How to Sound Smart: Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow
Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow.

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve likely at least heard about Hamilton, the Broadway musical that has pretty much become a national phenomenon by now. The show, created by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, is sold out for the foreseeable future and the ticket lottery offering $10 tickets at random has become a ritual for New Yorkers who can’t get tickets at any price. The cast has performed at the White House, and the musical has won a Grammy Award, eight Drama Desk Awards, a record-setting sixteen Tony Award nominations – and, oh yeah, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

You could say Hamilton is a thing.

Now, a Broadway play about a Founding Father not named Washington or Franklin or Jefferson might seem unlikely. A musical about that Found Father would be even more so. A hip-hop musical takes us into the realm of the unprecedented, and a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton that has a color-blind casting process seems literally impossible. But that’s what’s happened, and it’s not only pushed its source book back onto the bestseller charts, it’s spawned a whole new bestseller in Miranda’s Hamilton: The Revolution (with Jeremy McCarter). Hamilton is an industry unto itself, and if you want to get on the bandwagon but, like everyone else, can’t get tickets, here are the basics you need to know.

Hamilton The Man

First of all, a surprising number of Americans are kind of fuzzy on exactly who Alexander Hamilton was and why he’s the subject of the biggest Broadway Musical sensation since Rent.

Your best bet if you really want to know is Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer. This was the book that Miranda picked up at an airport, inspiring him to contemplate a musical about Hamilton, and as it’s return engagement with the bestseller lists prove, it’s one of the best works of history written in the last decade, and well worth reading on its own.

It’s difficult to overstate Hamilton’s contributions to our country. Orphaned as a young child, he went on to serve on George Washington’s staff during the war, more or less created the American economy on his own as the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and ahead of his time in his support of a strong federal government over state’s rights. His life was also filled with drama, and he died, famously, after a duel with Aaron Burr in New Jersey. The more you find out about Hamilton and his life, the more surprised you become that several more Broadway shows, books, and films haven’t already been made about the man.

Sung-Through

Regarding the musical itself, one of the main things you need to know is that it is almost entirely “sung-through,” which means there is almost no spoken dialog. All dialog and exposition is conveyed as part of the music, with the cast singing almost continuously. Early versions of the musical had written dialog and a more scene-like structure, but Miranda decided that the opening number was so strong going to a more traditional dialog structure would never work.

This is important because it’s so difficult to see the musical itself, but you can purchase the official cast recording—and because the show is sung-through, you get the entire story even though you can’t see the visuals.

That means you can at least experience the full power of the show through its innovative and (let’s face it) downright catchy songs.

However, note that almost: There is one scene in the show that isn’t sung, and it doesn’t appear on the cast recording. You can still follow the story without it, but you’re only getting 95% of the show, so keep that in mind.

Dramatic License

Although based on Chernow’s first-class research and writing, don’t forget that Hamilton is a show, and Miranda took a lot of liberties with history in order to make the show more dramatic and interesting. In other words, don’t think that reading Hamilton: The Revolution or seeing the show or listening to the cast recording will make you an expert on Alexander Hamilton; very likely you’ll wind up repeating something that never happened, or happened in a very different way.

For example, Aaron Burr and Hamilton weren’t nearly as involved in each other’s lives as the show depicts, and only later in their lives did they develop the animosity that resulted in the ill-fated duel that killed Hamilton.

Most of these decisions were made in the interests of having a clearer story arc and to keep the show from being five hours long, but it’s important to remember that Hamilton isn’t real history. If you want to know what really happened to this remarkable man, read Chernow’s bestselling book.

It’s remarkable that a musical about a historical figure like this is the hottest thing going right now. If you’re curious about Miranda and his work, check out In the Heights, his earlier Tony Award-winning musical set in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City.