by Eric Peterson
Recently, I went to a theatre and took a risk on a teeny-tiny show, a bit of fluff you’ve probably never heard of, a little musical called Hamilton, by a promising unknown named Lin-Manuel Miranda.
This adorable trifle just happened to pick up 11 Tony Awards in 2016, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. If you’ve wanted to see this show sometime in the past three years, you’ve probably already done so. So I’ll speak instead to those who haven’t seen it yet, either because you haven’t gotten around to it, or because, well…it scares you, a little.
I’ll admit that I walked into the show with muted expectations. Almost everyone I knew loved the show with such fervor, and I wondered if anything could live up to the hype. A few in my circle didn’t enjoy the show, mostly because of the hip-hop score; they reported finding it difficult to follow the story due to the rapid lyrics.
On that first point, I’ll be succinct: Hamilton absolutely lives up to the hype. To that second point…I’ll give it a maybe. Unless you listen to a lot of hip-hop yourself, your ear might not be quick enough to pick up every rapid-fire lyric in the score. I certainly fall into that category myself, but I was lucky, in that I saw a Sunday matinee with surtitles for the hearing-impaired—or in my case, the hopelessly square. But I caught every word. I could read it if I didn’t catch it audibly, but it was there, and it was brilliant.
For the uninitiated, the things you probably already know about the show are that it’s largely told through rap and hip-hop, and that the cast largely features people of color playing famous founders of this country, who also happen to be famously white.
What you might not realize is that the score is also largely sung, and that the songs are beautiful. The funniest song in the show belongs to the villain (King George singing “You’ll Be Back” to the revolutionaries who have hurt his feelings by declaring their independence), and the most poignant goes to Hamilton’s wife (Eliza sings “Burn” as she torches his letters after a painful betrayal).
What’s important to know about the casting is that it’s not a gimmick. The reason this show is loved by so many, I believe, is that it reminds us that our founders weren’t just staid politicians. They were revolutionaries. It might seem obvious to describe men who led a Revolutionary War that way, but I wonder if the serious faces we see on our currency have allowed us to forget that these people were BADASS. They were powerless, and they took their power. They were dehumanized, and they seized their humanity. They were oppressed, so they laid claim to their own story and wrote their own rules.
And really—who better to embody those voices today than people of African, Latino, and Asian descent? And what better way to musically tell their story in the 21st century than through the sounds that currently provide the soundtrack of our streets? Hamilton is telling us our own origin story. But more importantly, it's reminding us of what’s possible. And today, that’s an important reminder indeed. Don’t let it frighten you. See it. Embrace it. And sit next to the surtitles if you have to.
A longer version of this essay was previously published in Letters from CAMP Rehoboth.