Have you ever read a book, seen a film, or experienced any art that completely changed how you viewed something? I don’t mean to be dramatic or sappy, but this has happened to me a few times throughout my life. Like probably most people, there were movies I latched onto in my childhood. But possibly unlike others, I make more of how my feelings on art have changed over time. The first time this really happened for me was in 2005 when I saw The Incredibles at a family member’s house. I’ve written plenty about that particular film’s merits, so I’ll just say that I had loved films before, but that one felt personal in a way I hadn’t previously experienced. To say that it has impacted my life wouldn’t adequately express to you what it has meant to me in the intervening years.
At the risk of oversharing, I have Asperger’s Syndrome. This means quite a few things that I won’t get into, but most importantly to this topic, people like me tend to obsessively fixate on seemingly random specific topics. This can be pretty much anything. For me, it’s almost always been some film or another. In some cases, I just research the movie for a month, and it’s out of my system. In others, as I previously said, it kind of takes over my life. The reason I bring this up is that I finally saw Hamilton about a week ago. I am about four years late to this party, but it’s been a while since I felt quite this moved by a new artistic experience, and I don’t think I can stay out of the discussion. I remember when the show was the biggest thing in the world (usually something that puts me off of just about anything), a friend sent me the opening number “Alexander Hamilton” and Angelica’s lament “Satisfied.” They weren’t really my music taste, which veers towards classic rock, folk, and more traditional show tunes. I thought they were cleverly worded and masterfully performed, but just not my thing. Four years passed, and we got the news that Hamilton would be added to the Disney+ streaming service. I already have this service, I’m a sucker for a good musical, and it’s not like there’s been much to do lately; as such, I decided to give it a go. At the risk of delivering some very late news, this is an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime show. Part of me instantly thought, “Wow, I should have gotten over myself and watched this when it was new.” However, I’m inclined to believe the contrary. I’ve already said too much about myself, so I won’t go into it, but lately, I’ve been going through a hard time. Nobody I know has died, I’m not homeless, and I still have my job, so I almost feel guilty for saying that. For whatever reason, be it the virus, inability to visit relatives, or the brick wall I feel I’ve hit in life, I haven’t been myself lately. I realize this may sound strange or melodramatic, but Hamilton has made me feel alive again. With all this being said, my intention here is to talk about why that is. In other words, how does an underdog, multi-genre show about a Founding Father become a national phenomenon? Let’s dive in.
I wasn’t involved in the discourse surrounding this show when it came out, and I haven’t read that much about it (yet) either. As such, I’m not sure whether my feelings are the consensus or relative hot takes, as strange as it seems to have any hot takes about someone who’s been dead for a couple of centuries. Almost every song in Hamilton is an absolute banger, and I don’t normally feel that way about musicals, even Disney films. Almost every soundtrack has a couple of songs everyone skips, if it’s lucky enough to only be a couple. “Alexander Hamilton” and the following narrations by Aaron Burr, which utilize that song’s leitmotif, are haunting and perfectly frame the show’s action. I love the way Hamilton, his friends, and enemies set us up for what to expect (unless you know the various ups and downs already). And you know what? When key events materialize before our eyes, they’re still shocking and breathtaking. We’re told what will transpire in the show, but as in at least one other famous play, this serves to create tension as we hope against hope that it’ll turn out differently. “Aaron Burr, Sir” introduces several of our main characters, particularly Hamilton and Aaron Burr. This song is absolutely delightful, from Burr’s unwanted advice to the young, hungry Hamilton, to the rowdy behavior of Alexander’s new friends. This number perfectly demonstrates something I love about many of the show’s songs: you’ve got several characters showing different attitudes about war, transparency, and what it means to stand for something. In this case, that something is revolution and the creation of a new nation. “My Shot” creates an excellent leitmotif for Hamilton throughout the show, displaying his raw desire to prove himself on and off the battlefield. “The Story of Tonight” is absolutely beautiful, especially John Laurens’ part, performed by Anthony Ramos. Christopher Jackson is incredible as George Washington. I love the respect with which he carries this character, and while I haven’t heard much about his songs, they’re very good and emotional.
“The Schuyler Sisters” is one of my favorites in the show. Burr is hilarious and quite witty in this one, not to mention that it introduces two of the show’s best characters (and Peggy!). The wordplay throughout the show is astounding, and this sequence displays that so well. With many of the songs in the show, I notice more little jokes and references every time I hear/watch. That’s exactly what I love in a work, which makes me want to rewatch it. “You’ll Be Back,” and really all of King George’s interludes in the play, display Jonathan Groff’s tremendous stage presence. This is not to mention his beautiful voice, which was wasted in Frozen (but thankfully not in Frozen II). One thing I love to see/hear in a musical is a song that demonstrates how different its characters are as we get several points of view simultaneously. I mentioned this with “Aaron Burr, Sir,” but the juxtaposition of “Helpless” and “Satisfied” exemplifies this in an even more cathartic (satisfying?) way. They actually remind me, perhaps oddly, of the “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire” sequence in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The circumstances are entirely different, but both musicals position a hopeful/romantic song right before one that’s more boisterous and emotionally raw. Renée Elise Goldsberry’s performance as Angelica and her ability to portray so many complex emotions while transitioning from one type of music to another is incredible. “Satisfied” was initially my favorite song in the show, and it’s still a frequent ear bug for me.
