In rendering the history of Hamilton for Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda forges a new frame
Alexander Hamilton, a founding father and the first Secretary of the Treasury of the U.S., died on July 12, 1804 at the age of 49.
He is buried in Lower Manhattan, in a tranquil graveyard at Trinity Church, where his epitaph reads:
The Patriot of incorruptible integrity.
The soldier of approved valour.
The statesman of consummate wisdom.
Whose talent and virtues will be admired
Long after this marble shall have mouldered into dust.
While Hamilton’s body has rested at this site ever since the fatal duel with Vice President Aaron Burr, which claimed his life exactly 212 years ago today, his persona has come alive again, thanks to a certain Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow’s riveting biography of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize our newborn America, “Hamilton” the musical, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has reengaged the world with Hamilton’s legacy in new and inspiring ways. Since the play opened in August of 2015, Trinity Church’s little cemetery has witnessed an influx of foot traffic from fans making pilgrimages to Hamilton’s grave.
The importance of remembrance cannot be overstated. We are, collectively and as individuals, formed by the world left by those who came before us. We are who we are today, as a country, because of our founding fathers, yet there are no witnesses to attest to the goings on during our country’s birth. All we have are the stories passed on through the years, the stories that survived the course of time, to help us understand, learn from, and honor the memories of the important figures that came before us.
Here is a man who was so present in his time—Hamilton rose to national importance from low beginnings, and made many marks on our nation’s character—yet, human as he was, his fleeting life on earth has long since passed.
Here is a show that, in large part, is about the meaning of legacy and remembrance. The questions were precisely raised in song: “When you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?”
The answer: the future will. On Broadway now, Hamilton’s story is being told in ways both hip and sentimental, irreverent yet deeply patriotic. The words to each song tell of emotions, history, hopes, and love. And as much as the music inspires us at many levels, the choices behind who’s telling this story—the actors on stage and their histories—inspires us further. While this piece of our history comes from an era with enslavement and extreme social inequities, the story is told to us by a multicultural cast. Now, we can remember our founding story, via these extraordinary characters, shown to us in a context of diversity.
“Talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for…fools who run their mouths off wind up dead,” Aaron Burr tells Hamilton early in the story, as his mentor. Ironically, Aaron Burr’s inability to stand for anything kept him from rising to public remembrance for anything other than being Hamilton’s killer. Eliza, Hamilton’s aggrieved wife, who died in 1854 at the age of 97, spent the fifty years following her husband’s death lifting his legacy and building her own name. Eliza can now be remembered as founding the first private orphanage in New York City and advocating for the construction of the Washington Monument, as we learn at the very end of the play.
There’s a repeated line that runs through several numbers in “Hamilton” that goes, “In New York, you can be a new man.” The line alludes to the possibility of reinvention, as it is laid forth in the musical’s opening number, in a rhythmic rap titled “Alexander Hamilton.” The words introduce Hamilton’s impoverished past as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean… [who] grows up to be a hero and a scholar.” So, how did Hamilton accomplish such seismic reinvention? By “working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.”
Composer, rapper, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, U.S.-born son of a close-knit Puerto Rican family, played the title role of Hamilton until last Sunday. Miranda wrote the musical, starred in the production, inspired millions with his speech at the Tony Awards, has done all of these things, and, in the process, re-imagined the way we remember this important period of our history.