There’s an old meme from the 1990s. It’s an (in)famous, awkwardly endearing one– the “cool, hip” adult. The “cool, hip” teacher… the “cool, hip” coach…the “cool, hip” parent or chaperone. If you’re old enough to remember this, you probably remember it all too well. They “related” to the kids by sporting a backwards hat and beatboxing. “Yo yo yo. Lincoln back in 1863 wrote up a famous doc to set the slaves free…” Here’s how they hoped kids would react: “Wow!! These grownups really get us!!!” How the kids really reacted: “Oh no! Please stop! (with their heads in their hands)”
We laugh about it now. It was an inevitable rite of passage. Some bridges are more difficult to build than others and always have been, and the divide between the “stodgy grownups” and the “hip kids” is one certainly of them. That being said, some people can bridge that divide. Enter Lin-Manuel Miranda. The New York City-born Broadway composer visited newly inaugurated U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on May 12, 2009, for “An Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word.” On that night, Miranda presented the first song from what six years later would become the most famous Broadway musical in the world. With his collaborator Alex Lacamoire, Miranda re-introduced everyone to Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, a penniless, Caribbean-born Scottish immigrant who, according to Miranda, “caught beef with every other founding father” served in the American Revolution, worked on the U.S. Constitution, and eventually became the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Miranda believes Hamilton “embodies hip-hop,” which is to say the transformative power of the written and spoken word. Miranda based the musical on historical writer Ron Chernow’s eponymous biography, Alexander Hamilton.
Nowadays the musical is a household name. People have seen it on stages all across the world, cycled through its two-part album hundreds of times, or seen it on Disney+. Children and adults alike are now all deeply familiar with numerous facts and stories about Hamilton, the other Founding Fathers, and other famous figures and events from the American Revolutionary era. As you may have surmised, this has either delighted or produced envy in history teachers across the country! If you’ve seen or heard the musical, here’s an incomplete list of historical facts you may learned from it: Alexander Hamilton’s cousin committed suicide. Alexander Hamilton wrote 51 Federalist Papers, he attended King’s College, he served as an attorney in Albany, New York, he founded the New York Post, his wife Eliza outlived him by 50 years, he was killed in Weehawken, New Jersey, and he was buried in Trinity Church in Manhattan besides his sister-in-law, Angelica.
But it isn’t historical accuracy alone that gives the musical its charm. For every lyric detailing the life and times and accomplishments of Hamilton, Madison, Washington, or Jefferson, another lyric can be found that honors Jonathan Larson, Stephen Sondheim, Eminem, Jay-Z, or Beyonce. In the musical’s flagship number, My Shot, Aaron Burr’s advice (“you’ve got to be carefully taught”) to his compatriots alludes to the musical South Pacific. In Helpless, Alexander deeply voices his loving commitment to Eliza, channeling Ja Rule’s throaty vocals alongside Jennifer Lopez in I’m Real (Remix). The inventive Ten Duel Commandments pays homage to Biggie Smalls (The Ten Crack Commandments). When Washington scolds Hamilton for his brash misconduct in the song following the Ten Duel Commandments, “meet him inside” becomes the ominous refrain. The Late DMX uttered “meet me inside” in his famous 1999 hit, Party Up (Up In Here). And then there are shout-outs to The Pirates of Penzance, Richard Wagner, A Tribe Called Quest, Mobb Deep, Rent, Les Miserables, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the Bible, and even old an English ballad- “The World Turned Upside Down” (which Ron Chernow references in his book)- sung triumphantly at the end of the Battle of Yorktown. The list delightfully goes on and on!
Miranda’s genius isn’t merely relegated to his array of eclectic pop-cultural allusions. He also deeply understood the rhythmic architecture of the raps he produced. Some rhymes are given the AA-BB or ABAB scheme. When Hamilton arrives on the scene, though, the “young, scrappy, and hungry” immigrant delivers more intricate rhymes. Miranda did this to demonstrate Hamilton’s braggadocious, “smartest person in the room” attitude.
Scratch that this is not a moment, it’s the movementMy Shot, Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Where all the hungriest brothers with something to prove went?
