The Broadway smash hit Hamilton: An American Musical, a “hip-hopera” about the nation’s founding, is a bona fide phenomenon. Tickets are nearly impossible to come by, and celebrities flock to every performance. (President Obama has seen it twice.) The show and its composer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, are receiving recognition for fantastic performances, an energetic blend of musical theatre tradition and hip hop innovation, and the choice to cast people of color in the roles of the lily-white Founding Fathers.
But Hamilton is also being praised for its potential to teach its audience members, to get them excited about a period of history they may only remember from dry classroom lessons. Miranda based the musical on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, and the historian served as a consultant to the show. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History recently partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to provide discounted tickets for low-income New York City high school students and develop accompanying educational programming.
Hamilton is the latest in a long line of musicals based on historical events: 1776, Les Misérables, Evita, and the recently-opened Allegiance, about Japanese internment in the U.S. during World War II, among many others. So why has this particular show seemed to inspire its audiences, particularly those who are not otherwise musical theater fans, more than these other worthy musicals?
Beyond its groundbreaking artistry, at least part of the reason has to do with the show’s approach to historymaking itself. Without being didactic or boring, it offers small windows into the subjectivity and conditionality of the writing of history. In the process, it allows audiences to view its story not as a fixed myth of American origins, but as an ambiguous history about complex people.
One way that the show does this is by showing one of the huge challenges that historians face: constructing narratives when sources are missing or otherwise unavailable. For example, the second-act song “The Room Where It Happens,” depicts the “dinner-table bargain” in which Alexander Hamilton obtained James Madison’s and Thomas Jefferson’s support for his financial plan in exchange for moving the nation’s capital to Washington D.C., closer to the agrarian states of Maryland and Virginia. They made the agreement over a private dinner in 1790. The ensemble sings:
No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in
The room where it happens.
The main source that historians have about this hugely important meeting comes from Jefferson’s account two years after the fact. So Miranda has Jefferson narrate the story, describing, in a characteristically mocking tone, how Hamilton, desperate to pass his plan, “basically begged me to join the fray.” As the audience, we now know enough about the feud between the two rivals to know that that characterization is not very likely. The song is an indictment of back-room political dealing, but it’s also a clever way of showing how the knowledge we have about the past often comes down to us in the words of actors who have a big stake in the way their stories get told.
In fact, control—or lack of it—over one’s legacy is a major theme of the show. Miranda depicts Hamilton as so consumed by his desire to be remembered by history that he sometimes loses sight of what else might be important—like his family. In the second act, the character of his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, responds to her husband’s infidelity by singing:
I’m erasing myself from the narrative
Let future historians wonder how Eliza
Reacted when you broke her heart…
They don’t get to know what I said
I’m burning the memories
Burning the letters that might have redeemed you…
Because very little of Eliza’s correspondence survives, Miranda—using the license available to works of historical fiction—imagines how she might have chosen to reclaim her agency by refusing to be part of the “legacy” that obsessed her husband. In Hamilton, Eliza is not merely a device to introduce a love interest for the main male character. She’s important in her own right, a woman who had her own perspective on and her own role in the story of early America. But whether or not she actually burned her own letters, her story has been missing because women are marginalized by many historical narratives. Her role can encourage the audience of Hamilton to wonder how, and why, other important stories have been excluded from this narrative, and how they might be written back in. That’s a theme that is central to the show’s entire project, as the casting of people of color demonstrates.
As the audience learns in the show’s closing scene, Eliza ultimately decided to put herself back into the story in the wake of her husband’s untimely death in his infamous duel with Aaron Burr. She tried to repair his reputation, interviewed his fellow soldiers, and assembled his writings, contributing to the archive that scholars now draw upon to understand his life and times. She, and the show, ask the central question that more audience members might ask about the many people who have been remembered and forgotten by history: “Who tells your story?”