clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hamilton isn’t perfect. But it’s *perfect.* I couldn’t write for a month after I saw it.

Walter McBride/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I didn’t leave the theater after seeing Hamilton. I resurfaced.

Walking out into the cool night air, pushing past the people crowded near the stage door to catch even a glimpse of the show’s cast as they exited, I felt as if I had been sitting on the floor of the ocean and needed to take my time breaking the water’s surface, lest my body depressurize.

It’s an experience I’ve had a few times in my life, always in the presence of great art. I remember staying up well past bedtime as a teenager reading The Great Gatsby, then having to get out of bed and march around my room, because reality felt inadequate. I remember seeing The Tree of Life and feeling so overwhelmed that when my wife asked me an innocent question a half-hour later, I nearly bit her head off. It was as if I had forgotten what planet I lived on.

And now here I was again, learning to breathe air once more, after so much time on someone else’s oxygen.

I don’t know if I had hoped Hamilton would disappoint me, or not live up to the hype. More likely than not, I just hoped I would have a good time. Instead, in its immediate wake, it wasn't just reality that felt inadequate; I felt inadequate.

My wife and I were already late to meet friends for dinner, so we hurried down the street, past the throngs, and I could feel the evening dissipating, evaporating off my skin. The comedown is always the worst part.

And then, later, when I couldn’t sleep, my thoughts of Hamilton would drift elsewhere, to a man I’d never met and could never begin to comprehend.

Current Affairs recently published an article that signals, I think, the real beginning of the Hamilton backlash, which has been in its incipient stages for a few months now, if only because everybody I know who’s sick of hearing about Hamilton shared it, even though it’s terrible criticism.

Called "You Should Be Terrified That People Who Like Hamilton Run Our Country," the piece is by Alex Nichols. He dislikes Hamilton’s refusal to talk about slavery, because the Founding Fathers the musical talks about didn’t really deal with slavery either. At its core, Nichols’s piece worries that by turning the Founding Fathers into self-consciously "cool" characters, the center of a hip-hop musical that rewrites the founding of the country to star people of color, Hamilton is trying to sweep America’s sins under the rug. (Nichols uses this to draw a connection between President Obama’s love of Hamilton and his love of drone warfare, which...)

But this fundamentally misunderstands everything Hamilton is trying to do. It isn’t a celebration of the Founding Fathers. It’s barely even a demystification of them (though that’s closer to the mark).

No, Hamilton agrees with Nichols more than he thinks. It’s not a work that tries to excuse Alexander Hamilton’s failure to do anything substantive about slavery. At times, it even loathes the title character. Instead, it’s a story about how inadequately we are all preserved by history, about how after our deaths, we are all reduced to stories our survivors tell each other.

As such, Hamilton is mystified by its own characters. It turns over its final half-hour to Eliza Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife and a supporting character who, by virtue of outliving everybody else in the cast, left behind more of a record of her life than the other characters did. It wants to stick to history, more or less, but it conflates events and fudges things to make a better story. It’s not an accurate record of these people’s lives. It’s a rumination.

So Hamilton is a mystery. In its first song ("Alexander Hamilton"), in its first lines, no less, it asks a question:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore

And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot

In the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor

Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

But the show never really answers that question. It tries, but it’s cut off by the dark mist that surrounds the past.

Hamilton writer Lin-Manuel Miranda (who originally played the title character) takes his best guess just a couple of songs later, in "My Shot," the show’s centerpiece. The music drops out, and Hamilton offers up a soliloquy.

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?

Is it like a beat without a melody?

See, I never thought I’d live past 20

Where I come from some get half as many

Hamilton isn’t a Founding Father, then. He’s a survivor, surprised to have escaped death and convinced someone will come to even the score.

Eventually, he’s proved right.

The facts of my biological father’s life that I actually know are few. He was 48 when he died in 2006. He had been married, and he raised two children. He liked Dr. Pepper. He looked like me, a little bit, but skinnier and more athletic in his build.

Beyond that, what I know are fragments of pieces of memories, skewed by the tellers. This is not to say that they are tainted consciously by agenda, or even that they are somehow prejudiced against him. It’s just to say that we all have our biases, and if Hamilton knows anything, it’s that once somebody dies, we immediately begin to write competing versions of their life story.

