Everything You Need to Know to Understand Hamilton, the Latest Broadway Sensation

Originally published 9/23/2016. Lead image via Wikipedia.

Everything You Need to Know to Understand Hamilton’s Success, and Why People Love It

Six months ago, I was at a history club meeting when a girl walked in and started playing a song on her phone. She said it was performed by King George III.

She and her friend proceeded to talk about the new Broadyway sensation, Hamilton, for about twenty minutes, non-stop. That’s what we spent our history club meeting doing.

I am now one of those crazy fan girls.

Wondering why we keep bothering you? Here’s everything you need to know about Hamilton: why it’s unique, why so many people love it, and why it’s writing history.

1. What is Hamilton?
Hamilton is a sung-through (no talking scenes), hip-hop Broadway musical that dramatizes the life of our first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton.

2. Who was that, again?
You likely recognize the name from your US history textbook. He designed America’s banking system, was constantly at odds with Thomas Jefferson, founded the first American political party (the Federalists), and died after being shot in a duel by Aaron Burr.

That’s all I knew about Alexander Hamilton at the height of my US history knowledge. Thanks to Hamilton​, I can now name all of his children.

3. Why is it special?
Hamilton does a lot of Broadway firsts. For instance, you may have raised an eyebrow when I said it was a “hip-hop musical.” Yes, just as there are rock musicals and pop musicals, there is now a hip-hop musical.

Even rarer, the show was originally concieved as a mixtape, and was later adapted as a musical.

Another interesting feature that may be one of the first things a fan points out to you: nearly the entire cast is made up of non-white people, a very unique choice for casting the Founding Fathers. Alexander Hamilton is played by the show’s writer, Lin Manuel Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent. George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson are all played by black men. The only predominantly white characters in the show are King George III and a British loyalist.

4. Is it educational?
Not primarily. This show is meant to tell a man’s story, and everything else is secondary. You’ll learn a  bit of history, but that is obviously not the prime objective of the show. This isn’t a dark political commentary, it isn’t one of those underfunded educational shows that your teacher plays on VHS in class; the writer, Lin Manuel Miranda, was sincerely inspired by the story of an interesting man.

Certainly, those old tapes your teachers play for you won’t include the caustic phrase “Sit down, John, you FAT MOTHERF******,” nor the profound observation that “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

5. But…why?
Lin Manuel Miranda, the show’s writer, read a biography of Alexander Hamilton while on vacation. He’d spent a good portion of his life doing freestyle rap and writing hip-hop songs. He was already a star from his hit show, In the Heights, so he had the leverage and connections to do something as daring as Hamilton.

Here is what Lin read: a poor boy grows up in a poor neighborhood, and because of his artistic talents, his town manages to scrape by enough money to get him to college. An explosive, energetic, profusely creative, and unrestrained young man, he quickly rose through the ranks of society, using his art to keep him afloat.

Lin read the story of a rap star from the hood.

And that’s what Hamilton became. Alexander Hamilton used his power of the written word, as opposed to the rapped word, for his meteoric rise to prominence. But since he was used to clawing and scratching just to get by, he is oftentimes self-destructive and abrasive. He even has a couple of rap battles in the show.

6. What’s the good part?
Just because a show is unique, that doesn’t mean it will be a success. So what is it that people like about Hamilton? What kept it going?

In all honesty….it varies from person to person. The only constant I find is that people love the music. Others enjoy the love stories. I personally love the theme of ambition, and caution vs. being non-stop. Some may just love seeing the Founding Fathers speak a language that they can understand. Others may adore the costumes and settings.

I will say this: Hamilton is unbelievably smart. It is just…smart. Not in the nerdy, “Hamilton founded the coast guard in 1777….” type smart. It’s smart because it rhymes “fits of passion” with “pits of fashion.” It’s smart because Anthony Ramos plays two characters in the two acts, and both characters die for Alexander Hamilton. It’s smart because Jefferson has an off-handed reference to his slave-mistress, Sally Hemings. It’s smart because it personifies Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton’s basic characteristics in two songs.

7. Is it on tour? Can I get tickets?
No and probably not. It is a running joke on several talk shows that it is utterly impossible to get tickets to see Hamilton. It wouldn’t be out of place to hear Stephen Colbert say, “I was going to see Hamilton this weekend, but then I needed my arm and leg for something.” A friend of mine said that she looked up ticket prices, and could only find nose-bleed-section tickets for several hundred dollars…over a year from now.

There is actually a Hamilton LOTTERY. That’s right, it’s so difficult for the average Joe to get a ticket that they made a lottery for it.

However, I will say this: the entire soundtrack, and therefore the entire musical (since it’s sung-through) is available for free all over the Internet. Some people don’t like not being able to see things, but a film version is coming out soon.

But if you’re going to listen to the soundtrack like I did, please….dear chuta, please….don’t listen to it on shuffle. So many of my friends try this and are surprised to find that they’re confused. Why would you listen to it on shuffle? There is no reason to think that just because they’re songs they can be listened to on shuffle.

8. What do I need to know going in?
Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. This is what the play assumes you know, and that’s really all you need to know. There are tons of not-so-subtle references to the future duel for you, and it’s better that you recognize them going in.

Also, be ready for anything. No matter who you are, this musical is going to surprise you.


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