Over the recent holiday weekend, many people turned to Disney+ to watch Hamilton: An American Musical. I was one of them. Though the show has been touring for a few years now, the streaming version of the performance, as done by the original Broadway cast, was a huge success, if social media buzz is any indication. If you haven’t watched and are wondering if you should, I say go for it. If you like history, rap, musicals, or sassy dancing kings, you’re sure to find something you’ll love about Hamilton. Consider it an “all-American” musical.
**WARNING: THE FOLLOWING POST CONTAINS SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOR HAMILTON: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL. CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED. OR AT LEAST PICK UP A REVOLUTIONARY WAR TEXTBOOK FIRST**
The story of tonight
If you’re not up on your American Revolutionary War History and the early years of the United States, Hamilton tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton. He was an immigrant from the Caribbean of Scottish decent who served as a senior aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. When Washington became president, he appointed Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton solidified his place in history by creating both the First Bank of the United States and an early version of the Coast Guard. He is perhaps most famous because he wound up getting shot in a duel by Vice President Aaron Burr.
If you were fortunate enough to catch one of the touring versions of Hamilton (or, if you were lucky enough to see it on Broadway), you might have wondered whether there was a reason to watch the streaming version. Even considering myself a Hamilton superfan, I wasn’t sure whether I’d watch it more than once. All of that doubt went away in the first moments that the cast took to the stage. As magical and amazing as live performance is, there is no replacing the close-ups on actors’ faces. Watching them embody these roles where you can see every thought they have fully on display pulls you even deeper into the story. The opening number swept me away just as easily as the first time I listened to the cast recording. (Yeah, the show is THAT good.)
Gotta start a new nation
Leslie Odom Jr., playing Aaron Burr, is the first character we see. It seems fitting since he is the direct cause of Hamilton, played by creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s, death. The opening number gives us an overview of everything to expect from the entire show. Hamilton’s relationships with allies and enemies, his loves, his triumphs, and his ultimate undoing.
The rather bare-looking set is a direct homage to both the construction of the country that the musical showcases and the slave ships that may have brought the ancestors of many of the people of color who literally created this nation. We don’t know their names as easily as we know Washington, Jefferson, and yes, even Hamilton. If you haven’t yet seen the show, the majority of people in the cast are not white, which seems to be a deliberate choice. Miranda has said he would be fine with white people playing the lead roles in the show, so long as they can handle the musical content. While I’m not opposed to that idea, I do think that people of color playing the parts of the founding fathers gives a certain significance that may be lost if the actors were all white.
Best of women
One other facet that makes this show both unusual and exciting are the female characters. Typically in history-based shows, women often take a backseat. Men usually had a more prominent (or more appreciated) role in historic events. But in this show, we meet several fascinating women. There’s Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, her two sisters, and the woman that Hamilton ends up having an affair with. If Aaron Burr starting the show is appropriate because of how Hamilton’s life ended, then ending the show with Eliza, expertly portrayed by Phillipa Soo, is even more appropriate. Many historians say she is the main reason any of us even know who Alexander Hamilton is.
It is touched on in the closing number, but Eliza Hamilton conducted multiple interviews with people who served in the war with Hamilton and she petitioned Congress to publish her husband’s writings. She and one of the couple’s sons had Hamilton’s first biography published. The closing moment of the show seems to reveal that the entire show was for her. Hamilton “shows” her the audience, the fourth wall “breaks”, and Eliza is moved to tears. She sees that her hard-fought goal – preserving her husband’s legacy – has been achieved.
Who tells your story
This article simply isn’t long enough to do full justice to Hamilton: an American Musical. If you love the show, or simply want to learn more, have a look at this article that breaks down the rhyme scheme of many of the raps. Or try this one that talks about one of the ensemble members known as “the Bullet”.
For parents, there are a few coarse words in the show (though Miranda gave permission for two “f-words” to be censored to give the show a PG-13 rating), discussion of an affair, and thematic battles with prop guns. And really, the speed at which Daveed Diggs raps ought to be illegal! I wouldn’t recommend it as the best history lesson. Rather it’s a way to get young people interested in the founding of the United States. It’s a great way to start discussion among your family. It has themes like why what’s legal isn’t always what’s right, how ambition is great but may need to be tempered, and the role of nonwhite people in American history. Hamilton truly is an all-American musical.