The first song I heard from the Hamilton soundtrack was “My Shot.” This song, the third one in the first act, serves the important role of introducing the ten-dollar-founding-father-without-a-father Alexander Hamilton: his burning ambition, his sophisticated oratory, his commitment to revolution. But the verse that hit me the hardest, that immediately told me that something exceptional was going on with this show, was this one, sung by young abolitionist John Laurens (played by Anthony Ramos):
When you’re living on your knees, you rise up
Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up
Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up
This verse — in the show an exhortation to the 18th century colonists to revolt against the British government — is universal and timely enough to be a rallying cry for any recent social justice movement. As soon as I heard it, I knew Hamilton was trying to do something special. Without being didactic or preachy, Hamilton was telling people to stand up for their rights, take a seat at the table, and participate in America.
Much ink has been spilled about Hamilton: about its innovative hip-hop structure, its diverse cast, its best-selling cast album (including time at No.1 on the Billboard Rap charts), its unprecedented popularity on Broadway, its brilliant and social media-savvy creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, its eleven Tony awards. But despite its runaway popular success, and its seemingly universal appeal, Hamilton feels to me — and I suspect to many fans — deeply personal. As a mixed-race person, a lawyer who attended the same college as Hamilton, a federal government employee, and a life-long musical theatre nerd, the combination of the music, the lyrics, and the cast feels urgent and relevant.
For my teenage children, who follow the charismatic and thoughtful cast on Instagram and Snapchat, it has made American history feel applicable to their daily lives in a way their school classes never have. And when we were fortunate enough to see the show on Broadway, watching the diverse cast play the (white) American founders, and seeing how Miranda has also worked to make what has usually been understood as being primarily a story of men include the contributions of women, had an impact that cannot be overstated.
Hamilton shows the influence of American musical theatre traditions that range from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Sondheim to Disney. The show is most solidly rooted, however, in black musical traditions. Hamilton’s hip-hop and rap songs have garnered the most attention, but that only scratches the surface. “What’d I Miss” is a wonderful homage to Cab Calloway, with elements of ragtime and even funk.
“The Schuyler Sisters” echoes groups like Destiny’s Child, “Wait for It” starts with a dancehall reggae beat, and “Say No To This” is an R&B slow jam straight out of the 90s. In addition, most of the original main case is black, including Okieriete Onadowan (Mulligan/Madison), Tony nominee Chris Jackson (Washington), and Tony winners Leslie Odom, Jr. (Burr), Renee-Elise Goldsberry (Anjelica), and Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Jefferson).
Some commentators have noted that the high cost of Broadway shows, even the touring productions that are now set to open in other cities, limits Hamilton’s reach to middle and upper-middle class people who can afford the tickets. When my family saw the show, the crowd seemed fairly diverse, and there were scores of young people in the audience. But there can be no doubt that the cost keeps many away. Fortunately, Miranda is aware of this and has been working hard to make the show more accessible. The cast album was released very early on, much earlier than is the case for most Broadway shows, and was initially streamed for free.
EduHam, a program that allows high school students to see the show for $10, has been rolled out in New York and is set to go in the other cities where Hamilton will be playing. A documentary about the show, “Hamilton’s America,” will air October 17 on PBS. Hamilton was also recorded in its entirety on June 28 for possible broadcast at a later date. And Miranda is an active participant on forums such as Twitter and genius.com — answering questions, annotating lyrics, and in general participating with fans near and far in a way that seems unprecedented for musical theatre.
What has kept me coming back to Hamilton (I listen to it daily), and what I think is part of its unprecedented popularity, is its profound optimism. At a time when it can seem difficult to have faith in governmental institutions, Hamilton reminds us of the promise of the American experiment for everyone in the United States — not just the property-owning white males who originally held all the power.
Through its diverse cast and modern musical vernacular, Hamilton tells us that no matter who ran the government then, we all can — and should — participate now, no matter how hard we have to work to get there. We had guns, bloodshed, and racism at the start of the Republic, and we have guns, bloodshed, and racism now. But then, as now, we also have people committed to equality, to fighting the power, and to finding a better way to govern. Rise up!