At 35 years old, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a two time Pulitzer for Drama finalist, a 2015 MacArthur Fellow, and a Tony and Grammy winner well on his way to EGOT status. He crashed onto the New York theatre scene with the 2008 Best Musical winner In the Heights, a semi-autobiographical slice of life musical set in the Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights. Asides from an underwhelming stage adaptation of Bring it On, he’s been fairly quiet due to his true sophomore work: a hip hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton.
Lin-Manuel has distinguished himself in the world of musical theatre for everything that sets him apart. He’s the son of Puerto-Rican immigrants. His grounding in “low brow”, populist genres is a striking difference from his contemporaries. He’s a writing-composing-rapping-acting-singing-dancing sextuple threat who’s starred and written in both his major shows, without the mixed result of Tarantino stepping in front of the camera.
He’s also an angel.
Lin’s audience engagement is legendary. Every evening in New York outside the Richard Rodgers Theater, the Broadway home of Hamilton and, years earlier, In the Heights, he organizes free performances for hopefuls entering the Hamilton ticket lottery and anyone walking by, titled #Ham4Ham— $10 to see Hamilton (a Hamilton for Hamilton). These shows have featured a number of other recognizable theatre personalities, including Kelli O’Hara, visitors from Fun Home, and the late Kyle-Jean Baptiste.
He navigates social media with ease. The hashtags he’s used to promote and share Hamilton have created a web culture surrounding what would otherwise be another remote, inaccessible addition to New York theatre. This is especially shown in his use of #Hamiltunes on NPR’s early release of cast album’s entire radio edit, effectively throwing a global social media listening party in which he was fully engaged. Many of the insights in this review are taken from his Twitter, from his interactions with fans who are fully encouraged to give feedback. He shares his thoughts and the ‘secrets of the trade’ with a refreshingly simple joy.
Very few people in the world, much less composers, have the humility to interact so closely with audiences, whether they can afford tickets or not.
Lin-Manuel doesn’t live in an ivory tower. The first musical he fell in love with was Les Miserables. Rent made him realize how relatable the medium could potentially be. He can drop as much obscure Sondheim trivia as the best of us, but these two shows formed him (and the rest of us).
In the Heights could be about anyone in Washington Heights today, much like Rent would be familiar to denizens of Greenwich Village with or without AIDS. Les Miserables is spectacular and unabashedly Romantic, an optimistic offering from Victor Hugo. But it’s remote. It frames a minor, failed episode in French republicanism preceding the revolutions of 1848, and is, paradoxically, most popular with English speaking audiences with no connection to French history.
This is not the case with Hamilton.
Like In the Heights, Hamilton was developed at the Public Theater in New York City, a non-profit arts organization that has housed earlier incarnations of some of the greatest American musicals before they hit Broadway. Musical theatre has a rocky track record with race. Our grandfathers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein have each worked on the iffiest classics in South Pacific, The King and I, and Show Boat. Every time a regional or national company tries to put on Miss Saigon, outrage follows. Even if works aren’t inherently racist, theatrical practice historically is; see the use of brownface in West Side Story.
We’re getting better, though. The current Broadway production of The King and I, for which Kelli O’Hara nabbed the Tony for Best Actress, features a number of alumni of Public Theater’s Here Lies Love—essentially Evita, except about Imelda Marcos, by the Talking Heads’ David Byrne, and about a thousand times better. One of Lin’s distractions between In the Heights and Hamilton was translating some of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics for West Side Story into Spanish, in a production mounted with cast members of the previous season’s In the Heights.
In the Heights was revolutionary, as a new musical written for Latino Americans with no pantomime or caricature, just portrayal. Hamilton has a very deliberate subtitle: An American Musical.
Lin-Manuel stars at Alexander Hamilton, “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman.” He’s clearly none of these things, least of all Scottish. But a bit like Lin-Manuel’s parents, Alexander emigrated from “a forgotten spot in the Caribbean”. (A bit like the parents of Lin’s In the Heights character Usnavi; “the single little greatest place in the Caribbean”.)
The casting suspends disbelief. The only white actor with major billing is Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening, Glee, Frozen) as King George III, who has all of 3 songs with the same, recycled melody. The audience is introduced to Christopher Jackson’s black Washington, to Leslie Odom Jr.’s black Burr, to Renee Elise Goldsberry’s black Angelica Schuyler, to Daveed Diggs’ black Jefferson (and Lafayette), to Okierete Onaodowan’s black Madison (and Hercules Mulligan). Chinese-American Phillipa Soo plays Alexander’s wife Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, and Anthony Ramos doubles up as John Laurens and little Philip Hamilton.
