People who didn’t know any better doubted its brilliance at first hearing about it and were like, “Why are you using rap and hip-hop to do a musical about the founding fathers?” and “Why are you using black and Latino actors to play the very white Washington and Jefferson and Madison &c?” Answers: because it makes so much sense. As to the latter, Lin has repeatedly explained that this story of how America was in the beginning is being told (and should be told) by how America looks now. It’s a story about the immigrants that founded our country so why not tell it with today’s immigrants (or at least those that Trump would assume were immigrants). Also, it adds a lot of depth to have unrepentant slavers like Thomas Jefferson portrayed by black actors, while other black and Latino actors argue that, in the words of John Laurens, none of them will be free until they end slavery. This clever casting also has King George of England, the universally accepted villain early on, played by a white actor, the only white actor in a named part, turning the too common trope of a villain being dark-skinned on its head. (That kind of shit is over, right? No more Jafar movies?). As king, Jonathan Groff also comes across the youngest onstage, adding to the idea that he has no hold over these men. Groff’s brief scenes are played as a silly foppish fancy man and it’s hilarious; he has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand before he figuratively slaps them across the face with it.
As for the music, hip-hop (inclusive of rap) is the most purely American type of music, our lingua franca. (Well, for a large portion of our country. And it tells stories and represents problems and current issues better than any other.) Hip-hop tells stories just like Hamilton’s and those of all the founding fathers, really. Alexander was orphaned young on a small island and worked his way out by reading and writing and becoming brilliant, scrappily fighting his way to the top of a new nation and its government. So hip hop. It also makes perfect sense to frame a Cabinet debate as a rap battle – both have lots of words and passion and the winner might not have the best argument (unless it’s Hamilton arguing because he usually does) but they definitely looked or sounded the best.
That’s all really interesting and thought-provoking, but why is everyone from Busta Rhymes to President Obama to Meryl Streep losing their shit over this show, you might wonder? Even with the inspired casting and genre choices, how can it be repeatedly called the greatest piece of theatre in modern history (and possibly the greatest rap album of the year as well)? This is because every detail, every single word is meticulously chosen and in a short burst of perfectly metered rap you can learn more than an entire year’s worth of school history. I have almost the entire score memorized and even so, every listen brings a new revelation and lesson about early American history. That’s why it’s genius. The sold-out audiences every night are actually learning, about the revolution, the struggle to form a stable nation, as well as how all of those lessons apply to modern political times.
One such brilliant bit comes courtesy of Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), who has my favorite delivery of any character and is inspired by and supposed to remind you of Busta Rhymes. In “My Shot” he says:
Yo, I’m a tailor’s apprentice
And I got y’all knuckleheads in loco parentis
I’m joining the rebellion cuz I know it’s my chance
To socially advance instead of sewin’ some pants
This verse, while amazing and adorable (Hercules’s insider-tailor jokes never disappoint), sneaks in a history lesson: Hamilton actually lived in Mulligan’s house while Ham attended King’s College (Columbia) because the school required him to have lodging with some sort of guardian. So Mulligan really ended up acting in loco parentis. This is like a NOTHING line compared with the rest of the show and look how much we’re learning.
One more. In the song “Right Hand Man”, when we first meet George Washington (in a scene that will guaranteed make you feel patriotic, no matter if you aren’t American), Washington sings:
Boom! goes the cannon, watch the blood and the shit spray, and
Boom! goes the cannon, we’re abandoning Kips Bay, and
Boom there’s another ship and
We just lost the southern tip and
We gotta run to Harlem quick
We can’t afford another slip
Guns and horses giddyup
I decide to divvy up
My forces, they’re skittish as the British cut the city up
This close to giving up, facing mad scrutiny,
I scream in the face of this mass mutiny:
Are these the men with which I am to defend America?
These lines come from “Right Hand Man”, chronicling the 1776 Landing of Kips Bay, when thousands of British soldiers forced American militia back from lower Manhattan and allowed more British ships and troops to enter Manhattan unopposed, starting British occupation of Manhattan for pretty much the entirety of the war. Most of Washington’s men fled quickly despite his frustrated attempts to keep them from retreating. Washington and the continental army had to flee all the way to Harlem Heights to get out of what became British occupied territory. That last line is an actual quote Washington shouted when he realized what was happening and was like ‘are you shitting me guys.’ And it just blends perfectly into the rhyme. For those enjoying the cast album, the record scratches on ‘guns and horses giddyup’ are meant to – and successfully do – resemble a horse neighing AND kind of sound like a car engine starting.
