obstacles, the “American Dream”, and some of the most patriotic visions of America have always been entwined in the Broadway musical form as they are in Hamilton.
Eventually, this blended style of popular music and staging coalesced into a form most recognized now as the “book-musical” structure where dialogue is interrupted by songs which advance the plot or character development. Show Boat (1927), Oklahoma (1942), South Pacific (1949), and The Sound of Music (1959) are some of the most famous book-musicals, which are often considered to be somewhat saccharine and frivolous because of their use of more mythologized, idyllic settings and plot-lines. However, each one deals with serious social issues of the time including domestic abuse, gambling, interracial marriages (in a time when they were illegal), racism, and the power of one during the rise of extremism. These musicals were each a product of their own cultural moment in times of uncertainty, war, and unrest.
While Hamilton doesn’t follow the “book-musical” format, it does use American mythology to address social issues, particularly those pertaining to immigration with its unabashed pro-immigrant stance and lines borrowed from the musicals listed above such as “You’ve got to be carefully taught” which alludes to the anti-racism anthem in South Pacific of the same name. While past musicals have tackled the issue of immigration such as West Side Story (1957), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), and Ragtime (1998), among others, Hamilton puts the issue in stark terms: without immigrants, America might not have existed at all.
Alexander Hamilton is not the only “immigrant coming up from the bottom” in the musical. As the first act teaches the audience, “Turns out we have a secret weapon!/ An immigrant you know and love who’s unafraid to step in!” referring to the Marquis de Lafayette who fought with the Americans in the Revolution and was a key figure at several pivotal battles. While he never returned to America after the War, he was granted citizenship by several states, and Maryland went so far as to declare him and all of his male descendents as naturalized citizens for his service. 14 The story of Hamilton and Lafayette is part of the same thread as all of those immigrants who created musical theatre and helped to shape American cultural identity just as Hamilton shaped our financial system. Immigrants such as these created America from their own imagination, and not from what already existed, integrating their identity, blood, sweat, and tears, with American ideals.
They key word here is “integration” not to be confused with “assimilation.” To integrate is to blend together and to assimilate is to become something else entirely. Of course, the very composition of the musical integrates hip-hop and musical theatre conventions and traditions, integrates actors of color and the founding fathers, and integrates modern politics with early American politics. The immigrants in Hamilton like Lafayette integrate themselves into the dominant American culture without compromising their identity. This is evident in the fact that Lafayette is dressed in a different uniform and speaks both French and English throughout his time on stage. While he holds on to his identity, he does integrate himself in the culture of his “revolutionary set.” As Miranda notes, at the beginning of Act I, his English is not as strong. He raps in mostly French in “Aaron Burr, Sir” and has to ask “how you say?” in “My Shot.” By the end of Act I, however, he is given the fastest rap in the show in “Guns and Ships”, according to Miranda when he raps, “I’m taking this horse by the reigns, making redcoats redder with blood stains.” 15 In this way Hamilton traces Lafayette’s arc of integration. These details are significant to understanding Hamilton’s place in the current cultural moment. On the same night that Hamilton opened on Broadway, Governor Bobby Jindal claimed that “Immigration without assimilation is invasion” in the first Republican primaries debate. 16 Miranda nuances the differences between integration and assimilation though Lafayette, while his character arc and the entire narrative of immigrants and Broadway prove that many immigrants in American history did not assimilate: much to the overall benefit of the nation.
Counter-mythologies and the Obama Years
As the 20th Century rolled along, and social change movements became more prominent, the problems of the nation could no longer be hidden by myth-centered musicals. Counter-mythologies became popular in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement and other counter-cultural movements at the time informing American culture. These movements brought the needs and experiences of people on the fringe of society and brought them to the forefront of American consciousness. Likewise Broadway musicals like Hair, Cabaret, and Sweeney Todd took a look at the freaks and criminals of the world in the late 60s and early 70s while musicals like Company, Into the Woods, and Assassins questioned things like heterosexual marriage, “Happily Ever After” and the “American Dream.” Counter-mythologies accomplish this by extracting the lesser known characters or villains and making them the main focus. They take the unsavory parts of the story and put them in the forefront.
Alexander Hamilton, although he is featured on the ten dollar bill, is one of the lesser known founding fathers. Thomas Kail, the director of Hamilton, describes the founding father “like the B-side of the founding fathers, the deep cut on the album that the really hard-core fan knows about.” 17 The lyrics to the final song of the musical address the counter-mythological side to telling Hamilton’s story:
Every other founding father’s story gets told
Every other founding father gets to grow old
But when you’re gone, who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?
[BURR AND MEN]
Who tells your story?
Who tells your story?
[ANGELICA AND WOMEN]
Who tells your story?
I put myself back in the narrative
One may notice that I did not mention Hamilton’s wife Eliza in his life story above. The wives of founding fathers, let alone their extra-marital affairs are usually not present in the history books. Even on Wikipedia, the “Personal Life” of an important figure is usually placed at the end or in the footnotes. This is how myth is manifested in contemporary times. The musical, however, not only focuses on the characters omitted from the history books, but includes less than flattering facts about them: the womanizing, the slave owning, hemp-smoking details.