Lin-Manuel said, “Our cast looks like America looks now. […] We’re telling the story of old, dead white men but we’re using actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience.” From a New York Times interview:
Odom Jr. In the first two minutes of this show, Lin-Manuel steps forward and introduces himself as Alexander Hamilton, and Chris steps forward and says he’s George Washington, and you never question it again. When I think about what it would mean to me as a 13-, 14-year-old kid, to get this album or see this show — it can make me very emotional. And I so look forward to the day I get to see an Asian-American Burr.
Miranda That’ll be the note that goes with the school productions: If this show ends up looking like the actual founding fathers, you messed up.
Diggs I have to say, the dollar bill looked wrong after that first workshop. I was like, “That really should be Chris Jackson.”
Miranda I’ve taken to calling the bridge near where I live the Chris Jackson Bridge.
On top of casting, Hamilton sounds like America now. One of my few pet peeves is the use of “show tunes” or “musical” as a genre. Oklahoma! and Next to Normal sound nothing alike. Within our theatrical canon, genre is as varied as the other side of music. And within Hamilton, Lin-Manuel jumps from hip hop to classic belted Broadway anthems, to R&B and 1950s rock-n-roll.
Most of the tracks in Hamilton could be played on the radio exactly as they appear on the album. It’s unnecessary to appeal to the masses, or perhaps condescend to them by writing “pop-friendly” orchestrations and finding a more mainstream artist to bring the archness of theatre to a plebeian public. The masses aren’t stupid. This condescension only reinforces barriers.
Live theatre carries class connotations. Broadway’s most reliable audience members are middle aged, upper middle class tourists from the Midwest, who buy tickets to revivals of South Pacific and Anything Goes, maybe Wicked or Phantom for their young relatives. It’s not at the same public reputation as opera, but it’s similar. Three years ago, Tom Huizenga wrote an essay for NPR Classical called “Why Do People Hate Rap and Opera?” It’s classism. It’s racism. It’s distaste for rap and, implicitly, “lower” black culture, and for opera and, implicitly, bourgeois whiteness. Hamilton marries theatre to rap. It’s a meeting we need. Lin-Manuel makes deliberate references to musical theatre and hip hop history; they’re printed in the show’s playbill. He quotes the Notorious B.I.G. and Jason Robert Brown, recognizable to the snobbiest theatre-goer and to most dedicated hip hop fan.
Before we continue, I need to make it clear that this is a review of Hamilton‘s cast album. I haven’t seen the show and can’t afford to see the show. I’m reviewing only what can be heard on this recording, with historical fact I should’ve learned in high school but had to Google and trivia from Lin-Manuel’s Twitter.
Like Les Miserables, Hamilton is sung through. It’s the recitative of opera, but rapped. Almost every word of Hamilton is on this recording. I like to think Lin-Manuel and I were alike in our love for Les Mis; we could sing the whole score, me with my parents’ original London cast album and him with the Broadway recording he bought after seeing the show.
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?
— Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), “Alexander Hamilton”
Lin-Manuel performed an early version of this song at the White House in 2009.
Anyone who made it through U.S. history in high school knows the basics: Alexander Hamilton was the baby of the Founding Fathers, barely 20 at the start of the war. He was the first Secretary of Treasury. He and Jefferson hated each other. He built our first national bank. He was killed by Jefferson’s vice president, Aaron Burr, in a duel. He’s the hottest face on our currency. The Treasury wants to get rid of that beautiful face.
This is Lin’s first attempt at writing the book to a musical. In the Heights’ earliest drafts, written while he was in undergrad at Wesleyan, were all him, but the version nominated for a Pulitzer was written by Quiara Hudes. Lin-Manuel has been working on Hamilton since as early as 2009. On vacation during In the Heights’ Broadway run, he picked up Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, as dry a biography as can be. He couldn’t very well use a historian as a framing device. I don’t think Chernow would’ve enjoyed being incarnated as a narrator. And so our guide through these three decades of Alexander Hamilton’s life is “the damn fool that shot him”: Aaron Burr.
The opener, “Alexander Hamilton”, follows the tradition of Romeo & Juliet: tell, then show. To quote Ben Brantley’s review of Hamilton at the Public, “five minutes into the show […] the lyrics had already covered, rather thoroughly, the first 100 pages of Mr. Chernow’s book.” Every major player besides our man himself summarizes Alexander’s childhood in St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the events that brought him to New York City in 1776 at the age of 19. They also explain their connection to him, as we will see/hear played in the next two hours:
Burr The ship is in the harbor now,
see if you can spot him.
