I listened to the Hamilton cast album hundreds of times before I saw the live show. Full-blown Hamilton fever was just starting to hit the internet in early 2016, six months after its Broadway debut. With an assignment in hand to write about Lin-Manuel’s Miranda retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton, I bought tickets in seemingly the final week that someone in my income bracket could pull off that feat. I tucked into my cramped perch in the last row of the balcony one March evening, already knowing the show inside and out. Or so I thought.
This week, watching the filmed version of the musical being released on Disney+, I was reminded of that night and of how finally seeing the show made me realize what I’d missed: that the person who “tells the story” of Hamilton is not its namesake, but its villain, Aaron Burr (played by Leslie Odom Jr.).
Yes, Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is the protagonist, the title character. The show focuses on Hamilton’s life, and on how and why it ended in an infamous duel. But Burr lived on, and it’s Burr who tells Hamilton’s story, at least on this stage. Burr is our guide.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version of the lives of Hamilton and his cohort necessarily compresses and elides details, but a battery of wild Aaron Burr facts demands a brief detour: The grandson of Princeton president and archetypal “fire-and-brimstone preacher” Jonathan Edwards, Burr actually killed Hamilton while he was serving as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. He finished his term without further incident. But there is a satisfying literary symmetry to his life: After working as a land speculator, becoming a defendant in a Supreme Court trial in which Jefferson accused him of treason, and spending years as a self-imposed exile bouncing around Europe, he returned to America and married a woman named Eliza Jumel, who divorced him after four months. Her lawyer? Alexander Hamilton Jr., the second son of Alexander Sr. and Eliza. Burr died the day the divorce was finalized.
That Burr is Hamilton’s narrator would have been obvious if I’d paid closer attention to the cast recording. He opens each section of the musical by asking a series of questions about his nemesis — the recurring stanzas that start How did a bastard orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman ... — and then trying to answer them as we watch the events of Hamilton’s life unfold. Hamilton is gone by the end of the show, when Burr, having just killed him in a duel, sings with anguish from some point in the future: He should have known the world was wide enough for both of them. Burr is the one who introduces Hamilton’s political rivals, Jefferson and James Madison, as they ruefully admit in the musical’s final number that Hamilton’s financial system turned out to be a success, at least in their lifetimes.
Onstage — and thus in the film — this structure is even clearer. Odom is commanding, a tall and elegant stage presence, especially compared to the scrappier Miranda. As Burr, he can swing from charming and smooth to tortured to obsequious with just the shape of his smile and the lift of his head. He is trying to please us and then, as time goes on, complaining to us about the unfairness of the universe. He was born to power and class. He is the one who has a family legacy to protect. He should, by rights, be president.
Hamilton insists that Burr and he are the same, because they’re both orphans, but it’s obvious from the jump that there’s nothing similar about them. Burr’s sense of entitlement is what keeps him from believing in anything too firmly (“talk less, smile more / don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for”), and it’s why the combative Hamilton drives him up the wall. You can see it in his eyes.
Burr doesn’t get the final word, though. In the final number, after he sings “When you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?”, his voice drops out completely. It is Hamilton’s widow Eliza (Phillipa Soo) who finishes the show, who inserts herself “back into the narrative” and explains that she spent the last half-century of her life extending her husband’s legacy and creating one of her own. She is the reason, it is strongly suggested, that anyone remembers Alexander at all.
It’s difficult, from just listening to the album, to fully grasp how moving this final song is. By the end, having reclaimed her voice, published her husband’s work, fought for his legacy, raised funds to build the Washington Monument, and founded a private orphanage for kids like Alexander, Eliza stands in the center of the stage. In the shadows, softly singing, are the people she loved who are “on the other side” — George Washington, her sister Angelica, her son Philip, Alexander himself. In the last moment, she looks up at the light and gasps at her first glimpse of eternity.
And it’s clear then that it’s not Burr who controlled Hamilton’s story after all, though he tried. It’s Eliza.
Hamilton’s performances add new dimensions to the music
Taking a cue from his show, Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to instinctively understand that controlling any narrative requires constant interaction with those who love it. Though he was already known to Broadway fans from his hit 2008 musical In the Heights, Miranda’s more widespread fame grew in tandem with Hamilton’s explosive popularity, which really got cranking when the cast album was released in 2015.
Hamilton’s music is extremely catchy, and Miranda and his cast did everything they could to connect with fans who wouldn’t get to see the show due to cost and geographic access. They performed web-only exclusives with casts from other Broadway shows, remixed and reimagined their own performances, and actively promoted fan videos, like “Batlexander Manilton” and the full-length, very “early 2016”-era Jeb!
So it’s only natural, when listening to the album, to imagine Miranda as the star. Certainly, Miranda richly deserves accolades for having written Hamilton’s zealously intricate lyrics and music, which manage to reference everything from hip-hop to gospel to Gilbert and Sullivan. But seeing the original cast perform, whether onstage or in the film, also reinforces how much this musical isn’t a story about one guy, one star. It doesn’t prop up the “great man” theory of history at all. Instead, Hamilton positions its namesake as a piece in a grander puzzle, showing how his conflicts and congress with others, his failures and successes, combine with others’ strengths and weaknesses to move history along.
That approach is backed up by the casting. Miranda is a solid and charismatic performer, but he’s physically smaller than a lot of his fellow actors, with less vocal power.
