I often find myself amazed at the creative genius some people possess – the innate ability to string together existing ideas and concepts, forming something entirely unique and in a way the world has never seen before.
This combination, for instance: American history, a founding father known best (and some might say only) for getting his face on our $10 bill, and hip-hop.
Who thinks this stuff up? Well, that would be Lin-Manuel Miranda, an American composer, lyricist, rapper and actor. “Hamilton” marks his second musical, following on the heels of “In The Heights,” a Tony- and Grammy-award-winning musical chronicling life in the Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City.
Sophomore efforts rarely live up to their predecessors. I think it’s fair to say that Miranda has blown the curve.
To hear him talk about the genesis of “Hamilton” is to realize the depth of Miranda’s gifts. After stumbling upon a meaty biography of founding father Alexander Hamilton, he thought it would make for the perfect musical. But – not just any musical. A hip-hop musical. Why hip-hop? According to a CBS Sunday Morning interview: “We take it as a given that hip-hop music is the music of the revolution. The hip-hop narrative is writing your way out of your circumstances.”
The result is simply delightful. Miranda is a legit songwriter who somehow finds a way to spit out hip-hop lyrics about colonial American history. The more you listen, the more you begin to realize that each character has its own hip-hop style in lyric and cadence. That’s not to say that “Hamilton” lacks more traditional musical components – the chorus sings in bold harmonies and less hip-hop music captures key emotional moments. But make no mistake: Hamilton is a hip-hop musical in every sense of the genre.
It’s the perfect vehicle to recreate Hamilton’s story in the 21st century, really. From birth, Hamilton faces every odd stacked against him: family tragedy, devastating hurricane, struggling immigrant, always fighting the odds, trying to make a name for himself. And every time, Hamilton rises above the obstacles in his own way, simultaneously impressing and frustrating his colleagues. He has a constant need to produce and achieve, whether it’s fighting for his country’s independence or creating its intricate financial system. Paralleled with that, the story of marital struggles and a son he loved dearly but never fully connected with before his untimely death. It’s that parallel that makes the story so compelling and suited to be shared in a musical.
Like any good musical, melodies come and go, tied to particular characters and circumstances like echoes connecting the musical fabric of the show. Miranda does an excellent job of creating and revisiting recurring refrains. A perfect example: Hamilton’s bold proclamation that “I am not throwing away my shot / I’m just like my country, I’m young scrappy and hungry / I am not throwing away my shot” and his wife Eliza’s plea to “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”
In fact, it could be said that these two stanzas reflect the primary tension at the very heart of “Hamilton”: celebrated founding-father ambition vs. stopping to smell the roses. Hamilton represents the game-changer who, through sheer will and perseverance, changes the rules of the game and the course of things to come. We need those people in our institutions: government, business, communities, churches. But how do change agents balance the sheer force of their efforts with their personal lives and life in general?
Look around at how luck we are to be alive right now. More than simply being a history lesson, “Hamilton” addresses deeper questions of what it means to be human in times of upheaval and change. I love how the musical piques both my intellectual curiosity and my need to see beyond immediate circumstances to the larger swath of life that transcends a single lifetime.
A sentiment best captured in one of the recurring refrains that makes its strongest presence in the musical’s last song: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” It is both question and statement, staying with you long after track 46 reaches its conclusion. It’s also part of what compels you to cycle back to the first song and listen all over again. The story of Alexander Hamilton is profound, precisely because it echoes throughout our own.
How lucky we are to be alive right now, indeed.
When STEVE LINDSLEY is not being a pastor, or sermonizing, or songwriting/giggling, or keynoting/leading music for various retreats and conferences, or teaching Old and New Testament at his local community college, or blogging, or running and swimming and practicing yoga, or playing pick-up basketball with his two sons and letting them win, or watching music competition reality TV shows with his love wife, it probably means he’s sleeping. Follow him on Twitter at @slindsley. Visit his blog.