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Analyzing Hamilton: A Revolutionary Musical

IDW100890 · entertainment · opinion · 12/07/2020

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In the musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda displays the life, tragedy, and death of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. With hard work and striking ambition, this poor orphaned immigrant from a hurricane-torn Caribbean island surpassed all expectations and climbed up the political ladder when he had nothing to lose (“Alexander Hamilton”). He did this while staying one rung above the man who eventually ended his life, his polar opposite, Aaron Burr. 

Aaron Burr is Hamilton’s opposite not only in personality, but in backstory as well. Burr was born with the privilege of money and the burden of a family legacy. His father was the president of Princeton and his maternal grandfather was a noted Calvinist Theologian. Where his and Alexander’s life are similar is the tragedy that struck both of them. Just as Hamilton was orphaned at the age of 12, Burr’s father died when Burr was one, followed by his mother a year later. He moved to his grandparents residence, who then died that same year. All of this gives justification for Burr’s careful attitude. He inherited a family legacy; one false move could ruin not only his life, but the lives of his late relatives. Ironically, this attitude constantly put him at odds with Hamilton; this led to Burr killing him in a duel, tarnishing Burr’s legacy forever.
Miranda created this piece for fans of rap and Broadway, much like his previous Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights. However, he synthesizes the two with a historical backdrop, The American Revolution, in a way never done before. He uses the technique of personifying human mindsets, quick internal rhyme schemes, and the use of historical events to succinctly demonstrate the personalities of his characters (Eastwood). Miranda’s purpose is to illustrate the reasons why his characters of Burr and Hamilton behaved they did so that one can have a better grasp on the actions of him-or-herself. Intertwining both hip hop and Broadway musical styles with history, Lin-Manuel Miranda conveys a surplus of meaning with a message regarding the struggle of balancing contrasting personalities, a message relevant to modern audiences.

In Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander exhibits an ambitious attitude fueled by the urgency he feels of his own mortality. This leads to him questioning his purpose, and he comes to the conclusion that he should be ambitious, which is often demonstrated by techniques such as complex, internal, and multi-symbolic rhyme schemes. A succinct demonstration of this is multiple instances in his monologue “My Shot”: “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory/ When's it gonna get me?/ In my sleep? Seven feet ahead of me?/ If I see it comin', do I run or do I let it be?”(Miranda). Through his multi-syllabic rhyme (memory/ahead of me/let it be), Hamilton shows he is passionate about his search for closure on the question of his mortality, and even begins to consider a nihilistic outlook (Eastwood). He struggles with a question echoed by Prince Hamlet, Adolph Hitler, and the minds of the most destitute of us before him: Is my life worth living? According to Miranda, “in this verse he goes from Nihilism to a list of what needs to be done to hopes toward tomorrow, and he takes himself there through one uninterrupted train of thought” (Miranda). So, all the while showcasing his ambition through a stream of consciousness filled with multisyllabic internal rhyming such as “I know the action in the street is excitin'/But Jesus, between all the bleedin' 'n fightin'/I've been readin' 'n writin',” we follow him on the journey towards forming the mentality that will remain through the remainder of his life (Lubin). The ambition he constantly displays in the name of satisfying the deafening ticking clock of his mortality reaches its climax as he discovers he’s ready to make a name for himself: “I'm past patiently waitin'. I'm passionately/Smashin' every expectation/Every action's an act of creation!” (Miranda). In Miranda’s own words, “We’re not just rhyming at the end of sentences. We’re rhyming six times within every line in certain places" (Lubin). From this point onward, Hamilton’s ambition is self evident in everything he does. He goes on to lead a battalion in the Revolutionary War , become George Washington’s right-hand man both on and off the battlefield, staunchly defend the controversial constitution, and be outspoken about his political endorsements, which gets him killed by none other than Vice President Aaron Burr (“Alexander Hamilton”).

