The ‘Hamilton’ phenomenon


BY HAYLEY HOFFMAN – EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

How does the story of Alexander Hamilton go on and on, grow into more of a phenomenon? This question, asked in part by Aaron Burr halfway through the first act of the musical Hamilton, addresses what has been on the mind of many as of late.

Hamilton, which tells the life story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton through rap and hip-hop music as well as with a ground-breaking multiracial cast, has become an international phenomenon since its opening in July of last year. Attended by politicians and celebrities alike, the musical has become the closest thing Broadway has to a blockbuster hit. Its stars have appeared on the likes of 60 Minutes and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon as well as on this year’s Grammy Awards, performing the show’s opening number; tickets for its eight times-weekly performances are sold out through September.

But the phenomenon of Hamilton can be seen and heard closer to home for Centre students—from practice rooms in the belly of Grant Hall, to a Young Hall classroom that houses this semester’s “American Revolution” class. Students and faculty alike have fallen for the show’s radio-friendly score, having memorized its complicated raps and rhymes.

Sophomore Rachel Bischoff said she started listening to Hamilton after her friends “wouldn’t stop talking about how amazing it was.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of 'Hamilton' (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of ‘Hamilton’ (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

“Hamilton spreads like wildfire, more so than any new show in my generation,” she said. “One two-hour car ride home while listening to the album all the way through, and I was hooked. I know every word to the album now.”

Professor of Dramatic Arts Matthew Hallock was introduced to the show through his students.

“I knew of students who had a sort of crazed enthusiasm for it,” he said. “I have to admit that, at first, I wasn’t interested. Hip-hop is not my genre of popular music. I started to hear dribs and drabs of it in places and that, coupled with the students’ enthusiasm, led me to give it a try. I had it on Spotify in the car, on a long enough drive where I could listen to it in a sustained way, and I thought, ‘This is something different.’”

Senior Emily Morrell first heard about the show via Twitter, just after its initial opening at New York’s Public Theater last spring—which isn’t surprising, as Forbes recently calculated that Hamilton was the most-tweeted about show of the year. She recently attended a Tuesday night performance, missing the first day of classes for the spring semester.

“I’ve known about Hamilton since May of last year,” she said. “I heard that it was really impressive and, once I started following it, I found out that it was. You can’t help but be drawn into the music on the cast recording and start choreographing the show in your head.”

And senior Daniel Graham, who heard about Hamilton from Morrell, said he first connected with the show through King George’s love ballad to America (“You’ll Be Back”) and its jokes about sending the colonies “a fully armed battalion to remind them of [his] love.”

“That was the song that made it click for me, and it presents what the show is getting at,” he explained. “It’s trying to address political and historical issues, but in an interesting way. The song comes at those historical issues in a fun way that is interesting to listen to.”

The man largely responsible for Hamilton’s resurgence onto the national stage is Lin-Manuel Miranda (pictured above, center), a Tony-winning composer who recently received a coveted MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” for his work on the show. After coming across biographer Ron Chernow’s book on Hamilton while on vacation, he was instantly drawn to the idea of turning the life of the “ten-dollar Founding Father” into a musical.

“This is a guy who, on the strength of his writing, pulled himself from poverty into the revolution that would create our nation and caught beef with every other Founding Father,” Miranda told CBS This Morning in March of 2015. “There’s great drama, there’s a great love story, and there’s incredible political intrigue.”

'Hamilton' at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. (Photo: Emily Morrell)

‘Hamilton’ at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. (Photo: Emily Morrell)

According to Centre’s resident early American historian, Assistant Professor of History Dr. Tara Strauch, Miranda gets many things right about the life of the Founding Father.

“Because it’s based on Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, which is acknowledged to be a really good biography, it’s pretty accurate as far as names and people and events go,” she said.

However, to create an interesting drama that keeps audiences engaged, Dr. Strauch said that Miranda plays “a little fast and loose with some of the events.”

“He changes when [the major events of Hamilton’s life] happen but, to me, that’s not a huge deal,” she explained. “The thing that is missing from Hamilton is the 1780s. It’s like they don’t even exist in this musical, which is because they’re boring for Alexander Hamilton but they’re actually very important for the history.”

But in spite of its historical inaccuracies, Dr. Strauch has used several of the songs in her classes.