Yet every story of my father’s life suggest a great power of reinvention. His parents were immigrants, and his two older siblings were both born overseas. He alone was a native-born American citizen, born in Indiana, then growing up in Michigan.

He never stopped churning. The slim biography I had of him from my adoption agency said that he had been pursuing a medical degree, so I was surprised to learn that he had, instead, worked for a computer company up until his death. When one career didn’t work out, he simply reinvented himself into another one.

His biography was filled with moments like this. A recovery from an auto accident led to him recuperating in his parents’ basement (a time period that coincided with my conception). He slipped ably between his parents’ mother tongue and English. He lived so often between two worlds.

Hamilton's Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones perform onstage during the 2016 Tony Awards. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

His family was struck by tragedy after tragedy, even before his death. Death visited members at far too young an age, and right when things would seem to be back on track, they would slip right off again. There were good times as well, but when you look at the river, you don’t always see the scenery when there are rapids.

When I finally met his mother and became somewhat close to her in the last years of her life, though, she saw no scenery, only rapids. My birth, to a woman she would never know, and adoption, to parents she would never know, were foundational tragedies to my grandmother, to the point that when I protested I’d had, all things considered, a really great life with my adopted parents, she angrily told me things would have been better had I stayed. And then she dropped the shoe that had been hanging over my life without me knowing it.

My father, see, had tried to gain parental rights after finding out I existed. It took extensive arm-twisting for him to finally sign the papers consenting to my adoption. He wanted to reinvent himself into a father, and everybody around him was pretty sure he could do it. Why not? He had done everything else.

But he was 20. My mother was 19. Finally he signed the papers, and the course of my life was set.

You will hear different answers to the question of what the best song is in Hamilton, but the answer is, unquestionably, "Satisfied," a song performed by Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law. In short, "Satisfied" replays the events of an earlier song, "Helpless," (complete with a short sequence where the entire show is rewound via staging and choreography) from Angelica’s perspective, granting deeper meaning to her introduction of her sister Eliza to Hamilton, Eliza’s eventual husband.

It lands around the midpoint of the first act, is structured around an incredibly ambitious flashback gambit, and almost certainly won Renee Elise Goldsberry (the woman who sings it) a Tony.

It’s also, like Hamilton as a whole, a story about stories. It’s a piece where everybody has a point of view, and where history will be written not necessarily by the winners, but by those who live longest (in this case, Eliza) and write sweetest. Hamilton’s narrator, Aaron Burr, after all, wins the duel that kills Hamilton, but history mostly records him as a villain.

The song shows Angelica giving a toast at her sister’s wedding to Hamilton, and in doing so explores a fictional invention: that Angelica loved Hamilton first — was, indeed, probably his soul mate — but for reasons of societal propriety, she was obliged to fix him up with her sister instead.

This song shows the audience just how committed the enterprise is to the idea of storytelling as a method for organizing lives and political movements.

"Satisfied" is told from the point of view of an Angelica who seems significantly older than the one who’s giving a toast at Eliza and Hamilton’s wedding, as if an omniscient Angelica, on her death bed, dropped in from out of nowhere to offer her younger self a quick look at the moment when it all turned wrong.

The thing is, even though Angelica contrives to keep Hamilton in her family, she spends very little time with him after his marriage to Eliza. The story of the night when she might have won his heart, might have had him to herself, then, becomes a kind of foundational document of who she is, an Angelica-centric constitution. Hamilton is about stories, yes, but also the singular moments that spawn them, the turning points when everything might have gone differently.

It’s almost entirely fictional — Angelica was married when she met Hamilton — but it’s one that gets at the core of Hamilton’s thematic obsessions. Death traps us in our life stories as told by others. The stories of women and people of color have largely been written out of history, unfairly. And there is always a moment when it all went wrong, when things might have otherwise been rewritten to turn toward light.

After all, what is a country’s foundation but the foundational tragedies of all of its citizens, butting up against each other in conflict?

Hamilton shouldn’t work.

I don’t really mean this on a thematic level or a storytelling level or anything like that, though it must have been murderously difficult to pull off. No, I mean that hip-hop and musical theater shouldn’t mesh as well as they do in Hamilton.