Another immigrant, comin’ up from the bottom.
His enemies destroyed his rep,
America forgot him.
Mulligan & Lafeyette (Madison & Jefferson?) We fought with him.
Laurens Me? I died for him.
Washington Me? I trusted him.
Eliza, Angelica, & Maria Me? I loved him.
Burr And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him.
— “Alexander Hamilton”
And in a handful of seconds, Lin-Manuel has summarized the rest of Chernow’s doorstopper. Much of the action in this show is history book material—events that can be placed on a timeline, with obvious relevance to the formation of this country. Most of us know the major players in Hamilton’s life as a politician. They feature heavily in act II, with Alexander as Washington’s Secretary of Treasury. But Hamilton had a substantial hand in the War itself. Act I spans 1776 to 1789, roughly the War to Washington’s presidency, while act II covers Hamilton’s political career through our first three presidents until his death.
Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
when I was young and dreamed of glory:
You have no control:
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.
— George Washington (Christopher Jackson) to Hamilton, “History Has Its Eyes on You”
Central to Hamilton is a meta awareness of history as a narrative. George Washington, played by In the Heights’ Christopher Jackson, introduces three heavy questions in the song “History Has Its Eyes On You”, which were heavily featured on Hamilton‘s promotional material during its premiere run at the Public.
Hamilton’s story is as much defined by his accomplishments as it is by those who supported and opposed him, which is why he is not the star of the show. They’re the “who’s” who fill these roles in Hamilton’s life and death.
Lin-Manuel’s casting call has a number of very apt “x meets y” descriptors for each character, to describe their narrative role and their musical flavor. Hamilton is “Sweeney Todd meets Eminem.” The former is especially seen in the manner of Hamilton’s arrival in America. He washes up in New York Harbor with a mission, and the 6-minute showstopper “My Shot” that Lin took a year to write is his calling card:
I’m past patiently waitin’. I’m passionately
smashin’ every expectation,
every action’s an act of creation!
I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow,
for the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow,
Hamilton and Company
And I am not throwing away my shot.
I am not throwing away my shot.
Hey yo, I’m just like my country,
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
and I’m not throwing away my shot.
— Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda), “My Shot”
Unlike Sweeney, Hamilton isn’t on a roaring rampage of revenge. While Hamilton and his cohorts stand in glorious spotlight for this song, Hamilton doesn’t address the audience again for such introspection until Act II.
George Washington is “John Legend meets Mufasa.” Before serving in Washington’s cabinet, Hamilton was his aide-de-camp—one level up from a batman, but with the fancy title of lieutenant colonel. He was essentially Washington’s secretary. The relationship between Hamilton and Washington is complicated by their military environment and by Hamilton’s staggeringly obvious paternal abandonment issues. Hamilton‘s Washington is something of a memetic badass. Aaron Burr hypes up his arrival in “Right Hand Man” to WWE arena spectacle:
Ladies and gentlemen!The moment you’ve been waiting for!The pride of Mount Vernon:George Washington!
Here comes the general!Here comes the general!Here comes the general!Here comes the general!
— Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Company, “Right Hand Man”
Washington’s Chuck Norris-esque elevation to godliness is one of the more fantastical things about Hamilton—in a show with a rapping black Thomas Jefferson, this is fantastical. Washington himself quotes The Pirates of Penzance (“Now I’m the model of a modern major general / The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all / Lining up, to put me up on a pedestal”), and one song later, Aaron Burr quotes a little book called the Bible, saying that Hamilton’s been “seated at the right hand of the father.” The founding father, of course, but setting Washington on par with God is no joke.
Christopher Jackson is as competent a rapper as anyone on this album, but he really shines on his R&B numbers: the aforementioned “History Has Its Eyes on You” and the conversation with Hamilton that morphs into his famous farewell address, “One Last Time.”This song in particular is one of a handful of speculative moments in this show, tackling the somewhat obscure Washington farewell address authorship issue. Chernow and Lin-Manuel support the theory that Hamilton cowrote a bulk of it. He was something of a Rob Lowe to Washington’s Martin Sheen on The West Wing. “One Last Time” oozes John Legend, right down to the piano foundation and Chris Jackson’s delivery. Bible quotes strike again with actual lines from the actual farewell address from Micah:
“Like the scripture says:
‘Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one shall make them afraid.’
They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made.
I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree.
A moment alone in the shade,
at home in this nation we’ve made.
One last time.”
