At first blush, it seems like a stretch to turn the story of Alexander Hamilton into a musical by the same name. The poverty that greeted the boy’s birth on the tiny island of Nevis, abandonment by his father, the death of his mother when he was 11 and the suicide of the cousin who cared for him and his brother when they were orphaned hardly seem like something to sing about. On the other hand, few founding fathers contributed as much to our fledgling republic as this arrogant genius who ultimately died in a duel with Aaron Burr.
The broadway production of “Hamilton,” which just finished a run at San Antonio’s Majestic Theater as part of a third world tour, was inspired by Ron Chernow’s best-selling book on the nation’s first secretary of the treasury. Published in 2004, Chernow’s work involved a laborious study of 22,000 pages of Hamilton’s papers and archival research around the world. In the end, the author finds the diminutive Hamilton to have been an enormous actor on the American stage and concludes that, “In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did.”
The play follows the book as faithfully as possible, given that it is a sung-and-rapped through musical. Needless to say, it helps to have at least a passing grasp of the history of our nation’s formative years to keep up with the lively dialogue. The fact that the cast is non-white adds a richness of tone and irony to what historically must have been a far more mundane discourse.
The first act of the play – the music, lyrics and book all written by Lin-Manuel Miranda – follows Hamilton from painful childhood in the West Indies to his arrival in New York to attend Kings College (courtesy of island patrons who saw genius in the young man’s writing) and the introduction to the people who played a prominent role in his life: Burr, Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, the Schuyler sisters and of course George Washington.
In 1777 Hamilton was promoted to Lt. Colonel and assigned as General Washington’s aide-de-camp. As the war with the British ground on, the young Hamilton bridled at the job. He repeatedly petitioned Washington for a field command, but his writing gifts were so prodigious that the general felt him indispensable. Hamilton the polymath was also fluent in French, another talent Washington plumbed, especially after France began to supply military and monetary aid to the revolutionary cause. Also in this act, Burr convinces Hamilton to marry into the wealthy Schuyler family and he is wed to Eliza. The act concludes with the Continental army’s victory over the British at Yorktown.
In the play’s second act Thomas Jefferson returns from France where he had served as ambassador. This is a hilarious moment in the play performed to the song “What’d I Miss.” Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds unfolds as does the Compromise of 1790 during a private dinner among Hamilton, Jefferson and James Madison (the compromise exchanges Hamilton’s financial plan for placing the country’s permanent capital on the Potomac River.)
Burr is envious of Hamilton’s power in the new government (“The Room Where It Happens”) and the enmity between the two men grows until in the election of 1800, Hamilton endorses Jefferson for president over Burr. Jefferson becomes president and Burr his vice president.
The enmity between the two rivals ends on the morning of July 11, 1804, on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River near Weehawken New Jersey. In the duel requested by Burr (“Your Obedient Servant”), Hamilton is struck in the hip and dies the next day. Burr is uninjured but lives out his life in infamy.
The play ends with a reflection on historical memory, showing how Eliza kept Hamilton’s legacy alive until her death 50 years later (“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”).
“Hamilton” piled up the awards, winning 11 Tonys, the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. If you find yourself in the same town with this production, beat a line to the box office. But before you go, dive into Chernow’s book. You won’t regret either of them.