Right around the time last year that I found out my prospects at work were in the toilet, Hamilton exploded into the public consciousness. My brother had mentioned “the hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton” earlier that summer, and I believe my reaction was, “That’s not a real thing,” followed by, “Is it good?” We didn’t know.
A few weeks later, NPR streamed the cast recording. I remembered my earlier conversation with Michael when, a few days after it debuted, I finally clicked on the link, launching my own and many other obsessive fandoms. Seconds into the opening number, I told Michael, “I’m not sure what story they’re going to tell considering they’re running through his life story in the first song.” It seemed like an impossible task. In three minutes, we hear this sweeping overview of the major events that shaped Hamilton. We meet the characters telling his story. We find out how the story ends. To power us through the intervening years, we find out that Hamilton is driven by his relentless forward view through a life filled with tragedy and triumph. His tenacity resonated with a lot of people, myself included, who might be inclined to wallow in self-pity. And damn are these songs fun to sing.
Plenty of fictional characters have been subjected to this kind of abuse. Next door to Hamilton, every night, Jean Valjean spends his life atoning for a petty theft committed as a young man. But because it’s based in reality, Hamilton is almost a multidimensional experience. You can visit his and Eliza’s graves on Wall Street, Aaron Burr’s in Princeton, George Washington’s at Mount Vernon. You can see these characters’ fingerprints in the cities of the northeast, and you can see the humble places they lived and worked there too. The show connected me to the places I often visit in a way I’d never felt before. It helped me think about the people I surround myself with and the effect they have on my future. It pushed me to reconsider my fixation on my flaws, to instead see them as simply part of this larger, more complicated being. I don’t think the show pulls any punches in portraying Alexander Hamilton as kind of an asshole. He’s redeemed because the things that make him annoying also made him an exemplary worker. And also by his complex inner monologues, which contrast sharply with his dialogues of flattery, frustration, and ego.
If we’re being honest, dude had about 15 good years in his life. His family was poor, maligned, sick, and dying for his first two decades. His neighbors sent him to New York to be educated, but he dropped out of college to fight in a war that was going very badly. He had a remarkable run from Yorktown in 1781 until he published The Reynolds Pamphlet in 1797 and brought about his own political undoing. His rival was elected president in 1800, his son killed in a duel in 1801, and the same fate befell our hero just three years later. To know this makes it more remarkable that we still hear joy, hope, and aspiration through every number in this show.
So imagine being on the verge of 30, finding out that your job security is gone and your hard work was deemed institutionally insignificant, and hearing George Washington voice Hamilton’s early realization–“Alex, you gotta fend for yourself”–every time you start this album.
And then play “My Shot” a few times for good measure and think about your own modest, scrappy upbringing as you try to break into more significant social and political circles.
Listen to Eliza Schuyler sing, “Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” Think how that’s basically true of everyone at all times. Listen as character after character after character presses on in the face of defeats and loss. Hear the final thoughts of a dying man, reflecting on his legacy and accepting what Washington has told him all along: “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
For the past year, I’ve needed this show. I needed the unrelenting optimism and gratitude of its characters, cast, and creators to avoid falling into complete bitterness and depression. And while I have slightly fewer conversations about it now than a year ago, I am pretty much always willing to geek out about the historical, lyrical, musical and emotional complexity of this show.
Image via Hamiltonbroadway.com