Foes oppose us, we take an honest stand
We roll like Moses, claimin’ our promised land
And? If we win our independence?
Is that a guarantee of freedom for our descendants?
Or will the blood we shed begin an endless cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?
I know the action in the street is excitin’
But Jesus, between all the bleedin’ ‘n’ fightin’
I’ve been readin’ ‘n’ writin’
We need to handle our financial situation
Are we a nation of states what’s the state of our nation?
I’m past patiently waitin’ I’m passionately mashin’ every expectation
Every action’s an act of creation
I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow
For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow.
Alexander Hamilton takes a page from another, “young, scrappy, and hungry” contemporary, Marshall “Eminem” Mathers. Symmetrical rhymes are nestled within other, outer rhymes (“…bleedin’ ‘n’ fightin’”… “readin’ ‘n’ writin’”) or doubled up for extra emphasis (“…passionately mashin’ every expectation”). Miranda also employs a few clever, palindromic stanzas (“Are we a nation of states what’s the state of our nation?”), and every verse carries deep meaningful urgency to it!
Hamilton’s brilliance isn’t limited to its rap lyrics, though. The costumes, props, lights…all the major staples of theater are exercised fully. The stage setting mirrors that of a ship- replete with pullies and ropes and stairwells and a spinning circle in the center of the floor. The dancers pantomime everything from whizzing bullets to violent hurricanes, and Yorktown (World Turned Upside Down) is perhaps one of the most excellently choreographed numbers on Broadway. Soldiers twirl, exchange and discharge rifles as red, white, and blue spotlights flash in precise, rapid succession.
And, lastly for all of Hamilton’s fast-paced, historically saturated events and lyrics, the musical definitely has a very poignant, softer side to it. The musical is about Alexander Hamilton and the other major founding fathers, but, like any well-told story, it also strikes a personal chord. Hamilton is about war, immigration, slavery, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the founding of the United States, but it’s also about friendship, love, marriage, ambition, grief, forgiveness, legacy, the nature of history, and other philosophical, existential ideas. In Take a Break, the overworked Alexander cites Macbeth’s famous monologue “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day” from Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy. “What is it all really worth?” the monologue seems to ask. Can one actually accomplish everything one wishes to given the inevitability and unpredictability of death or is it all for naught? Is there enough time? “Time” is Hamilton’s most used word, and Eliza ponders it at the end: “When my time is up have I done enough?” George Washington gives Hamilton very touching advice when hiring him as his “right hand man” instead of as a military commander. Hamilton is willing to die gloriously in battle, but Washington cautions him that “dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.” Aaron Burr channels his own inner Hamlet- ambitious to act, move forward, and make a name for himself in life, but also paralyzed by caution and indecisiveness. He wishes to maintain an inconspicuous public image, “keeping his ideas close to his chest” as he reminds Alexander in Non-Stop. Wait For It focuses on Burr’s inner struggle. And then there is It’s Quiet Uptown. Alongside I Dreamed A Dream from Les Miserables, It’s Quiet Uptown is one of Broadway’s saddest songs. Alexander loses his 19-year-old son, Philip, in a duel (the same spot Alexander later dies). For numerous reasons, Alexander is crushed by guilt. He wanders the streets of Manhattan inconsolable. He tends to his garden, and he seeks forgiveness from his wife. “There are moments when you’re in so deep it feels easier to just swim down” the chorus tenderly echoes. When Hamilton premiered on Disney+ in July 2020, many cities around the world really were “quiet uptown.” The pandemic was raging across the world. Lives had been lost or shattered. Many people were “in so deep” it may have seemed “easier to just swim down.”
In closing, those “cool-hip” grown-ups from the 1990s could’ve successfully “related to the kids” had they known about Lin-Manuel Miranda at the time. Had they known of the world-renowned brainchild he would later produce…a melodic and vivacious brainchild that would integrate history, theater, music, and rap…they would’ve taken extensive notes. Or to paraphrase the show’s “ten dollar founding father without a father,” they would’ve “written [notes] like they were running out of time”!