Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton debate the Constitution in the most historically accurate way…with a rap battle. | Photo from The Public Theater.
(Spoiler alerts for American History to follow.)
On January 21, my former theatre professor, Michelle, and I went to see the second preview of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new show Hamilton at The Public Theater. Miranda’s Tony- and Grammy-award winning musical In the Heights is one of my favorites so I was ecstatic when I heard that he was working on another one. However, when I heard that it would be a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, I was a little hesitant. That’s right, a hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers. How on earth would that work? But I went because I love Miranda’s previous work and I wanted to spend an evening seeing a new show with Michelle. Once Hamilton started, it took about 2 and a half minutes for me to fall absolutely in love with it.
Hamilton tells a story that is often left out of history books. Most people learn that the first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was shot by Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel, but few people understand what led to the death of Hamilton. In Miranda’s new musical, Aaron Burr (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) serves as the narrator of Hamilton’s (played by Miranda) story. Throughout the musical, Burr claims “I’m the damn fool who shot him” in a heartbreaking yet charismatic way. In a way, Hamilton becomes Aaron Burr’s story as well. Though we certainly know less about Burr’s personal life by the end of the musical than we do Hamilton’s, audiences are still given a glimpse into the mind of Burr. Through Miranda’s brilliant words, we are shown Burr’s hopes and dreams, and later, his regret and sorrow for killing Hamilton.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s words are simply magical. The flow of his lyrics seem effortless. It’s even easy to believe that Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton settled their debates over the Constitution using rap battles. In the world that Miranda has created for the Founding Fathers, hip-hop makes perfect sense. But Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t just excel at hip-hop, rap, and traditional pop music. From his work on both In the Heights and Hamilton, it’s clear that Miranda has a background in musical theatre. The Broadway ballads and rap songs blend together to provide music that can speak to both old and young audiences, to people who grew up with Broadway music and those who have no knowledge of it.
Perhaps Miranda’s biggest triumph in Hamilton, though, is the use of race to tell the story of the early days of the United States. It’s no secret that Hollywood has a problem with white-washing. If you saw Exodus, you watched a white man portray a man who was certainly not white, and you’ve seen the same done in almost any historical and/or Biblical movie. Miranda and his brilliant director Thomas Kail took the opposite approach, in an effort to show that the story of the Founding Fathers belongs to all Americans. George Washington, Aaron Burr, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson are all played by people of color. In doing so, the musical brilliantly brings to light issues of slavery and racism in the early days. Combined with the hip-hop style of music, it also makes the audience question race relations today, connecting brilliantly with the current events of Ferguson and police brutality in a time that has been deemed by many to be a “post-racial America.” Lin-Manuel Miranda, a man of Puerto Rican descent who previously wrote a musical about Hispanic immigrant families in New York City, plays Alexander Hamilton who was known as the “immigrant Founding Father.” When Miranda as Hamilton declares “Immigrants, we get the job done!” in one part of the musical, he isn’t just speaking of Hamilton’s assistance in the development of the United States. He’s speaking about the immigrants of today, who risk their lives to work hard in this country every single day and are shown little respect from our politicians and citizens.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has made it clear on social media that he has made some cuts to the show since I saw it, which is perfect since the length was really the only complaint that Michelle and I had. It is obvious that Miranda has put more than six years of hard work into this nearly-flawless show. It’s brilliant, and I can’t wait to see the life it has beyond the Public Theater. The Broadway world will never be the same.
Hamilton is running at The Public Theater through May 3. Broadway previews begin July 13 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, with the official opening on August 6.
For a little preview, here is Lin-Manuel Miranda performing one of Aaron Burr’s songs for the President and First Lady at An Evening of Poetry, Music & the Spoken Word back in 2009.