However, the more I see and hear this show, the more my favorite song and character veer off into some unexpected territory. I would never have imagined myself saying this, but Aaron Burr is very possibly my favorite character in Hamilton. There is no real weak link in this show, but Leslie Odom Jr.’s portrayal of Aaron Burr is simply life-alteringly poignant. “Wait For It” isn’t a song that I thought much of the first few times I heard it. Most of it is quiet, and in it, Burr comes off as a little petty, musing on his love life and the unfairness of Hamilton’s meteoric rise to Washington’s “right hand man.” But at some point, I started finding this tune stuck in my head. I found myself mimicking Odom’s stern but reserved delivery of the main phrase under my breath. The other day, I found myself reading an article from months ago where Odom Jr. talks about several topics relating to Hamilton and the theater in general. He covers a lot of ground, much of which is important and interesting, but what I really love is a good character. He remarks that most of us are more like Burr than Hamilton, and he mentions what “Wait For It” meant to him when he was doing readings of the show for creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda. It probably sounds silly to say this of the person who originated this role on Broadway, but this is such a brilliant observation on the character. That’s exactly how I’ve felt as I’ve gone back and revisited the show both in film and soundtrack form. Burr, unlike Hamilton, is bound and determined to show restraint at every turn. “I am not standing still/I am lying in wait!” He sings about how love and death come for us all equally, whether we’re “good” or “bad.” How everyone who cared for him had already died, how it makes no sense to see so many failing and suffering while Hamilton shines like a star and gets to be “seated at the right hand of the father.” I, and hopefully, most of us, have never killed someone. However, Burr’s constant struggle to both “keep his plans close to (his) chest” and also stay in the game is far more relatable to the average person than any of Hamilton’s various feats. Personally, I can think of so many times when I held myself back too much, choosing not to express my real thoughts or address a problematic situation. Similarly, for every one of those, there’s a time I finally let it all out, and it was either the wrong time or I overreacted as a result of all that bottling-up. I can’t help but feel that Burr, at least the show’s image of him, is a warning of what a good person can become when they let someone push their buttons.
Most of us will never stand as tall as either man in history, but this show did the unthinkable and made me feel sorry for Aaron Burr. Both his and Hamilton’s lives were full of tragedy. Still, Hamilton is remembered as a revolutionary war hero who created this nation’s financial backbone. Burr, for better or worse, is known as “the damn fool that shot him.” Of course, Hamilton did some messed up things in his life, and the show doesn’t shy away from that. He’s very much held accountable for it in “Hurricane” (performed by Miranda as Hamilton), “Burn” (Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton), and, most chillingly, “It’s Quiet Uptown.” These are three tracks that have similarly grown on me, especially the last, which is the very definition of a tear-jerker. Another one that gets me every time now is “The World Was Wide Enough,” which makes reference to an actual comment from Aaron Burr later in his life. Earlier in the show, “Dear Theodosia” sees Burr address his newborn daughter, and Hamilton his son. Both men show such vulnerability, tenderness, and determination to protect their children in this song. I love the way it shows the similarities rather than the differences between the two men. I get chills when they both start singing in unison, one of the show’s many beautiful harmonies. The first time I actually saw Hamilton in its entirety, I knew it was something special. But the play is almost three hours long, and every scene, every performance, is packed with little references, quips, and heartbreaking lines. Every time I hear or see Hamilton, I come away with something new to think about. For me, that’s the sign of a truly exceptional work, regardless of medium, genre, or subject matter.
I know I’ve rambled, so to wrap things up a bit, I remember back in 2016 hearing Miranda speak about his influences for the show. It’s common knowledge that when he read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography, he was inspired by the story of an orphaned immigrant who forged a new life in the new world. Unlike Miranda, I can’t relate to that narrative on the surface. But what makes Hamilton a masterpiece to me is that it takes these icons of our shared national history, their battles, and triumphs, losses and heartbreaks, and makes it all feel real and tangible. In “The Election of 1800,” someone remarks that you could “get a beer with (Burr).” At the end of this show, I feel this way about almost every character, as they’ve all been developed and explored so beautifully. In fact, you could say Hamilton is as much the story of Aaron Burr or Eliza Hamilton as Alexander. Coming from a skeptic who usually doesn’t even care for half of the musical genres Hamilton employs, it’s worth the hype. I feel lucky to have seen something so thoughtful, empathetic, and masterfully constructed, especially at a time like this.