We could argue that much musical theatre serves, to a certain extent, to open our eyes to long-familiar stories by presenting them in more accessible language and through the lens of catchy songs. With Hamilton, however, Lin-Manuel Miranda has gone further than this. In choosing as his protagonistAlexander Hamilton ...
We could argue that much musical theatre serves, to a certain extent, to open our eyes to long-familiar stories by presenting them in more accessible language and through the lens of catchy songs. With Hamilton, however, Lin-Manuel Miranda has gone further than this. In choosing as his protagonist Alexander Hamilton, once the least-celebrated of the founding fathers, and deciding to tell his story through the medium of hip-hop and using a cast composed almost entirely of actors of color, Miranda is making a strong statement about the American Revolution by asking the audience to see it through the lens of a modern revolution they might better understand.
Hip-hop is itself a revolutionary musical genre. Moving beyond rap, it utilizes a strong combination of music and carefully-composed words to tell its stories, often using the rhythm of the words to express political and social complaints. This is exactly how Miranda uses the genre in his musical, and it helps the audience to understand how truly revolutionary were the actions of the revolutionaries. It can become easy to forget the true significance, at the time, of the actions these people were taking, as, to the modern student, this is simply a key and much-discussed point in American history. However, the use of the hip-hop idiom casts the revolutionaries as anti-establishment, edgy, and using the cleverness of their words in order to make their arguments—all true statements. Furthermore, in having black actors speak using this black-dominated musical genre, with only the king played by a white actor, Hamilton invites the audience to view the ideals of the American Revolution against what remains of that oppression today and to wonder whether those ideals are truly upheld for people of all races in modern America.
The "rap battles" in Hamilton borrow from multiple traditions. The extremely cerebral and tightly-written lyrics in the battles between Hamilton and Jefferson recall not only recent hip-hop hits, but also the great tradition of "flyting" found in late medieval Scottish poetry, itself a descendant of similar Norse flytings. "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy" would not be out of place in Hamilton. Using hip-hop, then, on another level allows us to see how modern American culture is a hybrid, combining the poetic traits of its British ancestry with heavy African American influence. In the same way, watching the American Revolution played out with actors of multiple races, using a modern type of music little heard in a theater, creates a visual illustration of this multiculturalism in America today and how the combining of cultures serves to forward American ideals, not hold them back.
In Hamilton, Miranda suggests that the hip-hop generation of today well understands the ideals and the struggle of Alexander Hamilton and the other founding fathers, and he draws comparisons audiences and drama students cannot shy away from. The student of drama and writing is invited to look at this skillful presentation of old ideas in a new format and consider how to draw from it in their own work.