Saturday, November 14, 2015

Who Tells Your Story?: How 'Hamilton' Turned Alexander Hamilton into America's Tragic Hero [Contributor: Melanie]

Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton seems to have bulldozed into millions of iPods and Playbill collections almost overnight. Universally acclaimed and years in the making, this show tells the true story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton in a way that’s never been done — and with a much more interactive approach to retelling history than audiences may have expected.

It’s often hard to pinpoint exactly what takes a piece from great to legendary, but in Hamilton’s case, it’s not so hard to figure out why the show has caused such a whirlwind. Every individual element — the writing, the music, the costumes, the direction, and so on — is strong and inspired in its own right, and when put together, they become something transcendent. Together, the cohesiveness of these elements inspires a reaction in the audience that keeps people flocking to the box office and to their mp3 players. It creates accessibility.

The plot of the show — which focuses on Hamilton and the foundation of the American government — can seem kind of bland at first. But Miranda ensured that people would have the same visceral reaction that he did when he read Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton, which inspired the show. Miranda saw something in Hamilton’s story that would appeal to the public, and in creating the show, took steps to ensure that the musical’s resonance would have a greater appeal beyond just fans of American history. The most obvious method is in the casting, which is purposefully diverse and has non-white actors playing white historical figures. Second, it acknowledges the backwardness of American history and uses it to its own advantage. And third, it creates a living and breathing tragic hero narrative out of true events. These things make Miranda’s rendition of Hamilton’s story attractive to the audience, perhaps because we, in some way or another, can all find a level of familiarity in what is possibly the craziest true story ever.

As Janet Malcolm pointed out in her essay “41 False Starts,” artists and stories that don’t represent minorities are automatically inferior at this stage in the world of creativity. While the quality of a work about some dead rich white guy may vary, at this point, the field is so over-saturated with stories in this vein that it’s not difficult to understand why many people might automatically tune out. Who wants to hear about how Alexander Hamilton made his money and lived his life? That extends to the supporting cast of characters as well, including Aaron Burr, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. But the potential boredom in watching their stories play out is curbed by the purposeful casting of black and Latino actors as historically white men and women.

Now the “old white guy” aspect is removed from the story. Hamilton is still a Scottish orphan, but when portrayed by Dominican actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, a whole new side to his character is revealed. Miranda has said in multiple interviews that he read Hamilton’s story as a hip hop story — about a person who wrote their way out of poverty and a static life. By telling Hamilton’s story through the mouth and words of someone who, on the surface, appears to have nothing in common with the man he’s portraying, Miranda greatly increases his chance of connecting with his audience. Hamilton is someone who, despite his race and heritage, had an awful start at life, and fought hard to work his way to the top. That’s absolutely something that contains mass appeal, and now that message can spread to people who need to see it who might have otherwise been distracted by the umbrella of whiteness. Further, by having such a diverse cast, the show is able to reflect what America, and specifically activist America, looks like today. Those who walk in Black Lives Matter marches and stand up to racist immigration laws can see themselves in a history that have, for so long, been denied to them. The very essence of what it is to be American is challenged.

Miranda didn’t stop there. Another potential obstacle for audiences could have been how men dominate the narrative. While it still is very much a male-centric story, the inclusion of the Schuyler sisters as main players, outspoken revolutionaries, and humans at the center of tragedy and drama paints a wider and more beautiful picture. The Schuyler sisters make their entrance on the hunt for bright, revolutionary minds. And while Angelica and Eliza are portrayed as unwavering supporters of Hamilton, their respective love for him is never more important than their love for each other — Angelica not only sacrifices her own lifelong happiness to graciously allow her sister a chance at a good life, but also turns to comfort her younger sister when Hamilton betrays her. More than anything, the Schuyler sisters are linked to each other and not to the man in the spotlight. And their recognition of a blatant contradiction in Thomas Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” refrain leads into the next point: equality.

Hamilton points out, utilizes, and makes sense of the series of contradictions and paradoxes that make up early U.S. history. “All men are created equal” is a phrase that, in Jefferson’s time, referred only to white, male landowners. Many students realize in their U.S. history classes that the bastion of freedom America claims to be is a lie, which then makes the entire Revolutionary War look like a bunch of rich guys getting antsy about taxes. Miranda brings the cause and the ideals back to their roots. He first and foremost portrays the birth of America as fundamentally important in the history of our world. It’s not good or bad, but it happened and these are the people who made it happen and had to deal with its aftermath. Humanizing these stoic faces from history books and dollar bills makes it interesting again, reminding people who have heard this story countless times that this was a personal drama for many who fought with both pens and guns to make their ideas reality.

In this show, the Revolution features a nonchalant but deadly figure who used a colony of human beings as a whipping post for his wars and financial problems. It’s about freeing the groups of people the British put in bondage when they stole innocent humans out of their homes and dragged them to the colonies for purchase. And it’s about a group of young men and women who have diverse reasons for finally standing up and saying no. The Schuyler women and the diverse casting all point to this massive error on the part of the Founding Fathers, and who they were too shortsighted to include in their vision of the country they built. Miranda’s Hamilton is about everyone under the boot of society — from immigrant orphans with no chance at life, to women forced into social slavery, to the use of people as unpaid and imprisoned laborers. This is something the modern world can recognize and get behind and the show doesn’t shy away from it; the Founding Fathers’ now obvious mistakes are embraced and corrected.

The final step is to take all the aforementioned pieces and organize them in a recognizable way: in this case, in the frame of a tragic hero. As per technical definitions, the character of Alexander Hamilton is very nearly a pure example of a tragic figure. Though his trajectory is a bit backwards (tragic heroes go from places of nobility and status to nothing, but Hamilton does the opposite), his fatal flaw is made loud and clear and keeps coming back to destroy his life — his obsession with his own legacy. If we boil it down, it’s hubris, the traditional downfall of tragic heroes. But Hamilton’s pride makes him reckless in the army, distances him from his wife, very nearly ruins his marriage when he publicly admits to an affair, and destroys his political career when he cannot bring himself to let slander slide. “Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room?” his foil character Aaron Burr asks as Hamilton loudly proclaims over and over “I am not throwing away my shot,” while his family is left in the dust.

This is a story we know. We were forced to read it in Greek tragedies in school, use it to talk about various Shakespeare plays, and referenced it in all our thinkpieces about Breaking Bad. And here it is, not just beautifully crafted and personified, but as a relatively accurate depiction of real events. Life mirrors art in its truest form and who would have thought Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton would join the ranks of drama’s tragic heroes? Somehow Lin-Manuel Miranda managed to pull it off, and as a result of his work, he’s become a MacArthur Fellow, and is prematurely the frontrunner for many, many Tony Awards next year.

Hamilton is a masterpiece befitting a creator of masterpieces. Miranda’s dedication to the project — evidenced by the fact that the opening song alone took him a year to write — and to doing one of the most overlooked, greatest minds in American history justice paid off beautifully. It’s a gut-wrenching story that’s immediately accessible to nearly everyone who sees it. As Miranda said in his recent 60 Minutes interview, "When Dick Cheney's sitting in the audience, I think what is he thinking when he hears the lyric, 'History has its eyes on you,' you know? When the president is here, what is he thinking as he sees George Washington say, 'I have to step down so the country can move on'? Everyone has a stake in Hamilton because it’s a story built for everyone to understand." In attempting to right the wrongs of our pasts, it also shows exactly where those wrongs came from, and challenges the audience to apply that message to America as they see it today.

Check out the soundtrack on Spotify, do some research, and if you're lucky enough to get tickets, Hamilton is playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway!


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