I first heard about the musical Hamilton around the time of the Tony Awards. I knew that it was nominated for a record-breaking number of awards, and I watched the intro song on YouTube a couple of days after the awards aired. I absolutely loved the mash up they created for the awards show, and went hunting for some of the real songs online. I was blown away. I have never heard anything like it.
Rap, (which I fully admit that I don’t listen to often if at all) to me is about a guy essentially listing how many things he has, how many women he’s fucked, and how awesome he is. I’m not interested in that. I really don’t care. But this. Hamilton was rap and hip-hop and spoke to me because it was talking about history, about stories, about legacy. And I loved it.
I bought the soundtrack that night after watching a couple of videos on YouTube, and it has quickly became one of my favourite soundtracks. Then I realized that there was a book (could this get any better?) and I had to read Hamilton: The Revolution.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking musical Hamilton is as revolutionary as its subject, the poor kid from the Caribbean who fought the British, defended the Constitution, and helped to found the United States. Fusing hip-hop, pop, R&B, and the best traditions of theater, this once-in-a-generation show broadens the sound of Broadway, reveals the storytelling power of rap, and claims our country’s origins for a diverse new generation.
HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION gives readers an unprecedented view of both revolutions, from the only two writers able to provide it. Miranda, along with Jeremy McCarter, a cultural critic and theater artist who was involved in the project from its earliest stages–“since before this was even a show,” according to Miranda–traces its development from an improbable performance at the White House to its landmark opening night on Broadway six years later. In addition, Miranda has written more than 200 funny, revealing footnotes for his award-winning libretto, the full text of which is published here.
Their account features photos by the renowned Frank Ockenfels and veteran Broadway photographer, Joan Marcus; exclusive looks at notebooks and emails; interviews with Questlove, Stephen Sondheim, leading political commentators, and more than 50 people involved with the production; and multiple appearances by President Obama himself. The book does more than tell the surprising story of how a Broadway musical became a national phenomenon: It demonstrates that America has always been renewed by the brash upstarts and brilliant outsiders, the men and women who don’t throw away their shot.
The book is beautiful. It’s a rather large book, and the paper is heavy. It has weight, and I like that because the story of an American Founding Father should have weight. The chapters are short, but there are a lot of images, and some full page or double page spreads of images that are in colour. The lyrics of each song are printed as they relate to each chapter. There are footnotes on the lyrics of each song explaining the thought process behind a line, or the reference or how it changed from the original. I love that behind the scenes look at things.
You also get introduced to the principal actors and hear a little bit of their stories, and their takes on the characters that they are portraying. I find that most interesting – the different things, or traits that they pick up in the people that they are playing and then use that one specific thing to relate, to understand this historical person.
Jeremy and Lin also explain more about these historical people and their relationships to each other. They make these people relatable. Understandable. They show that the Founding Fathers of America were flawed, had hopes and dreams, and different ways and thought processes of getting to a union, and most importantly, that that’s okay. The differences aren’t a hinderance. They make us better. They make us think in a new way. They challenge us.
One of the major things I love about this book and musical, is that Hamilton uses his words to evoke change. He writes like he’s “running out of time,” and he writes a lot. He has all of these ideas, thoughts, plans and he wants to do it all better than everyone else. He wants to make this union succeed and to do that he needs to convince people to his way of thinking. His words are his weapons. To me, when we live in a world of military might, when we converse in 140 characters, and when everything is instantaneous words seem to have less power almost. We use our words to talk about inconsequential things instead of using them to talk about things that really truly matter. And I also think because everything is so instantaneous we lose hope easily. We think that we can’t change anything. That this is the way things are and they are (often) terrible. I think musicals and books like Hamilton are imperative in reminding us that words to have power. They matter. And you can change the world with them. Just like Alexander Hamilton did.
One of my favourite lines in Hamilton is from a song that Eliza (Hamilton’s wife) sings called “Burn.” The line is “You built me palaces out of paragraphs…”.
How beautiful is that? How amazing is it to use your words to build something? To create something? And that is the last thing I want to talk about in regards to this book: legacy. The musical and book talk a lot about legacy and stories. Eliza spent 50 years after Hamilton died making sure that his legacy wasn’t forgotten and in turn making her own. The Founding Fathers all have a legacy. It is in the country that they built, in the writings that they made helping to build it, and in the stories that have become canon for the American people of how it happened, and what they stood for. “That’s the real power of a legacy: We tell stories of people who are gone because like any powerful stories, they have the potential to inspire, and to change the world,” (Hamilton: The Revolution, page 227). I’m sure, as Lin even says, that Hamilton would never have thought that there would ever be a hip-hop/rap musical about him years down the line, and truthfully, on one in this generation thought so either. But here we are, with an amazing story and an amazing medium in which to tell it.
Other than this being an amazing piece of art Hamilton is also a shout to the American people to own their own stories, their own legacy. Alexander Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers started to build it, but the building isn’t done. There is much to do, and this musical and book and story is inspiring people to come together and make that happen. To create and evoke change – across all of the spectrums. That’s a powerful thing. And fittingly, that’s in the epilogue of this book: “The most important affinity that Hamilton will carry into its future isn’t a specific message…: It’s an underlying belief in stories, and their power to change the world,” (page, 285).
I highly recommend this book, and this soundtrack. I’m so excited for when I can see the musical. One day I will, until then I just have to…wait for it.