At the core of hip-hop is verbal dexterity and cleverness. It’s a medium about how many rhymes can be squeezed into the same line but also about how clever those rhymes can be. Musical theater, meanwhile, is largely about guiding the listener’s ear through the lyrics, the better to tell a story or express character development, or what have you.

Hamilton is caught between twin pressures: It can be authentic hip-hop and create a bewildering experience for those who go to the theater without having heard the cast recording, or it can provide a more pure musical theater experience and sound like watered-down hip-hop.

The show splits the difference. There’s nothing in here that would sound wildly innovative to a seasoned hip-hop fan, and the rapping in the show (as star Daveed Diggs pointed out) is actually somewhat "slow" in the overall scheme of things. But it manages to sound more like hip-hop than musical theater is supposed to.

Miranda achieves this in three ways. The first is that he bulldozes ahead and creates the show he wants to create. If you enter the theater cold, the lyrics are too dense to catch everything that happens and every reference that floats by.

The second borrows from the traditions of musical theater. Every major character has a musical theme, even if it’s just a snippet, and Miranda repeats them often enough that you’ll understand the story on an emotional wavelength, even if you don’t catch every lyric. What’s important to every character resurfaces constantly, and Miranda makes sure to give them all centerpiece songs that slow the action down just enough to convey their heart’s desires.

The final is perhaps the most innovative trick. Yes, the lyrics are dense. Yes, they’re filled with cleverness. But they’re also structured in such a way that you can follow the plot almost entirely by hearing the words more than two or three people sing together. When the entire chorus enters together, Miranda structures his meter so certain words — certain important-to-the-plot words — land on the beat and naturally receive the most emphasis from both performers and listeners.

It’s a neat trick, ensuring that even if the only word you pick up is, say, "Ships!" you’re aware that there are ships out there on the harbor somewhere. Listen to the full score, and you’ll pick up all the nuance. But see the show cold, and you can still follow the plot, while catching maybe half of what’s said and still enjoying the performances and direction.

This is what I mean when I say that Hamilton is bottomless. Even on a structural level, when you go poking around in its depths, you keep finding new gems to pull out and examine. It’s not perfect. I can, if I really want to, pick at its flaws and start to unravel it (and I’ll try in a bit).

But it’s perfect, in that way art can be. After I saw it, I could barely write for a month.

The question I get asked often is, "If you knew your father’s name, why didn’t you find him before he died?"

The answer I usually give is, "He had a common name." And he did! When I would search for it, dozens of different people in his rough age range would pop up around the country. The address he had left with the adoption agency was for the apartment he held as a 20-year-old, for a building that (so far as I can tell) no longer exists. I was in my 20s and figured I had time. It was just easier to let it slide.

But the real answer, the one I struggle to share, is that after what my biological mother told me about him, I didn’t want to meet him.

The facts are these: One chilly February night, she and he were at the restaurant where they both worked. They were friendly with each other, so they had a few drinks. Things led to each other, as they will, and they slept together. Enter me.

Except even here I’m eliding, which is to say that when my mother told me this story, she qualified it by saying she didn’t want to say she was raped, but she was so drunk she didn’t know what she was doing and certainly didn’t want to do that. "He took advantage of me," she finally said, after much hemming and hawing.

That was when I first met her, all the way back in 2000, a time when the words "enthusiastic consent" weren’t in the mainstream consciousness, when I heard about a friend sleeping with a drunk girl who’d passed out in his bed and didn’t immediately think of him as a rapist but, rather, as just kind of an asshole. Certainly the moral code I grew up with didn’t allow for "taking advantage" of someone, but it also didn’t label such a thing "rape." That was for dark alleys and horrible, violent moments.

Now I like to imagine that I know "more," whatever that means, that I know how important consent is. I like to think I’m on the "right side" of these issues, again, whatever that means.

But I still would never, ever call my father a rapist. I hesitate to even type it now, in the negative.

I have excuses, of course, maybe even good ones. I never got his side of the story. Both of them were really drunk and didn’t know what they were doing. It was a different time. They were both raised in cultures of religious repression, and cultures of religious repression can lead to messed-up sexual experiences.

And, most importantly, my mother herself doesn’t define what happened that night in that way, and it would be wrong for me to force an interpretation of those events on the one person alive who was actually there.