Burr represents the other side of human nature when presented with their own mortality; he also hears the unending ticking clock of his mortality, but takes the opposite approach. He uses caution, and in the name of making the best of the limited time he has, he only makes a move when he finds the opportunity perfect. This mentality is most evident in his soliloquy in “Wait For It” (Miranda). The title alone demonstrates Burr’s mentality throughout his life, that the perfect opportunity is on its way, and he’s willing to “wait for it.” In this song Burr examines all his justification he uses for his cautious attitude. He waited for his now-wife to be available as she was married when they met, and that panned out well. His family was of a high stature when Burr was orphaned, so acting rash may damage their legacy.
Miranda demonstrates this song as a contrast to Hamilton’s “My Shot” in a successful attempt to represent the two human reactions to any situation. Hamilton’s viewpoint represents the radical side of us, screaming “I am not throwing away my shot!” at every presented opportunity, which keeps us aiming higher. Burr represents the side that tells you to hold your horses, and justifies it by proclaiming “I’m not standing still, I am lying in wait,” saving us from making irresponsible rash decisions (Miranda). What Miranda demonstrates throughout the play is that each character’s fatal flaw is the lack of the other’s character trait, and an individual needs both of those mindsets to not fall behind as our two protagonists do.
T
o further demonstrate the stark personality difference that Hamilton and Burr represent, Mirana has them butt heads face to face many times throughout the play (Miranda). For instance, when they first meet, Hamilton is shown as his usual ambitious self, telling Burr all of his future goals and aspirations. Again he uses quick internal rhyming to do so: “I wish there was a war/So we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.” Hamilton delivers these 20 syllables in an impressive 4 seconds, showcasing the unheeding ambition he exhibits while speaking of his ambitions. Immediately after, Burr chimes in with advice for Hamilton, and says his peace, not with rapping, but with calm, cool, and collected singing: “Talk less/Smile more/Don’t let them know what you’re against and what your for.” In total, that took Burr 11 entire seconds to deliver 16 syllables, showing his restraint and caution while he advocates for restraint and caution. Here, Miranda uses contrast to brilliantly showcase the two personalities. Hamilton delivers 25% more syllables than burr 2.75 times faster than him. From this point, Miranda continues to use contrast throughout the musical to showcase the abundance of ambition and lack of restraint in Hamilton and vice-versa in Burr, and how while their dominant trait leads to them both getting ahead, it also holds them back. For example, in the song “Non Stop”, Hamilton confronts Burr and practically begs him to help defend the controversial constitution, and Burr is less than enthusiastic to stick his head out: “I’ll keep all my plans close to my chest/ I’ll wait here and see which way the wind will blow/ I’m taking my time watching the afterbirth of a nation, watching the tension grow.” While Burr sits on the sidelines, Hamilton plays quarterback writing 51 out of the 85 essays entitled The Federalist Papers defending the Constitution. Through this, Hamilton attains fame and glory, earning his rightful place as Secretary of Treasury under George Washington. Burr is left watching, no doubt contemplating similar sentiments to ones he expressed earlier in the show out of envy: “Hamilton doesn’t hesitate/ he exhibits no restraint/ he takes and he takes and he take/ and he keeps winning anyway/ changes the game, plays, and he raises the stakes.” Burr is grievanced at Hamilton’s success as a go-getter. This is an instance in which Miranda showcases when the go-getting personality is beneficial and the cautious mind of Burr is antithetical to success.

But the Hamiltonian mindset will not always work out in one’s favor, as Miranda demonstrates in a situation that arises spanning the songs “Stay Alive,” “Ten Duel Commandments,” and “Meet Me Inside.” The conflict begins when one of their fellow servicemen Charles Lee insults General Washington, calling him, among other things, “indecisive from crisis to crisis.” Thinking with his usual rashness, Hamilton is understandably vexed at Lee, and demands he be punished, but Washington dismisses him: “Don’t do a thing. History will prove him wrong./ We have a war to fight, let’s move along.” Hamilton, ever the go-getter, gets his close friend John Laurens to make Lee answer for his words with a way standard at the time: a duel. Furthermore, Hamilton uses his own mantra to encourage Laurens, that he intends to be taken literally: “Laurens, do not throw away your shot.” As is customary with duels, each participant has a “second” who tried to negotiate with the other party and act as lieutenant; Hamilton was Laurens’ and Burr was Lee’s. Using his trademark caution, Burr tries to calm down Hamilton, but Hamilton refuses to listen; they go ahead with the duel, resulting in Lee getting shot. Washington is furious at Hamilton. As punishment, he does the thing that almost any normal soldier would literally kill for: he sends Hamilton home from war. While Burr is continuing to fight at war, Hamilton is forced to stay at home while the ticking of his mortality clock gets louder and louder. Miranda shows that because Alexander couldn’t be more like Burr, he is punished, further demonstrating that the musical Hamilton demonstrates that to succeed one must act cautious at times, and ambitious at others.