With almost every line as full as these, the show is an effective history lesson. But more importantly, every song is actually great. The melodies produced here are as perfectly constructed and impressive as the lyrics. Some of the best songs produced in recent times are in this show, many sung by our narrator, Aaron Burr. Instead of being cast aside as the villain who shot and killed a guy who was sort of important but never president – pretty much how you learn about them in school – Burr is seen as regretful, for years and years falling behind Hamilton’s rapid ascent to political and public glory despite his best efforts to match or best him. Comparisons of the two men start early on, with both orphaned political and military upstarts becoming involved in the revolution and government, but with Hamilton always loudly speaking exactly what he believed and with Burr always thinking it’s better to stay reserved so as not to ruffle any feathers. Burr repeatedly tells Hamilton to talk less, and warns that fools who run their mouths off wind up dead, while Hamilton admonishes “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?” They’re each other’s most honest judge of character.
Burr as narrator begins the show laying bare his regret at killing his one-time friend and often-times colleague, and at the end laments how history will remember him and how mistaken he was. Yet through Leslie Odom Jr.’s off-the-charts fantastic portrayal of Burr, sir, this show gives us a chance to see Burr as much more than a dull 2D figure in a history book. The complexities to his character never stop astonishing, and while the same can be said for Hamilton, it’s Burr trajectory and choices that are much more interesting and that haunt you for a long time after seeing it played out on stage.
Somehow, Lin wrote every character in this show just as captivatingly as he did Burr and Hamilton. Much of this comes to life courtesy of Daveed Diggs, a magical actor and rapper who plays my man Lafayette in the first act as the most fun Frenchman EVER, and Thomas Jefferson in the second act, as a pedantic fancypants (literally, velvet pants) pro-slavery anti-federalism asshat. I’m not sure which portrayal is more impressive, but his Jefferson – all pretty accurate too – will make you rethink why we consider this guy a hero. Especially in his Cabinet Battles with Hamilton, you’ll be like, get this dude out of my country’s founding yo. In the first Battle, he argues for states rights against Hamilton’s promotion of a federal government and, mainly, financial system. When Thomas asks why should Virginia, thriving with no debt, be responsible to pay for the flailing NYC’s debts, Hamilton answers, “Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor.” BURN. Hashtag endslavery. I want Leslie Odom Jr. to win a Tony for Best Actor very, very badly, but I want Daveed to win for Featured Actor just as badly.
My main man Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan kills it KILLS IT as Hercules Mulligan (BRAHH BRAHH), a man I thought was a made-up half-mythical creature half-golf pro character or something, but no. He was really a hero in the revolution, a tailor (a great one at that, husband!) who had fancy British military clients in New York and spied on them and passed the information to the rebels. We learn about his secret dealings in my FAVORITE rap part of Act 1, when he sings insanely rapidly: “I take their measurements, information, and then I smuggle it up/to my brothers’ revolutionary covenant/I’m running with the Sons of Liberty and I am LOVIN it.” He spits this line so fast it just sounds like one word and it’s my favorite thing. Oak Smash! He also has the unstoppable line “Hercules Mulligan, I need no introduction/when you knock me down I get the fuck back up again”. OMG I LOVE IT. In Act II, he plays a mostly ill James Madison, ill in the health sense and ill for being Jefferson’s buddy. See I am so hip-hop too. Oak also was the first celebrity to eat my vegan cookies so hayyyy. Anthony Ramos somehow portrays John Laurens perfectly in Act I and then plays a 9-year-old in Act II (Hamilton's son Phillip). It's a pretty remarkable transformation, and his scenes in Act II will crush your heart like they do in "Once Upon A Time". Side note, how beautiful is "It's Quiet Uptown"? That will also crush you.
One of the most genius* aspects of “Hamilton” is that Lin injected some incredible female characters into the history of America’s founding, and not merely Betsy Ross (though she does get a quick mention). Ham married Elizabeth Schuyler, a wealthy gal from a very important family. He also had an emotional affair with her older sister Angelica. Lin turns these two characters, plus their younger sister Peggy, into a colonial Destiny’s Child, spouting rhymes about feminism and revolution and all-around awesomeness. While Eliza is the lovely, sweet, trusting and kind one who gets the most beautiful ballads, Angelica is the tough, witty, and super-intelligent one that is the only match for Ham’s wits. When we first meet the sisters in the appropriately named “The Schuyler Sisters”, a legit Destiny’s Child tune, Angelica sings:
“I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine”
So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane.
You want a revolution? I want a revelation,
So listen to my declaration:
We hold these truths to be self evident
That all men are created equal.
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson?
I’ma compel him to include women in the sequel!
The repeated shouts of “work/werk” are amazing, as is everything that comes out of Renee Elise Goldsberry’s mouth. As Angelica, she makes a supporting female character the most charismatic and compelling on stage, and she sings and raps with the best of them. As Eliza, Phillippa Soo is lovely and lovable and you just want her to smile but life was hard back then and Ham messes up a lot. As Peggy, Jasmine Cephas Jones has literally one line and is so unimportant that in Act II she plays a different character. Werk?
