Hamilton: An American Musical
Although Alexander Hamilton never became president of the United States, he is more famous than most presidents, and these days is doubly famous because of the impending decision to remove him from the ten-dollar bill and, more important, because of the hit Broadway show Hamilton. Indeed, the response to this musical has been phenomenal: it is sold out for months.
Both the left and the right like this play; President Obama, who took his daughters to see it, said that he was “pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career.” It’s patriotic without being self-righteous or stuffy. So excited have people become with this musical treatment of the rise and fall of our first secretary of the treasury that the Rockefeller Foundation and the producers have agreed to finance a program to bring 20,000 New York City eleventh-graders to see Hamilton at a series of matinees beginning next spring and running through 2017. Using a curriculum put together by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, they plan on drawing the students largely from schools that have a high percentage of low-income families.
No one thought of doing this for Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Misérables, or even 1776, which dealt with America’s writing of the Declaration of Independence. This show is different. Not only is it sung in the stylized rhythmic and rhyming manner of rap and hip-hop, but perhaps more important, the cast is deliberately composed almost entirely of African-Americans and Latinos. This symbolizes as nothing else could that the history of the founding of the United States belongs to all Americans at all times and in all places and not simply to elite white Anglo-Saxon males who lived in the eighteenth century.
Since we Americans have no common race or ethnicity, the main things that hold us together and make us a nation are the ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy that came out of the Revolution, the most important event in American history, in which Hamilton was a major participant. Americans have been desperate to attach all immigrants and all minorities to the history and meaning of the US, and this play helps to do that. It is no wonder that it has been so passionately and universally celebrated.
The show is the creation of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the very talented composer, lyricist, and star of Hamilton, and evidently a man with a thousand show tunes in his head. When Miranda read Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Hamilton, he was reminded of his father’s immigrant life. Just as Hamilton had been born in Nevis in the British West Indies in 1755 and moved to New York in his late teens, so Miranda’s father…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.