But really, it’s just easier to say "drunken one-night stand." "Drunken one-night stand" doesn’t invite questions. It doesn’t impugn the dead. It doesn’t label the living with unnecessary shame.

It also lets me continue to imagine my father as fundamentally good. Someone who made mistakes, yes, but don’t we all?

The last half-hour of Hamilton has tremendous moments, but it also suddenly turns into "Shit, We Forgot to Develop the Character of Eliza: The Musical." It pivots into suggesting that Eliza was the true hero of the story, both for being a genuinely guileless and good person and for keeping her husband’s legacy alive when she had so many excuses to not do so. It’s awkward.

It doesn’t mar the whole, but it was the one loose thread that kept nagging at me after seeing the show, like all those Lord of the Rings endings. Why didn’t the show end with the duel, when the two men at the story’s center were forever marked and changed? Why the Eliza-focused conclusion that comes out of nowhere?

The answer is surprisingly similar to the one I usually give for Lord of the Rings — the story that seemed like the most important one wasn’t actually the most important one. Eliza outlives everybody. She gets to cement the legacies of so many, and she works tirelessly to make the world a better place for as many people as possible. She builds an orphanage in her husband’s memory, for God’s sake.

And that would make for kind of a crummy protagonist in a work of dramatic fiction, where we expect characters who are strivers, who are after something. But why does fiction insist the only thing worth going after is something impersonal and massive? Why is building a nation somehow more worthy than preserving a husband’s legacy?

Like Angelica and Hamilton, Eliza is never satisfied, but only in the sense that she sees the world as a template to be made better. She enters the story as a supporting character to her sister, becomes a supporting character to her husband, but exits it as the protagonist. If anyone’s model here is to be emulated, it’s hers. It’s the show’s biggest, most ambitious leap, one that’s hard to get on board with right away, but one that works better and better for me the more I think about it.

And in a show about attempting to rewrite the country’s founding to include everyone, not just the white men who are usually at the story’s center, it’s quietly radical to end everything by talking about a woman whose achievements aren’t as distinctive but have proved longer-lasting.

Or maybe the answer is present from the first, from very nearly the first words Eliza speaks on stage, a simple phrase that the entire chorus picks up multiple times throughout the show: "Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now."

We are, all of us, accidents, in a sense. The events that create us are terrifyingly random, and the paths of history that led to our existence are as unknowable to us as the paths that will stretch out from our own lives, into the distant future.

The characters in Hamilton tell stories and worry about legacies and hope for greatness, but Hamilton’s greatest gift in the end is that it reminds us that there is more to life than living the kind of life that gets a Broadway musical written about you centuries after your death. Kindness is important. Building a better world is important. Compassion is paramount.

There is immense value in greatness, yes, but in the end, Hamilton says, there is even more value in goodness. It’s a hard message to argue, and it’s one Hamilton argues imperfectly. That it even tries, though, is, to me, worth all its frayed edges.

My father’s death caused me to spiral. Yes, I got to know his family. Yes, I learned more about why I am the way I am. But the simple fact that I had put off finding him, because I didn’t want to think about the inconvenient truths of my conception, left me reeling.

Which, indirectly, leads to the part where I couldn’t write for a month after seeing Hamilton.

If there’s a place where I relate to Hamilton most, it’s in the fact that when your existence feels like an accident, it becomes tempting to assume that you are here for some greater purpose, some greater meaning, if only so you have some reason to justify yourself to yourself.

Hamilton survived a hurricane and a forbidding environment. He saved himself by being such a good writer that others took up a collection to send him off to a better life. I can relate to this: Change any of a few tiny bits and pieces about that February night, and I’m not here, writing this. Change even my gender, and I’m adopted by an entirely different family, and who knows what’s next.

But there’s more here, deeper to go. Indeed, if I had a friend who was pregnant at 19 and ambivalent about the conception, the father, all of it, I would surely remind her abortion was an option open to her. And in that moment, I might wonder if I were recommending she abort myself.

It certainly doesn’t help that I spent most of my childhood being told abortion was the single worst holocaust in human history — millions of human beings killed, before they could even become human beings. I support abortion rights, but a tiny part of me can’t stop believing that I made it through to the other side of my own gauntlet, that I have survived where so many others perished.

