Why Is Hamilton so Popular? From a Writing Perspective
Watching Hamilton: An American Musical is a whole-body immersion experience. Your eyes are riveted on the stage, ears catch melodies exhilarating or sad, muscles involuntarily follow every movement, and heart swells with the emotions of the scenes.
Prior to Hamilton, rap was not my type of music. I could listen but would not seek it out. The music in Hamilton, however, changed my perception. I find myself going along with pleasure, enjoying the cadence, the beat, and the words. Especially the words.
I have listened to the songs many times, thanks to my daughter who is a huge fan of this show. But watching Hamilton in live performance offered me an opportunity to study what it is that makes people willing to stand in the chilly New York wind for more than ten hours on the off chance to win the lottery or get cancellation tickets.
Now I know. The music, choreography, lighting, and acting are all executed with precision and meticulousness. But as someone who writes, what fascinates me the most is its writing. In the following, I attempt to capture what I have learned from watching this show in San Francisco on March 19, 2017. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes and lyrics are from the book Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. The photos are from the original New York performance since images from the San Francisco show are not available.
1. Unforgettable Characters
In this play, everything is strong, but the strongest are the characters. Author Lin-Manuel Miranda makes the founding fathers unforgettable people. Instead of deities with powdered wigs, they are real humans with tempers and flaws. Thomas Jefferson is a flamboyant slave owner who pretends to be everyone’s man but is not. James Madison follows whatever Jefferson proposes and lacks his own ideas. Aaron Burr does not stand for anything other than what serves his own interest. The first Treasury Secretary of the U.S., main character Alexander Hamilton, is hot tempered, conceited, and easily tempted. Miranda humanizes these normally awe-striking men, brings them down from pedestals, and shapes them into people we can relate to.
Instead of wives and mothers of great men, the main female characters are not defined in terms of their relationship with males, as often seen in history books. Rather, they pursue their own paths. Angelica Schuyler loves her sister Eliza and is always there for her. She is also witty and smart, to the point where Hamilton is her intellectual equal. Eliza, Hamilton’s wife, shines not only with her beauty, but also for her actions. She decides whether or not she wants to be part of the narrative, and how. She embodies goodness but is not a submissive woman who lets men control “who lives, who dies, and who tells your story.”
After Hamilton is killed, she washes away her tears and becomes active and powerful. She is the reason historians are able to find a lot of primary sources regarding Hamilton and the other founding fathers because she preserved all of their letters and documents. As she sings, “(I) live another fifty years/I interview every soldier who fought at your side/I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writing/ I raise funds for the Washington monument/ I speak out against slavery/ I establish the first orphanage of New York City/ I try to raise hundreds of children/I get to see them grow up.”
How many men can claim to have accomplished as much? Miranda gives the females in history the credit that is long overdue.
2. Global Setting, Local Stories, Quick-Paced yet Moving Details
The larger setting of the War of Independence provides the story with inherent excitement. The striving of the forefathers to overthrow the English monarch wins my heart from the outset. I feel so much empathy with Eliza as she parts with Hamilton while hugely pregnant. What woman would not want her husband to be by her side in pregnancy and childbirth? Yet, Washington needs Hamilton in the battle, so she waves her tearful goodbye, not knowing if she would ever see him again. Such local stories make the sacrifices people make during wartime more real.
The play moves along fast. It starts with Hamilton’s landing in New York as a poor young orphan immigrant hungry for fame and glory. In the middle, he joins the war, meets and marries Eliza, wins the war, helps write and defend the Constitution and Bill of Rights, commits adultery, reveals affair, and witnesses the death of his son. It ends with his dying at the hands of Aaron Burr and Eliza explains what she does after his death.
Within this dazzling speed, however, are vivid and touching details. We gasp at the sound of the bullet piercing his son Philip’s chest. We feel his sharp pain as he wanders in the quiet uptown streets in New York, knowing it is his sins that have led to the death of their son. The following is from the song he sings to Eliza:
If I could spare his life
If I could trade his life for mine,
He’d be standing here right now
And you would smile, and that would be enough...
This kind of poetic details and sadness touch all of us. I can hear people near me weeping. It reinforces the notion that however grand the macro setting is, the micro is what moves people. A good writer needs skills in both painting the large canvas with broad powerful strokes but also in depicting minute details and making them real and touching.
3. Make Boring Events Exciting
History has not been a favorite subject of mine. Remembering the dates and facts in thick boring history books was not my forte in grade school. Miranda’s talent lies in turning boring historical details into fascinating stories.
Take, for example, an argument between Hamilton and Jefferson about whether the government should assume state debt and establish a national bank, which is Hamilton’s plan. This could be a scene filled with political dragons that bore people to death. Miranda, however, makes it into a rap battle between the two, with Washington acting as a judge. Jefferson offers his rejection of Hamilton’s plan with sardonic rhymes:
If New York’s in debt —
Why should Virginia bear it?
