I really like Hamilton. From the first time I listened to the entire Broadway soundtrack back-to-back on Spotify, I was pretty much hooked on just how fresh, unique, and downright tear-jerking a lot of the musical numbers were. No matter how many times I listened to it, Hamilton never failed to string me along through its massive range of highs and lows, from the dramatic punchy verses of “Guns and Ships” to the absolute emotional devastation of “It’s Quiet Uptown.” But at its core, Hamilton has one true purpose: to shed light on one of the least well-known founding fathers (until recently) and demonstrate just how much of a lasting impact Alexander Hamilton has had on the nation we live in today. How well it actually does this has been a topic of debate ever since the original Broadway show debuted in 2015.
In case you’ve somehow avoided all information about one of the most popular musicals of all time, Hamilton tells the story of one Alexander Hamilton and how his life has left a lasting impact on the American government today. The show itself details how he got his start as an orphan immigrant fighting in the American Revolution alongside his ragtag militia buddies, eventually working his way up to become George Washington’s right hand man and landing himself a position as Secretary of the Treasury. Then, through a series of unfortunate (mostly preventable) events, he slowly loses his power to rivals as his arrogant attitude eventually becomes his downfall, leading to Alexander getting shot and killed by his longtime frenemy Aaron Burr during a petulant duel due to Alexander’s endorsement of Jefferson over Burr during the election of 1800.
In terms of story, Hamilton is surprisingly effective at keeping listeners engaged with the historical material on display, often breaking the 4th wall to deliver little “here’s how it really happened” or “bet you didn’t know that” quips that serve to enhance the overall experience. It makes people feel as though they’re being given special “insider info” that “the history books don’t want you to know” and so on. Which is a lot of fun for people that don’t know a ton about American history, but probably not as fun for the people that can point out all the other historical events and character traits conveniently left out of the show. But I’m not really here to nitpick little details like that, otherwise we’d be here all day. As I said at the beginning, I really like Hamilton.
Unsurprisingly, the star of the show is unquestionably the music, which is the one and only focus of the play, as basically every single line of dialogue is delivered through song. While the music in Hamilton is based primarily on Hip Hop and R&B, every single track has its own unique flair that keeps the whole thing moving forward at a great pace. It’s an addicting structure, and one that is incredibly difficult to put down once you start it. Transitions are smooth (for the most part), and there are so many callbacks to important character lines or motifs throughout the play that you really get a sense things are constantly pushing towards that ultimate climax of Hamilton reaping the seeds of what he has sown. Lin-Manuel Miranda is truly one of the most impressive writers I’ve ever seen, and the sheer number of rhymes and verses he created for this show are a testament to just how much passion went into this project. It’s aggressive, emotional, raw, and intimate in all the right ways.
However, despite how much I love Hamilton’s music, I feel as though it’s important to recognize the social consequences of releasing the play again in 2020, especially one month after the murder of George Floyd. I try not to inject my political views into the material I review, especially because the political landscape in the age of the internet is changing so rapidly all the time, but I think it’s important to address the fact that America is currently undergoing a very difficult time, both culturally and pandemic-ly. 2020 has been an absolute dumpster fire of a year, but it has also exposed a lot Americans to the ugliness of issues that have been swept under the rug for decades. Concepts such as being “blind to race” and believing that “only racists bring up race” (which is my personal favorite) seem to be missing the point that life is fundamentally different in America for non-white individuals, and has been for a long time, even if you aren’t “personally racist.”
Because of this, regardless of your political views, it’s difficult to argue that releasing a show in which a bunch of Black and Latino actors portray America’s founding fathers as hip, cool, relatable dudes during a time in which many people are just now beginning to see the horrific toll slavery and racial injustice has left on this nation isn’t a move that could be made without controversy. It raises a lot of questions, very few of which have any definitive right or wrong answer. Is it insensitive to rebrand historical slave owners and slave traders as Black? Is it asking too much for Hamilton to recognize that many of the people featured in its show, including Hamilton himself, would likely be considered horrible racists by modern standards? Or is it empowering to take these figureheads from American history and transform them into characters that provide a positive, hopeful outlook on the future of a more progressive and socially-aware America? Is it even fair to judge those who occupy the past based on the morals of today? I don’t know, I’m just a random white dude on the internet; I don’t have much perspective on these issues because I don’t have to deal with them on a daily basis. But it’s something to think about.
At the end of the day, I still find Hamilton to be a fantastically enjoyable show based purely on the material provided within. Its story is engaging and relatable, even if it’s not entirely based in reality. Its music is some of the best I’ve heard from a Broadway show, with so many unique and interesting songs that hit hard and flow beautifully from scene to scene. And the actual visuals and filmmaking behind this recorded performance (or two performances) greatly enhances the experience, adding even more context to the events within the play and really driving home just how emotional many of these performances are. Leslie Odom Jr. and Christopher Jackson are my absolute favorites of the bunch, and their musical numbers truly come to life when put to film. However, it’s certainly starting to feel like the age of blind patriotism in America is nearing its end, and that many people that once celebrated leaders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are beginning to realize that history is worth critiquing, rather than just ingesting without further analysis. Hamilton is essentially historical junk food, and while I really like it, I can’t help but feel it might just be one of the last of its kind.
9/10 – Fantastic