Hamilton is not the first musical by Miranda that is ingrained with rapping . In the Heights is the story of a hispanic-american neighborhood in New York City called Washington Heights (Rooney). In the show, Miranda synthesises hip hop styles with Latin rhythms to create a unique sound never before seen on Broadway, just like he did with Hamilton. This is best exemplified by the internal rhyme schemes that are present in the verses. For instance, the protagonist of In the Heights Usnavi has a biographical monologue in the title song: “'Cuz my parents came with nothing, they got a little more./And sure, we’re poor, but yo, at least we got the store./ And it’s all about the legacy they left with me, it’s destiny,/ and one day I’ll be on a beach with Sonny writing checks with me” The internal rhymes displayed in these lines are clearly very similar both in style and content to what Lin would write for his later character Alexander Hamilton. However, a key difference is in In The Heights, every character raps with a similar style. Unlike in Hamilton, where, as we see with Burr and Alexander, the way the characters rap and sing are indicative of their personalities. The reason for this discrepancy in his work has a proper justification and is truly genius in and of itself.

Hamilton displays different styles of singing because a major theme in the show is what happens when opposites clash. This is evident not only in the contrasts of Burr and Hamilton, but also in the overarching event taking place during the musical: The Revolutionary War. The opposite ideals of the the colonists and the British led to the war that Hamilton was so divisive about, as evidenced by his exchange with British Loyalist Samuel Seabury regarding the Revolution in which Seabury proclaims: “Chaos and bloodshed are not a solution/Don’t let them lead you astray./ This Congress does not speak for me.” Seabury continues to repeat these lines of caution. At the same time, Hamilton talks over him, telling why a revolution is absolutely necessary: “Chaos and blood shed already haunt us, honestly you shouldn’t even talk. And what about Boston? Look at the cost, and all that we lost and you talk about congress?” First of all, the the way Miranda uses identical wording to display contrast is brilliant, and with what we know of Alexander Hamilton, it completely fits Alexander’s personality. Once again, Hamilton shows his ambition by devicevely yelling over the Loyalist, using his trademark technical means of internal rhyme schemes to do so. The distinction between him and Seabury is clear, as Seabury doesn't even rhyme or have any clever techniques the way Alexander does. Miranda does this to show the difference in thinking between the two, as he does with Burr; Alexander is a revolutionary thinker, and Samuel is anything but.

In contrast, In the Heights has opposite themes: community and unity. Calling back to his own Latin roots, Miranda tells the story of Washington Heights, a Latino community that operates as a tight-knit-family. This familial feeling is evident in the main character Usnavi as he talk about his home and the people it in the last song, “Finale.” After making the decision to leave his neighborhood and return to his late parent’s home, the Dominican Republic, he realizes the people of Washington Heights are his real home, and he has a change of heart: “Yeah, I’m a streetlight! Chillin’ in the heat!/ I illuminate the stories of the people in the street/ Some have happy endings, some are bittersweet/ But I know them all and that’s what makes my life complete!” With these two musicals, Lin is portraying two different personalities; one of altruistic association like in In the Heights, and one of divisive differences, like in Hamilton.

