We are pleased to feature a guest post from Benjamin Carp (@bencarp), the Daniel M. Lyons Professor of American History at Brooklyn College, CUNY. Carp is the author of both Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America and Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution.
“I want the historians to respect this.” –Lin-Manuel Miranda, according to Ron Chernow
In the lobby of the Public Theater, two statues flanked the doorway—the likenesses of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr stretched out their arms and aimed their dueling pistols at one another, and it was hard not to feel as if I was standing in the middle. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, wrote the musical Hamilton and stars in the title role. He portrays the first Secretary of the Treasury as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” and an immigrant striver made good; throughout his career, Hamilton is arrogant about his talents but perpetually insecure about his place. As told by Miranda, Hamilton is both self-made and self-unmade, wry and seductive and yet constantly raging against anyone who might hold him back.
The show is currently the hottest ticket in New York City, with all performances at the Public sold out, and StubHub prices reaching four figures. It is “inspired by” Ron Chernow’s biography and retains a bit of its Federalist Chic, but Miranda has read more widely, in both primary and secondary sources, about Hamilton’s life and the history surrounding it. Indeed, the results are almost everything historians could want. Actors playing Hercules Mulligan, the Marquis de Lafayette, and John Laurens (imagined as Hamilton’s drinking buddies) help embody the events of 1776–1804, with a broad range of music heavily influenced by hip-hop. We get politics, war, nation-building, scandal, and death, all with energetic choreography. Along the way, the show manages to explain both the code duello and the voting process prior to the 12th amendment. George Washington doesn’t seem cast in marble, as he does in HBO’s John Adams miniseries. Instead Christopher Jackson plays him as a vigorous leader who has to work at managing his squabbling aides. Cabinet debates—over the assumption of state debts or diplomatic relations with Revolutionary France—are imagined, thrillingly, as rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (played with glorious, demented abandon by Daveed Diggs). Sure, Hamilton gets the last word and comes out on top, but at least we hear Jefferson’s contrary perspective as well. The Founders were both high-minded and scurrilous, using eighteenth-century phrasing alongside an argot familiar to anyone with Spotify. Many of the songs are still stuck in my head.
For over a decade now, historians have discussed the effort to humanize the Founders, and Hamilton serves as a worthy example of this trend. Hamilton is not just a penman and statesman, which might have made for a rather dry show. Instead we see him court his future wife and later betray her—we even see his courtship of Eliza Schuyler retold a second time from her sister Angelica’s wistful perspective. Hamilton delights in his eldest son and then loses him (at nineteen) to a duelist’s bullet. How a new father like Miranda can replay this anguish eight times a week is beyond my capacity to guess. By the time Hamilton meets Burr and his fate at Weehawken, New Jersey, the character has been hollowed out by grief.
The historian’s craft is on full display here. In “The Room Where It Happens,” James Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson hash out the famous 1790 compromise to locate the capital on the Potomac but have the federal government assume state debts. Yet as Aaron Burr (in his role as sometime narrator) tells us, we don’t actually know what went down, because no one else was in the room. Later, Eliza Hamilton burns her letters rather than leave for posterity her opinions about Hamilton’s adultery. She even sings about leaving the narrative. Books, letters, and printed pamphlets recur as props, and they are constantly in motion: the characters read news of Laurens’s death, Hamilton’s attack on Adams, and his sordid confessions about Maria Reynolds. Families try to love one another across distances. As a historian I’m used to flipping through archival materials, so this dynamism was something of a treat. On the front of the Playbill, the tagline reads, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” and in a number toward the end, the actors confront the idea that history isn’t static—storytellers might vary, and the differences among them actually matter. Audiences will thrill to Miranda’s interpretation, but they are still offered the idea that different interpretations are possible, and that the historical record leaves gaps for the imagination to fill. If you’re like David Brooks (who saw the same performance I did), you may fall in love with Hamilton all over again (and is it just me, or does “The Hamilton Experience” remind you of “The Girlfriend Experience”?), but the show leaves room for many other reactions.
Race plays an interesting role in the show. Ben Brantley found it “appropriate that the ultimate dead white men of American history should be portrayed here by men who are not white.” In an interview, Leslie Odom, Jr. (who plays Aaron Burr), said, “In the first two minutes of this show, Lin steps forward and introduces himself as Alexander Hamilton, and Chris [Jackson] steps forward and says he’s George Washington, and you never question it again.” And while it’s true that the performances are unquestionably fitting, they also raise interesting questions. In the show, the only white cast members (as far as I could tell) were either ensemble players (one of whom played the Loyalist minister Samuel Seabury) or Bryan D’Arcy James, who plays King George III to hilarious effect. (“When push comes to shove / I will kill your friends and family / To remind you of my love.”) In other words, on stage the whites represent monarchical authority, while the revolutionaries (men and women) are played by people of African, Latino/a, and Asian descent. This show is, then, about revolutions past and future (and Miranda did acknowledge in the New Yorker that Michael Brown and Eric Garner were on his mind when the cast sang, “Rise up!”).
Some small inaccuracies remain: events are compressed in time and space (no doubt by necessity), and a character describes the outcome of the close election of 1800 as a “landslide.” Aaron Burr’s life both mirrors Hamilton’s life and intersects it. Odom’s Burr is winning and sympathetic, and he sings some pretty numbers addressed to his daughter Theodosia, but we never meet her, which robs the songs of some of their power. While Hamilton’s character is fully developed, at times Burr’s story is told more than shown. As a result, by the time the two lawyers fall out over Dr. Charles Cooper’s letter, I couldn’t quite get a purchase on their relationship as foils for one another.
While Miranda is adapting a well-known slice of history, his interpretation is fresh and inspiring. The level of originality will satisfy both theater crowds and history crowds. In other words, the show works—as history, as imagination, and as theater.
On the subway ride home, I saw a group clutching a Playbill from the show and discussing excitedly whether certain events in it were accurate. I smiled. It’s a good thing Hamilton is moving to Broadway for a longer run. More audiences for this show could well mean a broader audience for other good histories, too.