My first experience with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton occurred during the 2016 Grammy Awards. I don’t own a watch, so I use my television, or more specifically the length of television shows, to track the time while I write.
A still, small voice told me to look up at the exact moment the TV camera panned to the stage where the cast would perform—yes, Hamilton is such a phenomenon that it occasioned a moment of fate. Someone was about to perform a musical, and while Les Miserables and childhood memories of The Sound of Music have seeded some appreciation for the genre, a musical is hardly something I’d shirk work to watch.
I should’ve returned to writing, but I didn’t. Then Leslie Odom Jr. stepped on to the stage as Aaron Burr, and my eyes widened as my mouth rounded around thoughts that couldn’t quite breach the realm of speech.
The act commenced with a brief fanfare—bow, string, and drum—that impregnated the stage with a foretaste of the drama to come. As hip-hop lyrics filled the quiet, actor of color after actor of color stepped into the spotlight. The music was restrained, ivory notes tiptoeing between cellos and violins, but the stage exploded with an all Black and Latino cast enacting Anglo-American history.
“Oh my God,” I said. I wanted to take the emotions washing through me and ground them in speech, but I couldn’t make it past three words. I stood across from the television at the front of my bunk bed and watched people—people whose cultures and histories had been regularly appropriated by Anglo actors—appropriate the story of the most powerful nation in the world. And they affected their act of power with hip-hop, an art form with a history of appropriation by white America.
Shock and awe.
As the shock subsided, Miranda’s selection of lyrics emerged and raised a question as to whether Hamilton is an act of American appropriation or an assertion of American identity.
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
spot in the Caribbean by providence,
impoverished, in squalor,
grow up to be a hero and a scholar.
Re-imagine the slaves as millions of black men carted off to prison, and the stanza could describe some of my childhood friends’ struggle to relieve poverty’s weight. Many young men join gangs because they’re “longing for something to be a part of.” They commit crimes for money, in a capitalist culture that tangles worth and monetary value, because they’re shut out and “longing for something to be.”
The parallels between Hamilton’s historical struggles and minorities’ contemporary struggles continue throughout the musical, and, abruptly, it hit me that Miranda’s work was only an appropriation if we accept that the nation’s history belongs to white citizens.
Experiencing this revelation through the stage presentation humbled the artist in me and started me on the road to Hamilton fanatic-dom. Instead of attempting to take power from white America with a tit-for-tat act of appropriation, Miranda attempts to invest power in the rest of the nation with a bold statement about what it means to be American.
“Oh my God.” Standing at the foot of my bed, I tried and failed to break the three-word barrier. I’d never climbed through so many levels of awe in 60 seconds. I was buoyed through another ceiling with every stanza, with each actor who took center stage. Odom Jr., as Burr, dropped assonant slant rhymes about American hope; Anthony Ramos, as John Laurens, rapped about American ambition; TDaveed Diggs, as Thomas Jefferson and Okieriete Onaodowan as James Madison, American struggle. The narrative promised by the opening fanfare returned on a taut crescendo of violins before the music dropped out and Miranda filled the stage with his character’s longing for something to be:
My name is Alexander Hamilton.
And there’s a million things I haven’t done,
but just you wait, just you wait…
I stretched the “Oh” in “Oh my God” out, and with a breathy chuckle, added, “This is sick.” Fast-forward six months, and I got my hands on the cast album.
After 30 days and nights listening to and talking about Hamilton, I’ve found there are four kinds of people—yes, I’m about to divvy up the human race based upon responses to the musical. There’s the ultra fanatic: I lent the cast album to a guy, and he told me it was life changing—not the wow-the-sex-was-life-changing sort of change, but the he’s-now-making-life-altering-decisions-based-on-lines-from-the-musical kind of change. There’s the fanatic: me. There are those who feel slightly embarrassed because they’ve yet to see or hear it. I suspect they’re annoyed with my continual effusion of Hamilton’s merits all over them. Finally, there are those who stubbornly refuse to experience the phenomenon because they’re sick of its near-constant praise. In short, I’ve experienced no tepid reactions.
I think this is because Hamilton taps something undeniably American that transcends race. Miranda himself touched on this intangible after reading Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton. “I just felt like I knew him,” Miranda said during an interview with Rachel Syme. After I listened to the album, I also felt that intangible, an identification with the founding father, Hamilton, “[who] has something to prove/[who] has nothing to lose;” Hamilton, who wrote his dreams into existence. Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater where Hamilton began its run, articulates this intangible when he talks about how the story is something around which an increasingly divided nation might come together. Eustis puts his finger on why Hamilton has earned its acclaim. We have so many narratives in our country that divide us that it’s an American dream to be immersed in a story that unites us.
I don’t think Hamilton will unite the country, but Miranda’s work is seductive because it is art imitating the life we yearn to see. Hamilton represents the America that fulfills its ideals.