— George Washington (Christopher Jackson)
Hamilton’s friends the Marquis de Lafayette and our spy Hercules Mulligan are played by Daveed Diggs and Okierete Onoadowan in act I. In act II, they play his partisan rivals Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Okierete “Oak” Onaodowan stands out in Act I as boisterous, foul mouthed Mulligan in an anachronistic bandanna. According to the casting call, Hercules Mulligan is “Busta Rhymes meets Donald O’Connor.” As act II’s James Madison, he’s relegated to being Jefferson’s timid supporter, and comically collateral in Hamilton’s personal attacks on the Democratic Republicans. Madison is “Rza meets Zach from A Chorus Line“, and the latter is very true, in that he weakly mediates interactions between parties like A Chorus Line‘s omnipresent director.
Act I’s word count is truly monstrous, and it’s motormouth rapping by Oak and Daveed that gives it the pace and spirit of revolution, especially heard in “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” and “Guns and Ships”. Daveed Diggs is a rapper in his own right, and as Lafayette, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman”, he spits fabulous French-accented fire; see “Guns and Ships”. Lin-Manuel calls him “Lancelot meets Ludacris”, and Lafayette calls himself Lancelot and quotes Camelot: “Oui oui, mon ami, je m’appelle Lafayette! / The Lancelot of the revolutionary set! / I came from afar just to say “Bonsoir!” Tell the King “Casse-toi!” Who’s the best? / C’est moi!”
Daveed comes into glorious, foppish spotlight in act II, starting with the opener “What’d I Miss?”, when Jefferson returns from France to be Secretary of State. It’s a drastic contrast on Lin’s part to differentiate between Daveed’s two roles. Hamilton and Lafayette existed on a similar 1990s hip hop plane, but Jefferson had almost two decades on their generation. He’s distant in age and in ideological leaning. “What’d I Miss?” is a genre outcast on this album, featuring elements of rock ‘n roll and boogie woogie; its piano line resembles “Rockin’ Robin”. It’s the perfect introduction to Jefferson and to the next 2 decades covered in the show (“Headfirst into a a political abyss”). While this musical is unique in its liberal use of its chorus, the staging seen in the B-roll reveals that they’re his slaves, waiting on him as he arrives home like servants on Downton Abbey. He even namedrops Sally Hemings:
There’s a letter on my desk from the President.
Haven’t even put my bags down yet.
Sally be a lamb, darlin’, won’tcha open it?
It says the President’s assembling a cabinet
and that I am to be the Secretary of State, great!
And that I’m already Senate-approved…
I just got home and now I’m headed up to New York.
— Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs), “What’d I Miss?”
Lin-Manuel has pretty strong feelings about Jefferson and his hypocrisy. and Hamilton’s digs at him are savage.
I grinned so hard when I saw Andy’s staging for this at first, and they introduced Jefferson and he’s walking down the staircase and everyone’s scrubbing the floor. They got it, before I even had to say anything. Like, yep — there’s Jefferson, talking eloquently about freedom while a slave shakes his hand and he goes like this [looks disgusted]. That’s Jefferson, write more eloquently about freedom than anybody, but didn’t live it.
— Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Genius: A Conversation With ‘Hamilton’ Maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda“
And from “Cabinet Battle #1”:
A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor,
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor.
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.”
Yeah, keep ranting,
we know who’s really doing the planting.
— Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda), “Cabinet Battle #1”
In act I, Mulligan and Lafayette are just half of a merry quartet, rounded off by Hamilton and his gay lover John Laurens, played by Anthony Ramos. When I say “gay lovers”, they were very much that. Hamilton was a raging bisexual. Sadly, their relationship never gets the spotlight it deserves, though Lin shared a heartbreaking scene not included on the recording on his Tumblr.
John Laurens was probably Hamilton’s first love, fresh off the boat in America. Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, and by all accounts loved her deeply. But Hamilton’s love life, like many other things, was a mess. Remember the first track, “Alexander Hamilton”?
Eliza, Angelica, & Maria Me? I loved him.
Angelica, Eliza, and their sister Peggy are introduced in the song “The Schuyler Sisters”. They’re the daughters of the crazy rich Dutch planter, Revolutionary War general, and eventual New York senator Philip Schuyler. In real life, he had 15 children, but most of them died, and the stakes of male preference primogeniture adds a layer of drama.
Angelica leads “The Schuyler Sisters” in a pre-pre-feminist power anthem which touches on the characters’ awareness of the times: “History is happening in Manhattan / And we just happen to be / In the greatest city in the world.” They’re three fifths of Destiny’s Child for the most part, but Angelica, who Lin calls “Nicki Minaj meets Desiree Armfeldt”, raps about her love and criticism of intelligent men while rejecting Aaron Burr’s romantic overtures. She’s played by Renee Elise Goldsberry, who closed Rent on Broadway as Mimi, my uncontested pick for the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical this year. Here, Eliza and Peggy are essentially her back up singers.