Which is self-centered and fucked up and goes against everything I know to be true about the universe, but when I hear Miranda’s version of Hamilton say, "I imagine death so much it feels like a memory," it’s like meeting an old friend. I, too, have survivor’s guilt, no matter how unnecessary.

After my father’s death, I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with a boring newspaper job I was never that committed to in the first place. Wasn’t I supposed to be writing and not editing? Wasn’t I charged with purpose?

So I quit. And I nearly wrecked my marriage, my life, my bank account — all of it. (Okay, I actually did wreck my bank account.) But then I started writing about TV, mostly as a lark, until people started paying me, and I ended up here. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

But have I written anything that will last, anything that will leave a mark? No. Hamilton will be listened to on starships making their way across endless inky space. I don’t think the residents of the future will care nearly so much about Glee recaps.

Miranda is only a few months older than me, and where he had invented something deeply profound, I had mostly frittered away my time on the impermanent. I wasn’t a failure, not precisely. I was more of a waste — an accident who failed to justify himself.

It was hard to write about Game of Thrones after that.

Hamilton isn’t just a story about stories; it’s also a show where the characters are constantly telling you what to think about them, then immediately being misinterpreted by the others around them. Though it develops more than a half-dozen major characters, it keeps returning to Hamilton and Burr, because they best represent this idea in miniature. By the end, they literally can’t understand each other — even though they’re in many respects the same person.

All around us, people are trying to tell us what their story is, and we’re doubting their sincerity, because we have our own agendas. This habit calcifies with time, with age. We meet someone in our youth and have a falling-out, and where we should be able to better understand their point of view with age and wisdom, we instead become convinced we know them better than they do.

What Hamilton understands in the end is that it’s not what you do with your life that matters, but who’s left to tell your story. (And I mean literally in the end. The last song is called "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.") It doesn’t matter what you do on this planet, what kind of mark you leave, if those who memorialize you missed the point.

Leslie Odom Jr. and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who play Burr and Hamilton, respectively. (Bruce Glikas/Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)

And everybody will miss the point. In that final song, Eliza, sings about how she tried to preserve her husband’s legacy — but until Hamilton, he was probably still best known for dying in a duel, which likely wouldn’t be his choice for a legacy. (Runner-up pre-Hamilton Hamilton legacies: "He’s on the $10 bill," and, "Something with the treasury, I think?")

Or look at my father. Every story I hear about him is different. He could reinvent himself, yes, but maybe he reinvented himself too many times. Maybe he could never find the center he needed, the thing that would let him slow down for a moment. (I can relate.) Maybe he was a very good man and a good dad. Maybe he did something horrible one night. Maybe he was every story I’ve heard about him, and others I will never hear.

We like to think we define who we are, but we are also what others think about us — no matter how inaccurate. Their truths are our story as much as our own are, and maybe more so.

As I left the theater the night I saw Hamilton, feeling grossly inadequate and very small, and yet excited and thrilled to have lived in someone else’s atmosphere for a while, I kept thinking back to a favorite passage, from Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s novel I Curse the River of Time:

I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore nothing really to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, the very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember.

We are all collections of facts: Burr did not have to shoot Hamilton, but he did. Hamilton’s wife Eliza did not have to fight for her husband’s legacy, but she did. My mother did not have to give birth to me, but she did. My father did not have to sign the adoption papers, but he did.

My father died a hero to some, a villain to others, and a mystery to me. It is easy to look to him, to look to the moment of my conception, and hope for an answer that makes sense of myself.

But does it matter? Or does it matter more that I’ve gotten to know my father through those who knew him? A reflection, after all, is still a remnant of the whole, and if you get enough reflections, you might be able to reconstruct something. It won’t be perfect, but it will be something. Who did my father want to be? It matters less than who he was, the person that others remember.

He is a question mark to me, but I, too, was a question mark to him. He signed the papers, and that was it. And he died with the not knowing. As we all do.

So, to whatever plane he is on, I can say that it turned out fine. She gave birth to me, and loved me enough to know that I would be better off elsewhere. I went to a town in South Dakota, a place at once too vast and too small, and somewhere along the line, I met a girl and married her, and then I drove until an ocean stopped me, and I convinced people to pay me money to write about television, which is not a thing everybody can do, and I saw a musical, of all things, in 2016, and that night in bed, when I couldn’t sleep, I thought of Hamilton, and I thought of him.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.