Singing and subverting White American history

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Musical theatre buffs were excited by the news last week that Lin-Manuel Miranda's historical Broadway hit Hamilton might be headed to Australia. It is likely we'll be waiting at least a couple of years; fortunately in the meantime the Grammy award winning original cast recording of the show is available on iTunes and in stores.

Lin-Manuel Miranda in HamiltonThe album has plenty to offer. Inspired by historian Ron Chernow's 2004 biography of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, and honouring its subject's prowess and profligacy with the written word, the show emphasises verbal storytelling, reflected in its extensive use of rap as well as singing. As such the album plays as a kind of musical audio novella.

It traces Hamilton's life from his childhood as an orphan in the Caribbean and his migration to New York where he takes up with a group of young revolutionaries, follows him through his experiences during the Revolutionary War, and ticks off his considerable achievements in the fledgling Congress.

Poetic licence notwithstanding, Hamilton is broadly historically accurate, the deftness and precision of its lyrics capturing complex human and political realities. It centres on Hamilton's ill-fated rivalry with fellow founding father, the (in this telling) ambitious but unprincipled Aaron Burr, whose recurring advice to Hamilton is to 'Talk less, smile more'.

As a popular Broadway show about American history, Hamilton contains its share of flag-waving — see Hamilton and co. 'rais[ing] a glass to freedom' in 'The Story of Tonight'. But it is also iconoclastic and humanising: young Hamilton and Burr are tomcats on the prowl in 'A Winter's Ball'; 'Hamilton's skill with the quill is undeniable, but ... We're [both] reliable with the ladies!' boasts Burr.

Thomas Jefferson meanwhile shows up at the start of act two after a stint as ambassador to France, with the revolution in his home country fought and won, to ask somewhat dismissively 'What'd I miss?' He immediately goes toe to toe with Hamilton in Cabinet over a plan for centralising the Union's finances, that Jefferson believes will disadvantage his home state of Virginia. 'If New York's in debt why should Virginia bear it?' he asks in 'Cabinet Battle #1':

In Virginia we plant seeds in the ground,
We create. You just want to move our money around.

Hamilton retorts:

A civics lesson from a slaver? Hey neighbour
Your debts are paid because you don't pay for labour.
'We plant seeds in the South, we create' ... keep ranting.
We know who's really doing the planting.

This is established history viewed through a modern lens (and delivered in modern language) in a way that denies Jefferson an easy place on the pedestals of history; just as the portrayal of Hamilton's youthful hotheadedness and philandering rattles his. The approach helps to underline modern relevancies and perspectives that might be missed in dry prose.

In the same way, the show's shamelessly opportunistic Burr has clear modern equivalents in American and Australian politics; and Jefferson's sardonic lament 'It must be nice to have Washington on your side' alludes to the favour shown Hamilton by the first president, but also points out that while 'poorer citizens ... live ration to ration ... Wall Street robs them blind in search of chips to cash in.'

 

"Crucially, in a show about 'founding fathers', it is the story's women who not only provide its emotional core but are also the most fundamentally heroic."

 

The show's implicit subversiveness runs deep. It is embodied in the fact that its cast consists of mostly Black and Latino performers (Miranda himself is an American of Puerto Rican descent), using a vernacular and musical styles popularly associated with these cultural groups. It thus stands as a riposte to the history of black/brownface and whitewashing in popular entertainment.

Crucially, in a show about 'founding fathers', it is the story's women who not only provide its emotional core but are also the most fundamentally heroic. This is true in particular of the Schuyler sisters Angelica and Eliza, the former of whom becomes Hamilton's friend and confidante, the latter his wife.

Angelica is enamoured to Hamilton, in whom she finds an intellectual equal; but defers to her social responsibility as the eldest daughter to 'marry rich', and to her younger sister's own infatuation with him. She continues to admire him from afar, at one point obsessing over a misplaced comma in a letter where Alexander's polite 'My dearest Angelica' becomes instead 'My dearest, Angelica'.

Yet when Alexander becomes, literally, the author of his own scandal, his constant ally Angelica rebuffs him; and Eliza becomes the very picture of self-agency, 'erasing [her]self from the narrative' by burning Hamilton's letters to her: 'Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.'

Eliza has played a patient second fiddle to her husband's career (in 'Take a Break' she pleads in vain with him to go away for the summer with her and their children), yet has been repaid with marital infidelity and public shame. In 'Burn', the show's emotional apex, she indicts him unequivocally: 'You forfeit all rights to my heart. You forfeit your place in our bed.'

Yet Eliza, of whom Angelica has said 'You will never find anyone as trusting or as kind', proves also to be the embodiment of grace, first reconciling with Hamilton following the death of their beloved eldest son ('Forgiveness! Can you imagine?' the chorus chimes in 'It's Quiet Uptown'), and even becoming the keeper of his legacy after his own death ('Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story').

 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Lin-Manuel Miranda

 

 

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I wonder if "Hamilton" will win as many Tony Awards as "The Producers"?
Pam | 13 April 2016


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