Eliza gets her moment with her meet cute/wedding song with Alexander, “Helpless”, which is straight Alicia Keys; as Lin says, she’s “Alicia Keys meets Elphaba”. She and Alexander met at a soldier’s ball in 1780. introduced by Angelica. This song covers their three week courtship, cheekily throwing in Wagner’s bridal chorus from Lohengrin as they marry. There’s a fair amount of wordplay here: the realization that Eliza’s quasi “scatting” has been “I do” the whole time makes this song a gem, and Hamilton recognizes their class difference by riffing on the song’s title:
I’ve been livin’ without a family since I was a child.
My father left, my mother died, I grew up buckwild.
But I’ll never forget my mother’s face, that was real,
and long as I’m alive, Eliza, swear to God,
you’ll never feel so…
I do! I do! I do! I do!
With the wedding, “Helpless” transitions smoothly into the next song. “Satisfied”, which I hesitantly call the most difficult female solo ever written for theatre, for the sheer amount of rapping Lin demands. Of “Satisifed”, he said:
The lyrics to “Satisfied” — in which Angelica Schuyler recounts how Hamilton and her sister Eliza met and married — are some of the most intricate I’ve ever written. I can’t even rap them, but Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays Angelica — that’s her conversational speed. That’s how fast she thinks. You really get the sense that Angelica’s the smartest person in the room, and she reads Hamilton within a moment of meeting him.
— Lin-Manuel Miranda for The Hollywood Reporter
“Satisfied” is one of my favorite tracks because, as a narrative device, it’s something I’ve never seen in a musical. Angelica, Eliza’s maid of honor, gives a speech at the Hamilton-Schuyler wedding, and literally “rewinds” to the events Eliza sees from across the ballroom in “Helpless”. Lin-Manuel quotes several bars the audience has heard just a few minutes ago, this time with commentary from Angelica and the appropriate synthetic underscoring that matches her Nicki Minaj designation. She falls in love with Alexander almost on sight, and he with her, but he’s a poor bastard orphan who would do little good married to Philip Schuyler’s eldest daughter, explained in this insane alliteration:
Cause I’m the oldest and the wittiest
And the gossip in New York City is
And Alexander’s penniless
That doesn’t mean I want him any less
— Angelica Schuyler (Renee Elise Goldsberry), “Satisfied”
So she introduces him to Eliza. “At least my dear Eliza’s his wife,” she sings. “At least I keep his eyes in my life.” Musically, she’s Nicki, but in a theatrical context, she’s straight Desiree Armfeldt—the glamorous actress from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music who let the love of her life get away and lives to regret it.
Angelica marries a member of the British Parliament, John Baker Church, and moves to London, but maintains a close friendship with Alexander through letter writing. This is shown in the Act II song “Take a Break”, which frames the curious not-quite love triangle that ties Alexander to the two older Schuyler sisters. It’s the summer of 1791, and Angelica has come over from London to visit her family; she and Eliza urge Hamilton to “Take a Break” and join them upstate. He declines (“I have to get my plan through Congress.”) In this time, we enter Amercia’s earliest political sex scandal.
Peggy Schuyler disappeared after Act I, but her actress, Jasmine Cephas Jones, pulls some impressive character acting in Act II as Maria Reynolds, the Monica to Hamilton’s Bill. The song in which Maria and Alexander instigate their three year affair, “Say No to This”, is three minutes of sex and inner turmoil, as Alexander finds himself blackmailed by Mr. James Reynolds into paying him monthly so he can continue boning Maria. As this song ends and Hamilton acquiesces, he quotes The Last Five Years: “Nobody needs to know.”
Jasmine Cephas Jones was wet blanket Peggy in Act I, all perky naivete, “The Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child”. Maria Reynolds is Hamilton’s downfall, all pout and need; “Jazmine Sullivan meets Carla from Nine“. The change on Jasmine’s part is stunning, but I personally expected a little more dimension from Lin, especially given the care he put toward writing Angelica and Eliza. Maria Reynolds is little more than a femme fatale, but Jasmine’s performance is golden.
Cruelly, Hamilton’s inability to “Say No to This” leaves him, in his words, “helpless.”