Eliza and Angelica's one-two punch of "Helpless", when Eliza meets and falls in love (and married) Ham, into "Satisfied", when Angelica rewinds the scene (literally...one of the most incredible technical scenes I've ever seen) to give her perspective of that fateful night, efficient develops these two important characters in such a relatively short time and in such a remarkable way. We learn so, so much in those two songs, and they are fantastic songs. Angelica's rapping in "Satisfied" is some of the most impressive in the show, and they provide so much depth and insight into her mindset and her understanding of her duties to her family. It's amazing.
I could go on and on. There is so much to this show, so much to the score, that people will be studying it for years, I’m sure. I know tons of school classes are already studying it, because Lin makes sure students and schools have access to see it. (Teachers have said that it’s a more effective teaching tool than their entire year of AP history. Good/bad?) It’ll teach you things you never knew about early American history and our founding fathers and it will change the way you think about them. The lessons the characters learn are applicable to today’s political atmosphere and even to our non-political lives; they are universal human struggles and desires set to sublime music. It’s exactly what a musical should be: it teachers, it challenges you, it uses vibrant and vital music to further a complex but easily understandable story, and it leaves you with so much to think about. SO MUCH. To find one or two of these songs in a regular piece of theatre would be remarkable; you’d be like that show is good and x or y is the best song in it. That’s normal. In “Hamilton”, EVERY song is like that. Almost any of the 40-odd movements would be the best part of any other regular show. And they are ALL in “Hamilton”. Now that is amazing.
A few pieces of musical reference Genius to share with you that aren’t spoilers just because I literally cannot stop talking or thinking about it and I’m sure we will be getting a regular thinkpiece on it every so often here:
When we first meet Marquis de Lafayette (called Lafayette throughout, none of that Gilbert nonsense), he introduces himself thusly:
Oui oui, mon ami, je m’appelle Lafayette,
The Lancelot of the revolutionary set
I came from afar just to say bon soir
Tell the king casse toi
Who’s the best? C’est moi
This verse is rapped so hilariously by Daveed Diggs in a thick French accent, but what makes it even better is knowing that one of Lin’s childhood musical influences was “Camelot”, which has a song called “C’est Moi”. What happens in “Camelot” during that song? Lancelot is introduced. I KNOW!!
In the aforementioned “Right Hand Man”, the chorus raps “Here comes the General!” and Washington spits a few lines and then says:
Now I’m the model of a modern major general
The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all
Lining up, to put me up on a pedestal.
I’m sure you all know that Gilbert & Sullivan’s famous “Pirates of Penzance” has a very famous song called “Modern Major-General”, which begins:
“I am the very model of a modern Major-General
I’ve information animal, vegetable, and mineral.”
Lin said he knew he could come up with a better rhyme than ‘mineral.’
Another GENIUS move in “My Shot” comes after John Laurens, one of the first and best fighters against slavery, raps about how despite their being in the middle of the Revolution, they’ll never be free until slavery is over. Aaron Burr replies:
I’m with you, but the situation is fraught
You’ve got to be carefully taught:
If you talk, you’re gonna get shot.
So, obviously, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” is the title of the great song in “South Pacific”. Aaand, it’s about teaching kids racism while they’re young. While this line has Burr tell the others not to be so upfront with their views, it’s ALSO responding to the verse Laurens says about slavery and thus racism with the title of a song about racism. Erma.
And finally, a few references (out of many more, I’m sure) to Lin’s first big hit, “In The Heights”. The best song from that show is “96,000”, about what all the different characters would hypothetically do with lottery winnings that big.
In “Hamilton”, in the opening of “Right Hand Man”, the ensemble quietly sings “32,000 troops in New York Harbor.” And you know what? They sing that line exactly three times. 32,000 x 3 = 96,000. (Dollahs? Hollah.) whoa.
In “My Shot”, when detailing all the reasons for the Revolution, Hamilton raps:
We are meant to be a colony
That runs independently
Meanwhile, Britain keeps shittin’ on us endlessly
Essentially, they tax us relentlessly
Then King George turns around, runs a spending spree…
In the beginning of “96,000”, Benny (originally played by Chris Jackson, who plays George Washington in “Hamilton”), sings
“If I won the lotto tomorrow well I know
I wouldn’t bother going on no spending spree”
Also, we learn at the end that Eliza founds the first orphanage in NYC (which is beautiful in so many ways, not least because her husband was an orphan). What we don’t learn in the show is that that she also founds the first school in Washington Heights. Lin decided not to include that piece of info because there’s no other way to say but in those exact words, “in Washington Heights”, and that’s just too on-the-nose for “In The Heights” famous lasting lines. But so interesting right! Just go see the show, go buy tickets for next summer (that’s like first available) or buy the album and listen to it all day and you will learn SO GODDAMN MUCH.
*I know I say genius a lot here but seriously, he won a MacArthur genius grant for this shiz. He is a genius.
Now do yourself a favor and listen to one of the best songs written in a decade, “Wait For It”, which beautifully explains why Burr acts as he does.