Hamilton’s hip-hop revolution

John Hess

Friends are understandably skeptical when I suggest they check out Hamilton, the new hip-hop musical based on the life of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. However, Hamilton has been pleasantly surprising audiences, critics and writer, composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda since its off-Broadway premiere last year. I was skeptical at first, too, and so I’d like to make a very specific case for why you should give the soundtrack a listen (it’s free).

It’s an unfortunate reality that great art often has terrible politics and fictional accounts of the American Revolution are naturally inclined toward jingoism and half-truth. However, the show presents a view of the revolution that’s both relatable and untainted by slavery apologism or ultranationalism.

Hamilton himself is a figure ripe for rediscovery and rehabilitation. A polymath to rival any of the revolutionary renaissance men, he was also a dedicated abolitionist and one of the founding fathers of the New York Manumission Society. What’s more, his experience as an immigrant born into poverty makes him much more relatable than the period’s slaver-aristocrats.

Miranda takes this immigrant’s tale even further. The cast is composed almost entirely of people of color (with the exception of King George III), and this minor suspension of disbelief gives Miranda the ability to address the founders as people and not the faces on our currency. One can’t help but cheer when, in a cabinet meeting turned rap battle, Hamilton gets to say everything you ever wanted to say about Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding hypocrisy straight to his face.

While Act I borders on the hagiographic, it establishes a revolutionary idealism best symbolized by Hamilton’s friend, John Laurens. The son of a plantation owner, Laurens becomes a militant abolitionist demanding the freeing and arming of slaves for the sake of a multi-racial revolution. Refusing to compromise in his fight for liberty, equality and fraternity, Laurens is the very best of his generation. His death at the end of Act I is the death of the revolutionary ideal itself. Act II then becomes the story of ambition, disenchantment, and revolutionary anticlimax.

Hamilton’s revolution is nothing if not incomplete, having fallen tragically short of the ideals it pursued. These ideals are given contemporary relevance by Miranda’s use of modern idioms, references and musical stylings. This gives characters the ability to rap about the compromise of 1790 while saying more about the nature of power and our own political system in 2016. When a racially-diverse, non-white cast sings about “rising up,” one just can’t help but feel as if something wonderfully subversive is happening.

While Hamilton easily passes the Bechdel test, its greatest weakness is the treatment of female characters. All three leading females have romantic feelings for Hamilton, and Eliza (Mrs. Hamilton) has practically no characterization besides that of a wife and mother. This is rooted in historical fact, but given the care with which Miranda crafts timeless personalities for the rest of the cast, the female characters seem somehow neglected.

Every other aspect of the show, from the tongue-tying lyrics (averaging 144 words per minute) to the impossibly talented cast, is almost objectively fantastic. Miranda tells an engrossing story about struggle, ambition and history itself while simultaneously pioneering what is practically an entirely new medium. In fact, Hamilton’s historical detail and unrepentant dorkiness are of secondary appeal to the method of storytelling itself. Don’t miss it.