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Singing and subverting White American history

  • 14 April 2016


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.

The 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 neighbourYour 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