Jesus Christ, this will be fun! Alexander Hamilton on stage

08 June 2016

Cultural Studies | Empire and Globalism | Ethnic Studies | History | Theatre

How could you not love a musical which borrows equally from The Pirates of Penzance and Notorious B.I.G.? Hamilton, if you haven’t heard yet, is a musical blending rap, jazz, blues and classic Broadway melodies to tell the story of an obscure Founding Father (‘Yo, who the eff is this?!’) and his attempts to get a radical debt plan passed by America’s fledgling government. Yeah, that old chestnut. I jest; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s occasionally swear-y, Pulitzer Prize-winning show has torn up the rulebook, and this weekend, stands to make history at the Tony Awards where it has earned a record-breaking haul of sixteen nominations.

Hamilton playbill, accessed via Wikipedia. Engraving of a young Alexander Hamilton, n.d. Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

 

Based on the life of Alexander Hamilton - the first US Secretary of the Treasury, originator of the US Coast Guard, founder of the New York Post, or ‘a polymath, a pain in the ass’ - Hamilton features a cast of historical giants, from world-weary, cash-strapped George Washington to Lafayette (‘the Lancelot of the revolutionary set’ ) and lesser known figures such as Aaron Burr and tailor-cum-spy, Hercules Mulligan (when you knock him down, he… well, you’ll have to listen to "Yorktown" to find out). In one of the show’s best raps, the protagonist rails against future president and hypocritical dandy, Thomas Jefferson: ‘A civics lesson from a slaver? Hey neighbour/Your debts are paid ‘cause you don’t pay for labour’. Slavery isn’t a theme that one usually equates to bums on Broadway seats, but Hamilton is unafraid to tackle the big, eighteenth century issues. 

 

In an American election year more than usually preoccupied with walls, immigration is a hot topic, and at its heart, Hamilton is an immigrant story. ‘Just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry’, he sings as he arrives, poor and friendless, in revolutionary New York. Soon after, the motor-mouthed migrant begins impressing a host of revolutionary homeboys with his earnest quips and couplets, lashing out, for example, at the loyalist, Samuel Seabury: ‘My dog speaks more eloquently than thee! … Why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea?’ 

 

Back on that ‘tiny island’, King George – blue, befuddled and occasionally maniacal - sees the independence movement as nought but a lovers’ tiff: ‘Remember, despite our estrangement, I’m your man … And when push comes to shove/I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!’ Later, the possessive royal crowingly predicts the split that would eventually lead to civil war: ‘They will tear each other into pieces/Jesus Christ, this will be fun!’

 

Serendipitously, Hamilton popped up on my cultural radar (i.e. Youtube) around the same time I reached the revolution-y documents in our upcoming resource, Colonial America: Towards Revolution, swiftly becoming the soundtrack to my working day and finally teaching me the correct pronunciation of “Schuyler” (I wasn’t even close). However, for Hamilton obsessives, a quick search of our collection American History, 1493-1945 proves bountiful, revealing documents that cover the man’s personal life, political ideals and economic plans. While the musical constructs a love triangle between Alexander, his wife Elizabeth Schuyler and her sister Angelica, a letter written in 1780 to Eliza shows an uncharacteristically soppy side to Hamilton: ‘I meet you in every dream and when I wake I cannot close my eyes again for ruminating on your sweetnesses’. 

Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler regarding their wedding, 1780. Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

 

This stands in stark contrast to other documents in the collection, particularly The Federalist, a collection of essays written anonymously (and primarily by Hamilton) to rally support for the new constitution. In the song "Non-Stop", an increasingly bitter Aaron Burr cites these essays in a rant against his rival’s work ethic – ‘how do you write ev’ry second you’re alive?’ Though the fateful estrangement between Burr and Hamilton is central to the narrative, Miranda’s best burns are saved for John Adams and negligent military leader, Charles Lee (‘I’m a general! Weeeee!’).

The Federalist: a collection of essays, written in favour of the new constitution, as agreed upon by the federal convention, 1787. Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Despite a tragic ending, there is good news; the blue coats are coming! Plans to bring Hamilton to the West End are underway. Bad news; one pair of tickets to the Broadway show recently changed hands (for charity, admittedly) for $42,000… One man who beat the ticketing system is President Obama who invited the cast to perform at the White House (below). By insisting on casting a diverse, multicultural company of players and carving out a voice for the women in Hamilton’s life, Miranda has turned the male, pale and stale narrative of colonial history on its head. As Obama pointed out, ‘this show reminds us [America] was built by more than just a few great men and that it is an inheritance that belongs to all of us’.

 

 

A performance by the cast of Hamilton at the White House earlier this year, posted to youtube by CBSN.

 

Colonial America, Module 2: Towards Revolution will be available from July. American History, 1493-1945 is available now. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are taken from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

All of the documents used in this blog will be available to access for 30 days.

About the Author

Lindsay Gulliver

Lindsay Gulliver

Since joining the editorial team at Adam Matthew, I have worked on a range of resources charting the history of colonial America, popular medicine, World’s Fairs and socialism around the globe. My main academic interests lie in cultural history and Thatcherism, but I enjoy researching all areas of modern history.

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