Think one part Jay Z, one part Les Mis and one part Vernon Bogdanor, with a plot line that alternates between gun fights and rap battles, played out in costumes that aren’t far off Pride and Prejudice.
Still with me?
Chances are, you actually might be. Because of course I’m referring to the new hip-hop musical about America’s Founding Fathers that has taken the UK by storm these past few weeks. Yes, the word on everyone’s lips is Hamilton, and I was one of the lucky few that managed to nab a couple of tickets to see the show in London over the holiday break.
I won’t add to the already deafening praise heaped on the show (including 11 Tony awards, a Grammy award, and the Pulitzer Prize to name a few) other than to say it’s good - really, really good - and if tickets become available again this side of 2030, you should go and see it.
But why all the hype?
Hamilton is the brainchild of hip-hop artist Lin-Manuel Miranda who, browsing for a spot of holiday reading in 2008, chanced on historian Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography of America’s lesser-known first Secretary of the Treasury and star of the ten-dollar bill, Alexander Hamilton (c. 1755-1804). Perhaps not many people’s first thought on finishing such a weighty tome about ‘another dead white guy’, but Miranda only wondered how his name wasn’t up in lights already.
For Miranda, rap was practically invented to tell Alexander’s story – a question put to the audience at the show’s beginning:
“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 scholar?”
In the show’s following two acts, Alexander rises to become George Washington’s right-hand man during the revolutionary war, trains as a leading legal mind in New York City and masterminds the underpinning of the modern US financial system. Falling prey to hubris and a political sex scandal, Hamilton is shot dead at forty-three protecting his honour in a duel.
And so Miranda has a point. Sat in the audience, it is hard to imagine any other musical style that can match rap or hip-hop for their unique social history and turn-of-phrase. Wigs and corsets aside, what else could allow Hamilton to navigate the registers of rebellion, romance, comedy and even constitutional theory that it covers so seamlessly? (One stand-out tune is a rap battle in President Washington’s cabinet, pitching Hamilton’s plan to create a national bank for the newly-independent US against Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian America made-up of self-sufficient states).
Because of this, it has been called a ‘musical for the Obama era’ - a show as much about politics as it is political. It boasts a largely non-white cast, revels in promoting a gay, HIV-positive leading man on Broadway and pushes a daily ten-dollar/pound ticket ballot, the #HamilTen, to get new audiences into the theatre. Hamilton’s is a story of America’s downtrodden – the original American dream – and Miranda wants to reclaim that narrative in an age where it seems threatened.
No more is this evident than in the show’s most applauded line between Hamilton and the French general Lafayette, on riding into the Battle of Yorktown that wins the war for independence: “Immigrants! We get the job done!”. It was no surprise then when vice-president elect, Mike Pence, was booed out of the theatre in November 2016, addressed by the cast that, “We are the diverse Americans anxious you will not protect us”. An enraged Trump promptly took to Twitter; Miranda didn’t seem to mind.
By the end of his life, Hamilton had founded the US stock exchange, three banks, a newspaper, the US Coast Guard, and penned 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers which led to much of our modern understanding of the US constitution. He was described by his wife, Eliza, (who sets up New York City’s first private orphanage in her own right), who really did live like ‘[he was] running out of time’.
The take-home for me, then, was that this is a show about making history – “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” asks the show’s final song. The question surely hits home; what legacy will I leave? How am I using my time on Earth? Yet for all his achievements, Hamilton was a vain man whose insecurities spurred him onto greatness, a characteristic which I believe explains the show’s greatest success: Hamilton may be about one of history’s superstars, but it tells a very human tale.
As it happens, this week marks what would have been Alexander’s 263rd birthday (or perhaps 265th – he couldn’t quite remember). According to Ron Chernow, while applying to Princeton, Hamilton may have decided to ‘correct’ his real age and shed a couple of years. Clearly aiming high from a young age, Chernow explained his reasoning: “Prodigies aren’t supposed to be overaged freshman.”
Scott Reid is an associate at Charlotte Street Partners.