Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father who has long been forgotten despite being on the ten-dollar bill, having a key role in the American Revolution, the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and the establishment of the U.S. Treasury, was an immigrant. In 2015 a Broadway production written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator In The Heights, based on a biography by Ron Chernow, took America by storm. It is my opinion that love for the musical as an artform was renewed for my generation with Glee, but Hamilton exploded onto the scene and once more made musicals relevant, powerful, and imbued with social and political narratives of our times disguised within amazing lyrics and kinetic choreography. What needs to be kept in mind is that best way to describe this musical about a revolutionary figure isn’t that it revolutionizes the form; it renews it with a lot of contuinity of traditional structures (including jazz hands).
For me though, what’s interesting avout the musical is what I mentioned before; how relevantly political it is for our times. Alexander Hamilton is an immigrant who built the United States government. This is one of the musical’s central appeals for a generation that is mainly composed of children of immigrants and who wish that the reality of America as a nation of immigrants was given more emphasis. As the Broadway musical accurately retells, Hamilton was born in the West Indies to a Scottish father (another immigrant) and working mother and, orphaned at a young age, was able to pursue a college education through the help of wealthy men.
As far as the quality of the play: the acting is amazing, the music is astounding, the staging perfectly fitting, and the dance numbers (in a combination of modern dance and hip hop) exciting. Everything in it seems geared to revamp an artistic genre that was beginning to be perceived as fading. The cast as a whole demonstrated a level of cohesion that is both rare and difficult to achieve; the scenery changes were seamless despite the small stage being constantly packed with actors and the choir/dancers and the space was used in a efficient and effective way. Despite the simplicity of the scenery, the choreography and music perfectly communicated the environment and time-period, whether it be the streets of New York City or the Battle for Yorktown. The best element of the production was the level of energy that the cast gave off from the opening number to the last bow. Additionally, each and every scene the stage was bursting with talent and the audience was able to quickly connect with the characters. What I did realize while watching was that despite the modernity of the numbers, both in music and choreography, the musical communicates the sense of being in that historical period, in that moment, with Alexander Hamilton. So why does Hamilton’s story resonate so strongly? He is the embodiment of the American dream which many now feel has been lost, but at the same time he was ambitious to the point of obsession and that is something millennials share. There has a been a sharp rise in depression and severe anxiety amongst millennials because we live with the constant pressure to succeed in order to justify our parents’, society’s, and our own investment in ourselves (student loans anyone?). The song “My Shot” perfectly sums up this burning desire to seize every opportunity, or create some of our own, to “make a name” for ourselves.
Before and after watching the musical I read a variety of reviews and one of the things that most drew me to it, besides its use of hip hop and rap, was the composition of the cast; the titular characters, and a majority of the cast, are played by Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Latin Americans. Millennials, those of us born between 1982 and 2000, are the most diverse generation in the history of the United States with 44.2% of us being part of a “minority” race or ethnic group. While 50.2% of those born after 2014 are part of a “minority” race or ethnic group. In other words, conservatives have already lost, but let’s save that for another discussion. Here I want to talk about how this diversity combined with powerful lyrics has had such a powerful impact in musical theater and American culture.
One of the strange senses you get as the child of immigrant parents born in the United States is that of being caught between two or more cultures, never quite belonging into any of them and struggling to find your place in a country that either ignores or rejects your presence. Less than 1% of characters in American network television are minorities, despite minorities making up about 38% of the national population. The lyrics to a variety of songs in the musical highlight how immigrants have contributed to building this nation. From the first act my heart soared with a verses such as: “Another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom” and “Immigrants; we get the job done”. It was a punch in the gut to all the conservative rhetoric of how immigrants are somehow a burden to the government because they don’t pay taxes because they are here illegally. Hamilton reflects the reality of American today, while at the same time shedding light on something often ignored in political debates; all Americans are immigrants. We all came from somewhere at some point not too long ago and we all came looking for the same thing: to rise up.