Compare Miranda’s stage presence to that of the others: Christopher Jackson’s both warm and chill-inducing entrance as George Washington; Jonathan Groff’s literally unhinged, spit-spraying performance as King George (you may think you know him from the songs, but out of all of Hamilton’s characters, King George may gain the most from viewers seeing Groff’s on-screen performance); Daveed Diggs’s wiry, electrifying turn as Thomas Jefferson; Okieriete Onaodowan’s bang-on Biggie energy as swaggering revolutionary Hercules Mulligan; Renee Elise Goldsberry’s rapid-fire flow as Angelica Schuyler, mixed with her sideways glances and obvious pain in longing for Alexander — emotions you can see in the film far better than you can from the back row of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, by the way.
Watching actors bring the story alive drives home how much this tale belongs to everyone, not just Alexander Hamilton, who frequently recedes into the background. And of course it does: This is Hamilton, in which the Founding Fathers and Mothers, so long passed into legend for so many of us, are incarnated in Black and brown bodies. It’s a choice that (while presenting issues of its own) is still baldly radical. Hamilton both respects history and confronts it. All of these high-minded promises and big plans for freedom and equality, it says, are supposed to be for everyone. So why has the promise failed over and over again?
Can you get all of that audacity from listening to a disembodied recording? You can get some of it, sure. But watching people perform is different from listening to them sing. Even mediated by a screen, the joyous pulse is palpable. You go to a theater to be in the room where it’s happening, and if you don’t feel any discomfort or thrill, you’re probably doing it wrong.
The world might have gotten too comfortable with Hamilton
That so many people got so comfortable with Hamilton may have been the downside of its worldwide popularity. Launching at the end of the Obama presidency, Hamilton could feel self-congratulatory, in a manner that often shows up in Hollywood, too. Good job, America! We solved racism!
In the intervening years, fictional characters who quote Hamilton approvingly have been deployed as shorthand for clueless and complacent white liberalism, as in 2017’s Get Out or 2019’s Knives Out. And the show’s cultural pervasiveness has only increased. Mike Pence went to see the show soon after the 2016 election, prompting the cast to deliver a message directly to him from the stage and light the internet on fire. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton, for goodness’ sake — nobody has ever accused Bolton of being a liberal — named his book The Room Where It Happened.
After the Pence incident, a Facebook acquaintance insisted to me that while they didn’t vote for Trump (a preamble that has since become ubiquitous), they thought the cast’s message for Pence was unconscionable, that “everyone should feel safe in the theater.” It’s a silly statement, because nobody should feel (metaphorically) safe in the theater. At its best, the theater has always been a place for audiences to be challenged, confronted in a live setting with stories about humanity performed by real human bodies. You have to give yourself over to it.
Despite the admirable efforts made by Miranda and his colleagues to give Hamilton fans a taste of the live performance aspects of the show, getting beyond the cast album remained basically inaccessible to most people in the years after the show debuted. Live theater is inherently exclusive — it’s meant to be experienced in person, so you have to be there — on top of being extremely expensive to produce. Those two factors served (as they have with other productions in the past) to isolate Hamilton largely as an artwork for people who could afford to see it, even once it opened in other cities and went on tour. (One notable exception: audience members who were recipients of some of the production’s outreach initiatives, such as students from underserved communities.)
That means the show’s theatrical audiences since 2015 have skewed well-off and urbane. The Disney+ release of the film won’t be available to anyone who can’t subscribe to Disney+, but it will make the show far more readily accessible to those who previously may have only listened to it.
Watching Hamilton now, the revolutionary overtones are clear
And new Hamilton viewers will be watching in 2020, not 2016. When I saw it in the spring of 2016, the show made me think about the current president and the upcoming election, in which it seemed like a will to power unmoored from commitments to public service was clearly winning out.
In mid-2020, watching Hamilton at home in the middle of a pandemic, during nationwide uprisings and protests against police brutality and racism, with the president tweeting that he is “THE LONE WARRIOR!”, I found myself struck by the way Hamilton positions the impoverished immigrant Alexander — who married up but was always a striver haunted by the memory of his past — against comfortable and well-off guys like Jefferson or Burr. It shoves away the idea that playing nice is better than causing change; it expressly repudiates those who “would have voted for Obama for a third term” and then figured things would sort themselves out.
In Hamilton, a handful of young, scrappy dreamers get things started, hoping that tomorrow there will be more of them, and their story will be told.
I wonder if the revolutionary undertones of Hamilton will sing in a new way for those who watch it at home now. You can’t ignore who was left out of “all men are created equal” while watching Hamilton — unless you want to. You can’t forget how often Broadway, and entertainment more broadly, has largely excluded people of color from major roles when confronted by casting like this — unless forgetting it makes you more comfortable. You can’t quite miss the consequences of complacency, unless you choose to be complacent. Art alone doesn’t change the world; it just plows the soil.
Hamilton is a show about revolution, and a show about the trouble with revolution: After you’ve turned the world upside-down, you have to figure out what comes next. You have to figure out your laws, your economy, your foreign policy. You also have to figure out who matters, who makes the rules, and — maybe most importantly — who tells the story. Every culture war is about who gets to define the terms and control the narrative, and that’s no different now than it was in 2016 or 1812 or 1776.
Hamilton begins streaming on Disney+ on July 3.