Another musical that portrays two opposite sides of human personality is Falsettos by William Finn. Falsettos tells the story of Marvin, who leaves his wife, Trina, for a male lover, Whizzer (Isherwood). Rather than two characters representing the duality of man, the contrasts all lie in Marvin. The main premise of the story is evident of this duality that festers inside of he. Marvin is struggling with two sides of himself,and tries to reconcile the two, forcing a sort of hybrid family in which he, his lover, his wife, and his son are all part of. As evidenced by his words, he wants to control everything: “Nothing's impossible, live by your wit/ Kid, wife, and lover will have to admit/ I was right, I cushioned the fall/ I want it all.” As one could predict, this doesn’t end well, and he ends up losing everyone important to him. Reconciliation of two opposing mindsets, which is what Hamilton warns us we must do, is the exact thing that leads to Marvin’s downfall. After killing Alexander in duel, Burr wishes he realized that for both he and Hamilton “the world was wide enough.” In terms of Marvin though, his fatal flaw is not realizing that his two sides can’t co-exist, that the world truly isn’t wide enough for the turmoil in his mind. In trying to balance both his new-found homosexuality and his heterosexual identity that is no more, Marvin causes his own downfall, just as the characters in Hamilton did by not balancing their identities enough.

Miranda calls Hamilton his “love letter to both hip-hop and musical theater.” Speaking toward the latter, themes in Hamilton were heavily influenced by the undisputed theater superpower William Shakespeare. While thematically we could draw countless comparisons between Hamilton and one of the legendary bard’s plays, due to his influence, it’s safe to say this could be said for nearly any theatre production. The truly distinct similarity between Miranda and Shakespeare is the way they revolutionized technique.To better connect with the audience of their respective time periods, both Shakespeare and Miranda took how people spoke and communicated it with new forms of art; for Miranda this was rap, and for Shakespeare this was iambic pentameter (Griffith). Iambic pentameter is a way of writing poetry focusing on the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, in Macbeth: “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff!” Starting with the unstressed “Mac”, each syllable alternates between being stressed or not, for the sake of emphasis. Just as Miranda uses rap to convey certain messages such as intensity and intelligence, Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter to convey these tones and emotions. Also, just as Miranda has a lack of spoken scenes in his entire musical, as he uses music to convey every action and dialogue, Shakespeare did something similar. Shakespeare hardly used stage direction, so as Miranda did in Hamilton, he allows the technique he uses to tell the story speak for itself. As evident by Miranda, Shakespeare's techniques have influenced theatre for centuries. While Miranda hasn’t been around for quite as long, examples of his influence, such as the Broadway show Spamilton, have popped up in the past two years already.
In more ways than one, Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a musical masterpiece that synthesizes genres, styles, and ideas in ways never done before. Through genius techniques he has used his entire career, Miranda displays a unique story that draws technical influences from both Miranda’s past work and legendary playwright William Shakespeare. Modern audiences can learn to balance their personalities using examples of Miranda’s Alexander and Aaron, as well as how to bend genres to create something entirely original, all the while learning about early American History, proving Hamilton to be nothing short of revolutionary.

Sources

“Alexander Hamilton.” History.com, A+E Publications, 2009, www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/alexander-hamilton. Accessed 27 Nov. 2017.

Eastwood, Joel, and Erik Hinton. “How Does ‘Hamilton,’ the Non Stop, Hip-hop Broadway Sensation Tap Rap’s Master Rhymes to Blur Musical Lines?” WSJ.com, Dow Jones, 6 June 2016, graphics.wsj.com/hamilton/. Accessed 27 Nov. 2017.

Griffith, Eva. “William Shakespeare.” Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World, edited by Jonathan Dewald, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K3404901040/BIC1?u=poway_rb&xid=c4133112. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

Isherwood, Charles. “A Perfect Musical, an Imperfect Family.” New York Times, 28 Oct. 2016, p. C1(L). Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A468096930/BIC1?u=poway_rb&xid=90a9aa52. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

Lubin, Gus. “The Rhymes in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’ Are Just Insane.” BusinessInsider.com, 7 Jan. 2016, www.businessinsider.com/rhyming-in-hamilton-lin-manuel-mirandas-2016-1. Accessed 27 Nov. 2017.

Miranda, Lin-Manuel. Hamilton: The Revolution. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

Rooney, David. “’Heights’ is alive with Latin rhythms.” Variety, 17 Mar. 2008, p. 36+. Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A177274099/BIC1?u=poway_rb&xid=2bfc8ce9. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

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