“For most of the classes that I teach, and this is because I am an American historian, students already have stories that they’ve heard or been told about this stuff,” she said. “Anytime I can make them realize that there are new stories, I like that. It’s pretty clear that Hamilton is a story, and it’s one of a million stories [about the history of the United States].”

Senior Tory Parker has enjoyed filling in the gaps in Hamilton’s presentation of history in Dr. Strauch’s “American Revolution” class.

“We’re talking about pre-revolutionary narratives and about how the colonists see themselves. Do they see themselves as independent, or as British citizens?” Parker said. “Hamilton doesn’t really talk about that, and it sticks to the traditional narrative of colonists feeling like Americans and wanting independence for that reason.”

The class has so far explored the complexities involved in crafting the American identity amongst revolutionaries and British loyalists, among other things.

“We’ve explored where an American identity comes from—for instance, what sets us apart from Britain?” Parker explained. “Hamilton plays with that idea in a fun way. We see the same dichotomy of old and new played out in Hamilton in a way that we understand it—the American identity has changed in our time, too. We’re constantly redefining and re-understanding what it means to be an American.”

Centre’s connection to Hamilton expands beyond obsessive jam sessions and the classroom, however, as recent alum Ali Gautier ’15 recently received a second callback to audition for the show.

“I decided to audition because I didn’t see any downfall in not auditioning. The worst case scenario was that I made an embarrassing video of myself singing and rapping that maybe one stranger out there in the world would see, and that would be it,” she explained.

Gautier went on to say that she first listened to the musical on the recommendation of a friend, who thought it would be “the solution to all the issues that [she] often [has] with musicals.”

“I think I really auditioned because I so desperately want to be a part of this exciting new way of seeing theatre and musicals that Hamilton is setting the tone for,” she said.

Like many listeners and audience members, she appreciates the show’s commitment creating a space in the realm of musical theater for people of color.

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‘Hamilton’ at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. (Photo: Emily Morrell)

“I am a biracial woman, which is a phrase you do not often find in character descriptions,” Gautier said. “That reality has been a constant internal and external struggle when it comes to auditioning for shows, but the fact that it is not an outlandish dream to see myself playing whatever character I want, be it even a famously white historical figure in a Broadway show, is something that’s definitely new to me.”

Beyond its color-blind casting, Morrell believes that Hamilton’s importance lies in its commitment to telling the story of America as it was envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

“It reminds those who see it and hear it about what the American experiment was supposed to be about,” she said. “The show reminds us of colonial America, where someone like Alexander Hamilton could become someone important…All things being relative, Hamilton should not have been who he was. It’s important to be reminded that we are a country where people like Hamilton are supposed to be able to be brilliant, and I think it reminds us of that in a way that is fun and conducive to dance parties.”

Click here for a Spotify playlist of the interviewees’ favorite songs from the show, among others mentioned in this article, constituting the Cento’s “Beginner’s Guide to Hamilton.”

The reasoning behind their choices can be found below:

Bischoff – “My favorite song from the show is ‘Wait For It.’ I think it’s one of the few stand-alone pieces in the show. It doesn’t need the rest of the musical for it to make sense as a song, and its lyrics are all too powerful and real…and of course, Leslie Odom Jr.’s voice is a thing of magic.”

Gautier – “My favorite song is ‘Wait for It.’ Adultery is ‘wrong,’ but that song is just so right.”

Graham – “‘The Room Where It Happens’…the song is just brilliant on its own.”

Professor Hallock – “I’m always listening to ‘The Schuyler Sisters’…really, I enjoy anything they sing.”

Morrell – “My favorite is probably ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,’ because it reminds us that there are way too many unheard voices—people who’ve been taken out of the narrative by structural violence, racism, etc.—and that those people have just as valuable and varied stories as anyone else. It’s also a song that pushes us to put ourselves in narratives that we care about; it reminds us that this system was created in such a way that we can be creative, active parts in it.”

Parker – “100 percent, ‘History Has Its Eyes On You.’ It complicates George Washington and it’s the song that, I think, accepts the gravity of what they’re doing in that moment. That song marks the shift from Hamilton, the boy, to Hamilton, the revolutionary.”

Dr. Strauch – “I really love ‘The Adams Administration.’”


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