On My 20th Listen to Hamilton: Broadway & Early American Republic

Okay, I lied. I haven’t listened to Hamilton 20 times. It’s probably much higher than that, considering for the first three weeks I was listening to it 2-3 times a day. And, for the first week, I listened to it for free on NPR, so let’s just go with at least 100 plays through the entire album.

I’ve been raving about the Hamilton soundtrack since its release in September, just like everyone else has been talking about it all summer. It’s fresh, it’s new, it’s exciting. It’s been raved about for the acting, the lyrics, the man-myth-legend that is Lin-Manuel Miranda – you’d think I’d be Hamilton-ed out by now, but I’m not. (I haven’t had a chance to read Chernow’s biography yet, but it’s sitting on my desk, mocking me…)

Here’s one thing I haven’t seen people talk about regarding Hamilton yet: John Adams.

John isn’t a role in the show – he’s barely mentioned. Miranda includes a tribute to 1776 in “The Adams Administration” and another mention of him in “I Know Him.” Most theatregoers have seen 1776, and know his significance either in regards to Jefferson or as the second President.

I think it’s funny that Hamilton is the other founding father to get a leading role [1]in a musical, especially with their history. Despite being of the same party, the two hated each other  and they both went to great lengths to ruin the other’s legacy because of the personal and public animosity – see the summary of the Adams Pamphlet courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda. It wasn’t quite a clash of backgrounds (despite the obvious differences in their careers) but Adams saw Hamilton’s personality without integrity and virtue. He saw Hamilton as a scheming, prideful, man, a dangerous threat to the early republic.

1776 gives us a snapshot, one moment of politics that explores the state of a not-yet nation. 1776 is a story of how does one start a nation? Is it worth doing if it is not perfect?[2] Hamilton asks us: how do we build off this momentum? How do we handle these imperfect beginnings?

Both try to humanize the founders, but they accomplish the task in vastly different ways. Sherman Edwards, the lyricist of 1776, “wanted to show [the founding fathers] at their outermost limits. These men were the cream of their colonies…They disagreed and fought with each other. But they understood commitment, and though they fought, they fought affirmatively.”[3]

Hamilton, on the other hand, says it explicitly: “this is not a moment/it’s the movement.” Hamilton shows us from 1776 to 1804, and it shows us all of the Revolution and Early Republic fervor – I mean, we spend the first half following the excitement of battles and duels and then the second act is like “how is he gonna get his plan through Congress I’m on the edge of my seat!” 1776 never gives us that excitement – partly because we as an audience have a better understanding of what happened at Independence Hall, but also because it’s a story of settling.

Both 1776 and Hamilton have us watch someone make their mark on history (whether literally on the Declaration or figuratively. But when I watch 1776, I watch it with the ending in mind the entire time, knowing the legacies of these men are cemented in place. It’s about a moment. Sherman Edwards did not intend for the show to become a sermon on the Declaration of Independence and the Founding Fathers, but it kinda was. In trying to show the founders as real people, telling their stories in context of the Declaration limits our ability to conceptualize them as individuals.

Hamilton’s legacies are less established. It’s not really in the genre of “founders chic” even if the founders play a part in the show – it’s more about the spirit of the era in a way that 1776 can never address because of its goal. We see Hamilton as both immigrant and historical figure, we see his friends literally playing different roles, and we see the narrative of Hamilton’s life and rise to power through the eyes of those closest to him. And in that, we learn so much more than a moment.

Hamilton isn’t just a modern musical for its musical style. It’s using our conventions of history (our referring to the public in this case, and not historians) to tell a modern story that’s about more than representation, but about how the story of America’s revolutionary era is not the golden age of the founding fathers that we so often make it out to be. Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, said it nicely here – “Our show is not about 1776. Our show is about 2015.”

Now that Encore! has announced that the 1776 revival will be a colorblind cast, I’m curious as to how the show will look different to us. It will certainly show us a thing or two about representation, but I’m not sure the core of the show will change. 1776 is telling a completely different story about John Adams and the “cream” of the colonies, one in which race is an aspect of the story but not the focus. Hamilton relies on marginalized cultures to tell the story, and forces its audience to see whiteness – and its absence within its particular narrative, not just Broadway. In empathizing with Hamilton, within the early American republic.

Look, as a Broadway fan and a historian, I love them both. I love John Adams as a fellow Massachusetts resident, I love Hamilton because I see myself going nonstop like Hamilton. We’re looking at two musicals concerned with recreating and developing a legacy (within the show as well as outside of the show), looking at the men who know this is an opportunity for their ascendancy and how they shape that opportunity for the public memory. Viewers (or in the case of Hamilton, mostly listeners) are watching and interpreting the construction of American identity onstage – but we’re getting two vastly different stories of how we perform that identity in American popular culture.

[1] Technically, Adams isn’t the leading role in 1776, as decided in the 1970 Tony Awards. But I’ll let it slide.

[2] ttp://www.nationalreview.com/article/415767/funky-founder-richard-brookhiser

[3] Maslon, Laurence, and Michael Kantor. Broadway: The American Musical. New York: Bulfinch Press, 2004. 328-349.

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