The 2016 presidential election exposed the conflict America has of reconciling their ideal presidential candidates with their personal flaws and political pragmatism. Hamilton reminds us that long before Donald Trump grabbed any woman, the powerful men of this country “deflowered” many a woman in the song “Winter’s Ball.” It reminds us that before Bernie Sanders spoke out against corruption in government, that “corruption’s such an old song, we can sing along in harmony.” Before Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were involved in unpopular deals or compromises, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson solved their differences behind closed doors, proving that ideological purity never existed in American politics and that the key to democracy is “the art of the compromise.”
This balance between myth and counter-myth has been definitive of the Obama administration which has been characterized by the contrast between the promises of “Hope and Change” that were made and the slow, grueling process of fighting congressional gridlock and compromising. This frustration is voiced by the narrator Aaron Burr in the song “The Room Where it Happens”:
The art of the compromise—
Hold your nose and close your eyes
We want our leaders to save the day—
But we don’t get a say in what they trade away
We dream of a brand new start—
But we dream in the dark for the most part
[BURR AND COMPANY]
Dark as a tomb where it happens
I’ve got to be in
The room where it happens.
Burr’s lines are cynical, and Burr’s cynicism not only reflects modern frustrations onto American history, but counteracts Hamilton’s optimism and idealism. Because of the rise of cable news networks like Fox and MSNBC, Americans are used to getting their information through the lens of another. As Burr is eventually the one who kills Alexander, he is Hamilton’s nemesis. The fact that the protagonist’s nemesis is narrating the musical is another aspect of counter-myth as the audience receives the myth though the critical lens of the “villain.”
This is, like many aspects of Hamilton, part of the legacy of musicals in American culture. There is no Hamilton, without a musical like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which features the story of Jesus Christ as told by Judas Iscariot who sings, “If you strip away/ the myth from the man/ you will see/ where we all/ soon will be.” Lloyd Webber’s next musical Evita followed the same format with the life story of the first lady of Argentina as told by revolutionary Che Guevara who opens the show by asking “Who is this Santa Evita?” Each narrator dissects and analyzes the myth as it unfolds, and Hamilton also follows the same “rock opera” format, beginning its life as a concept album. While Lloyd Webber is British, the musicals have been adopted by American audiences because of the ways in which they reinforced American values.
This storytelling style offers the benefit of nuance to a part of American history which is often oversimplified, but often invoked. Through Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has given the American people a way of reflecting on their circumstances, and a shared voice with which to express themselves. It is the inheritance of a rich and complex American performance tradition which praises individual self-determination and the “American Dream” while acknowledging the contradictions and challenges of practicing such ideals. The full title of the show is Hamilton: An American Musical, and it is: in every possible way.
- Knapp, Raymond. The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 2005. pg. 103 ↩
- This trend is present on both sides of the political spectrum and also used by third and fourth party advocates, as well ↩
- Of course, there are exceptions to these sanitized portrayals in the form of documentaries, bio-pics, and miniseries. Hamilton is certainly not the first piece of pop culture to defy the myth of the founding fathers. Though, unless one actively studies history and watches documentaries like those made by Ken Burns (which, although they mention the flaws of founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, still romanticize his myth) mainstream films and TV series on the subject rarely go out of their way to nuance their lives. ↩
- Lin-Manuel Miranda Interview. “‘Hamilton’: A founding father takes to the stage.” CBS Sunday Morning. Youtube.com. Web. Feb 12, 2016. ↩
- Knapp, 228 ↩
- CBS ↩
- In an interview with 60 Minutes, Miranda talked about his vast collection of musical theatre cast albums and his love of even classic musicals like Camelot. CBS News. Nov. 8, 2015. Web. March 22, 2016. ↩
- Knapp, 8 ↩
- Knapp, 119 ↩
- Knapp, 8 ↩
- Knapp, 7 ↩
- It is often difficult to characterize and define the “Alt-Right” lately, which is why I allude to “associations” with white supremacy, nationalism, and neo-monarchism. There are factions which identify themselves as “Alt-Right” who may adhere to one, all, or none of these credos. ↩
- This line comes from the song “Yorktown” in Act I and was applauded at the 70th Annual Tony Awards for its political potency. The Tony Performance of “Yorktown” exemplifies the way in which Hamilton stays current. The Tonys were the night after teh deadly Orlando Pulse Nightclub mass shooting, and out of respect, the cast chose to eliminate the prop rifles from their performance that evening. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5VqyCQV1Tg ↩
- Ayme, Elizabeth. “Guns and Ships.” Hamilton. www.genius.com ↩
- “Lin Manuel Miranda interview” The Late Show. Youtube.com Dec 12, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7YTPuEMgaE&t=321s ↩
- This timing was brought to my attention by the article “Race, Immigration, and Hamilton: The Relevance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s New Musical” by Kendra James on Toast. ↩
- Auld, Tim. “Hamilton: The Broadway phenomenon that made US history hip.” The Telegraph. Dec 30, 2015. Web. March 27, 2016. ↩
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