Their affair is exposed a few years later after James Reynolds is jailed for speculation. Hamilton’s position as Secretary of Treasury makes the blackmail money public interest. Hamilton himself publishes “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” a fact-heavy ogre of a song which has Jefferson gleefully chanting “Well, he’s never gon’ president now”, and the gem of Angelica choosing Eliza over Alexander in this conflict. She quotes “Satisifed”: “Put what we had aside / I’m standing at her side / You could never be satisfied / God, I hope you’re satisfied.”
Eliza reacts in the only true solo in this show, free of the slick, modern chorus. This is where Elphaba comes in, from Lin’s casting call. “Burn” is a classic Broadway torch song that may well match Wicked‘s “Defying Gravity” in audition overuse. Phillipa Soo’s Tony nomination is almost assured. “Burn” is simultaneously a wounded song of heartbreak and a cheeky reference to our lack of primary sources:
I’m erasing myself from the narrative.
Let future historians wonder
how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.
You have torn it all apart.
I am watching it
— Eliza Hamilton (Phillipa Soo), “Burn”
Angelica and Alexander are too well matched; neither will ever be “Satisfied.” In Act I, after Washington briefly dismisses Hamilton from his service for participating in a duel, Eliza asks him to only be the husband she needs. Not to change the world, or to leave a legacy, or anything. He just needs to be alive and present—”That Would Be Enough.” Her motif of “Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now” is meant in terms of history and revolution, but also in literal gratitude to not be dead. Hamilton throws that back in her face as she protests his acceptance of Secretary of Treasury at the end of Act I. And Eliza was right; Hamilton’s ambition ruined their lives. Eliza and Alexander only work their way toward reconciliation after the death of their son, Philip Hamilton (played by Anthony Ramos, previously seen as John Laurens), in a duel.
Three major duels happen in Hamilton. Here they are arranged, winner v. loser:
- John Laurens v. Charles Lee, 1781
- George Eacker v. Philip Hamilton, 1801
- Aaron Burr v. Alexander Hamilton, 1804
The first duel is told in the song “Ten Duel Commandments,” a tribute to the Notorious B.I.G’s “Ten Crack Commandments,” and each subsequent duel is a reprise of it, if not in name.
In the original 1781 duel, Washington has named Charles Lee general, and he did a terrible job at the Battle of Monmouth. Lee badmouthed Washington for his own failures. Hamilton is incensed, but Washington has forbidden his beloved aide-de-camp from doing anything. Laurens challenges Lee in Hamilton’s place, with Hamilton as his second, like the wizard’s duel Malfoy challenged Harry to in the Sorcerer’s Stone. Ominously, Lee’s second was Aaron Burr. And ironically, at the young age of 26 or 24, Burr and Hamilton gave us this gem:
Hamilton Aaron Burr, sir.
Burr Can we agree that duels are dumb and immature?
— “Ten Duel Commandments”
Laurens shot Lee in the side, but he survived. For participating in and encouraging this misbehavior, Washington sent Hamilton home, bringing him back just in time for the Battle of Yorktown. Hamilton‘s Washington also had the knowledge that Eliza was pregnant—a month before Hamilton knew. He sent him home to his wife and unborn child.
You would think that Washington’s reprimand would put Hamilton off duels forever, but in 1801, when his son Philip graduates from King’s College (Columbia University) and wants to duel George Eacker for trash talking his father, Alexander gives him his pistols and shares with him the “Ten Duel Commandments.” Granted, Alexander is banking on Eacker being a decent person who wouldn’t actually shoot a kid like Philip, so he tells his son to “aim his pistol at the sky” because killing people is wrong. But George Eacker is not a decent person, and he would and did shoot a kid like Philip.
Tragically, the tidbit of Philip’s childhood we hear in “Take a Break”, learning to count in French with Eliza, is a covert echo of the “Ten Duel Commandments” and the “Ten Crack Commandments” (“Un deux trois quatre cinq six sept huit neuf…”). While hearing Anthony Ramos as a nine year old boy is funny in its way, Philip dies a decade later in his mother’s arms, singing the French counting song of his youth. And when you remember that Washington dismissed him for dueling because he was going to be a father, it’s much worse.
The counting hook created by the Notorious B.I.G. and borrowed by Lin-Manuel appears one last time as Burr tells his side of the duel: “There are ten things you need to know,” including #5
Now I didn’t know this at the time
But we were—Burr and Philip
Near the same spot
your son died
Near the same spot
my son died
— “The World was Wide Enough”
They won’t teach you this in your classes,
but look it up, Hamilton was wearing his glasses.
Why? If not to take deadly aim?
It’s him or me, the world will never be the same.
I had only one thought before the slaughter:
This man will not make an orphan of my daughter.
— Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), “The World was Wide Enough”
Aaron Burr is played with magnetic charm by Leslie Odom Jr., seen on NBC’s short-lived Smash. Lin-Manuel calls Burr “Javert meets Mos Def.” True to form, Les Mis’s influence is tangible in the very air surrounding this cast album. Javert is Lin-Manuel’s dream role, and the importance of having an engaging antagonist is not lost on him at all.
The rivalry between Burr and Hamilton is odd in that it’s rooted in pure disagreement. From the moment they met, in the second track “Aaron Burr, Sir”, light ideological friction was present, as Burr dispenses his unsolicited advice: “Talk less. Smile more.” Which is exactly not what Hamilton does. Ever. He interrupts Hamilton’s big ‘I Am’ Song, “My Shot”, to quote South Pacific with “You’ve got to be carefully taught / If you talk, you’re gonna get shot!” When Mulligan, Lafayette, and Laurens encourage Hamilton to heckle the loyalist First Episcopal Bishop Samuel Seabury, Burr shushes him with “let him be.” Even as college students, Burr and Hamilton didn’t agree. “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”, Hamilton asks when they first meet in 1776.
Their philosophical differences are highlighted lyrically and musically when Burr gets his own ‘I Am’ Song—a belated reply to Hamilton’s “My Shot” called “Wait for It.” Where “My Shot” was a rallying song, a mission statement, “Wait for It” is an ode to patience, recalling the funk-infused R&B of the 80s. While Hamilton is a man driven by action, Burr has learned to step back and assess.
“Wait for It” takes place after Hamilton’s wedding. Burr has found his own love: Theodosia Provost, the wife of a British officer. Hamilton sees Burr’s reluctance to “go get her” as his throwing away his shot, but Burr isn’t inclined to take his shot—at least, not immediately.
What is it like in his shoes?
Hamilton doesn’t hesitate.
He exhibits no restraint.
He takes and he takes and he takes
and he keeps winning anyway.
He changes the game.
He plays and he raises the stakes.
And if there’s a reason
he seems to thrive when so few survive, then
I’m willing to wait for it.
— Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), “Wait for It”
The rift between these two men becomes tangible when Burr refuses to help Hamilton with a little endeavor called the Federalist Papers in the Act I finale, “Non-Stop.”
Burr, we studied and we fought and we killed
for the notion of a nation we now get to build.
For once in your life, take a stand with pride.
I don’t understand how you stand to the side.
I’ll keep all my plans close to my chest.
I’ll wait here and see which way the wind will blow.
I’m taking my time, watching the
afterbirth of a nation, watching the tension grow.
Hamilton seems confused by Burr’s inaction because of his identification with him. In his dying monologue, he calls him “My first friend, my enemy”. Before anything, Hamilton remembers walking up to him in “Aaron Burr, Sir”, and recognizing in him a fellow orphan with something to prove. Lin-Manuel calls Burr “Javert meets Mos Def”, and the parallelism of Les Mis’s “Confrontation” is reflected in the true similarities between Burr and Hamilton: peers, students of law, lawyers, subordinate to Washington, in love in a time of war (not with each other), and fathers at the nation’s birth.
In the song “Dear Theodosia”, a sweet lullaby sung after “Yorktown”, Burr and Hamilton sing to their newborn children, Theodosia Burr and Philip Hamilton, promising, “You’ll come of age with our young nation / We’ll bleed and fight for you / We’ll make it right for you / If we lay a strong enough foundation / We’ll pass it on to you / We’ll give the world to you / And you’ll blow us all away.”
Aaron and Alexander both outlived the children they sang to.
Burr doesn’t take his shot until 1791, in the true showstopper “The Room Where It Happens”—the jazzy event horizon that drives Burr to Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, against Hamilton across party lines. In unflattering terms, this song describes the compromise that moved our capital to D.C. and created our first national bank. Onstage, it’s the height of suspense, and much more than debt involvement policy. It’s Burr, drunk on the idea of power, drunk with the want Hamilton has always had and expected from him, entering the political arena and “the room where it happens.” As Hamilton meets him, emerging from the mysterious dinner in “the room where it happens”, he taunts Burr with the same words from “Aaron Burr, Sir”:
What do you want, Burr?
What do you want, Burr?
If you stand for nothing,
Burr, then what do you fall for?