Uh! Our debts are paid, I’m afraid.
Don’t tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade.
In Virginia, we plant the seeds in the ground.
We create. You just wanna move our money around.
This financial plan is an outrageous demand.
And it’s too many pages for any man to understand.
Stand with me. In the land of the free.
Jefferson makes his populist appeal clear. He claims himself to be the man of the people. He criticizes Hamilton as common folks on the street might say to bankers who do not care about the middle class: “You just wanna move our money around.”
Hamiton’s rap, on the other hand, turns Jeffersons’ arguments around:
If we assume the debts, the Union gets a new line of credit, a financial diuretic.
How do you not get it? If we’re aggressive and competitive
The Union gets a boost. You’d rather give it a sedative?
A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor,
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor.
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.” Yeah, keep ranting.
We know who’s really doing the planting.
And, Mr. Age of Enlightenment,
Don’t lecture me about the war, you didn’t fight in it.
With rhymes, Hamilton defeats Jefferson by pointing out his hypocrisies, as a slave owner, as someone who has never fought in the war but tries to claim credit. This rap battle condenses hours of political speech into minutes of point by point verbal fighting. We feel the smell of invisible gunpowder.
Another example of changing boring politics into viable plots is the meeting between Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison. The three reach a compromise, where Jefferson and Madison get Hamilton’s support in setting the nation’s capital in Virginia instead of New York, and Hamilton, in exchange, obtains their votes in getting his debt plan through Congress.
How does the author make such a meeting interesting? By telling it through Aaron Burr’s perspective. The closed-door meeting is longingly watched, from the outside, by Burr, who yearns to be inside. He repeatedly sings: “No one else was in the room where it happened.” In today’s polarized society we can all relate to that feeling of exclusion and inability to participate in decision-making.
4. Utilize the Language of the Common People and Elevate it to Poetic
Watching the live performance rekindled my appreciation of the language in the play and Miranda’s lexical dexterity. Some critics liken him to Shakespeare. Both are able to take the language of the common people and raise it to artistic beauty. Take the following song from King George III:
The price of my love’s not a price that you’re willing to pay
In your tea which you hurl in the sea when you see me go by.
Why so sad?
Remember, despite our estrangement, I am your man
You’ll be back.
. . . when push,
Comes to shove,
I will send a fully armed battalion
To remind you of my love!
This piece is a favorite of mine. It likens the relationship of two countries to a couple in which America is the oppressed and abused wife. Such an angle not only makes abstruse and difficult political discourse accessible but also immediately tilts sympathy towards the characters’ cause of fighting for America’s independence. It references events like the Boston tea party as a quarrel between the couple. And it portrays the king as an aggressive husband who resorts to violence while professing love. The language is poetic without being difficult and succinct without loss of richness.
In a regular play, characters’ speeches reflect their education and personality. Miranda’s rap functions the same. Washington, highly educated and in command, raps and speaks with elegance and authority. His rap often contains multiple rhymes within one line:
Any hope of success is fleeting
How can I keep leading, when the people I’m leading keep retreating?
We put a stop to the bleeding when the British take Brooklyn,
Knight takes rook, but look,
We are outnumbered, outmanned, out-planned.
We gotta make an all out stand.
The raps of Angelica, Eliza’s sister, on the other hand, run with urgency, passion, and wit, just like her personality. The following is her rap when she first meets Hamilton:
What the hell is the catch? It’s
The feeling of freedom, of seein’ the light,
It’s Ben Franklin with a key and a kite!
You see it, right?
The conversation lasted two minutes, maybe three minutes,
Everything we say in total agreement, it’s
A dream and it’s a bit of a dance.
I asked him about his fam’ly, did you see his answer?
His hands started fidgeting, he looked askance,
He is penniless, he’s flying by the seat of his pants
Comparing this rap with Washington’s, we see that her vocabulary and rhyme schemes are less complex and erudite. She uses more common words but makes those words sparkle with her wit, like “Ben Franklin with a key and a kite.” She uses similes, e.g. “The feeling of wisdom, of seein’ the light,” “A dream and a bit of dance,” and “He’s flying by the seat of his pants.”
Such change of language use to suit the character and situation in life, while seemingly effortless, I believe is from years of writing and reading. Only a writer who has accumulated enough, in both language and ideas, can come up with such simple yet profound ways of expressing.
We marvel at flowers of success but often do not realize the sweat and toil that have fertilized the plant. The play seems to have been catapulted to the national scene overnight, but it took Miranda seven years to write it.
In telling the story of our first treasury secretary of the U.S. through rap and becoming such a huge success, Miranda might have single handedly kept Hamilton on our $10 bills. That aside, he has demonstrated to us the power of a good story and compelling ways to tell it. We can all learn from his writing.
I thank my daughter for introducing me to the songs of Hamilton long before it became a national phenomenon. I also appreciate the wonderful insights she has given me while I was writing this article.
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