— “The Room Where It Happens”
In terms of genre, “The Room Where It Happens” is a major departure from the mild, tenuous tone we’ve come to associate with Burr from “Wait for It” and his interjections throughout. It’s sinister, driven, and overall jazzy. Genius.com is no great authority, but it has a wealth of crowdsourced information, and on the lyrics for “The Room Where It Happens”, someone contributed this insight:
As outlined in “What Did I Miss,” [sic] Thomas Jefferson’s musical style has Southern elements of boogie-woogie jazz, one of the earliest popular forms of African-American music. Miranda has discussed that he chose Jefferson’s musical influences to represent how he was over a decade older than Hamilton and his cohorts—upstarts who embody 90s & contemporary hip hop/r&b styles—with correspondingly more old-fashioned priorities.
Here, Burr embraces New Orleans/Dixieland jazz, a somewhat later incarnation of the early jazz movement, also (obviously) based in the South. Basically, Burr’s style is being influenced, possibly even corrupted, by Thomas Jefferson. This presages his defection to the Democratic Republicans in the next song.
Lin-Manuel accelerates the events leading up to the duel. He has Hamilton’s choice to endorse Jefferson, his long-standing rival, over Burr in the “Election of 1800”, as the event that sets Burr over the edge; their dislike has finally boiled to a point where their only tool for resolution is the duel they found “dumb and immature” twenty years earlier: “You’ve kept me from the room where it happens / The room where it happens / For the last time.”
Hamilton’s death scene plays with narrative convention. His part in “The World was Wide Enough” is rhythmic monologue, suspended in the second before Burr’s bullet lands in between the ribs, in which he recalls a sentiment he’s repeated so often in the course of this show and his life: “I imagine death so much, it feels more like a memory…” And then the bullet strikes, and Burr takes over, with verbatim from the real Aaron Burr: “The world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”
Burr lives another thirty years. “When Alexander aimed / At the sky / He may have been the first one to die / But I’m the one who paid for it. / I survived, but I paid for it.”
Hamilton sees the dead as he joins them: his mother, John Laurens, his son Philip, and Washington, And he remembers Eliza.
In The New Yorker piece “The Women of Hamilton“, Michael Schulman describes the finale, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”:
The last verse—unexpectedly, and powerfully—belongs to Eliza, who survived her husband by a whopping fifty years. How did she use them? “I put myself back in the narrative,” she tells us—interviewing soldiers who fought with Hamilton, raising funds for the Washington Monument, and establishing the first private orphanage in New York City. Most crucially, and with Angelica’s help, she sorts through Hamilton’s papers and helps secure his legacy, much as Miranda is doing with his musical. In the show’s final moment, he motions Eliza to the lip of the stage, where she steps beyond him and takes the light. The last image we see is of her awestruck face, gazing out into some blissful beyond. […] As a Latino working in the Broadway theatre, [Miranda] knows the importance of who tells the story, and how. And, by implicitly equating Eliza’s acts of narration with his own, he’s acknowledging the women who built the country alongside the men. You’re left wondering whether the “Hamilton” of the title isn’t just Alexander, but Eliza, too.
And in Hamilton itself as a narrative outside of history, we have another storyteller: Aaron Burr.
We’ve had some significant musicals on U.S. history. 1776 is endearingly jokey in its depiction of the revolution, aligning with the Democratic Republicans and John Adams. Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins is a cynical look at presidential assassins successful and unsuccessful. Our closest cousin to Hamilton is Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which the IU Theatre Department is performing in the spring. It depicts Andrew Jackson as a Billie Joe Armstrong-esque punk rocker.
Bloody Bloody has the anachronisms and heroism of Hamilton, but little of the impact. New York City Center recently announced it will mount a multiethnic production of 1776 as a part of their Encores! series.
I’ll say this: Lin and I are children of immigrants. My parents came to New York from the Philippines in the Reagan era. There was a time I wanted to be a musical theatre actress. All I had to look to was Lea Salonga, of Aladdin and Mulan fame, in the racist monstrosities Miss Saigon and Flower Drum Song. And seeing Phillipa Soo as Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, what I will hazard to say is one of the greatest roles written for a woman in musical theatre in the past decade, would have made all the difference.
It has been hard to communicate and to realize that American history is my history, and I suspect it’s the same for Lin and immigrants everywhere. Lin and I have had blood on this soil going back only one generation. But they came here because of this story. And it’s as much our story as it is the story of the descendants of slaves who didn’t choose to come here, which is why it’s so vital to hear political discourse as rap battles, and to see our Founding Fathers as if they could be our fathers, and their wives our mothers.
Hamilton has a wealth of guts and, as an album, lives up to its hype tenfold. It’s a crossing of classes, in the social classes of consumers and the exclusionary “classes” of art. Alexander Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda broke these bounds to create something indispensable. In the words of Hamilton‘s opening number : “The world will never be the same.”