Reviews

Telling Hamilton’s story: Remember the forgotten Founding Father through hip hop

When I was in New York last year and stopped at Trinity Church – just a stone’s throw from Wall Street – most visitors only seemed to have one thing they wanted to see. It wasn’t inside the building itself, but a grave at side of the churchyard where one Alexander Hamilton is buried.

Since Hamilton the musical opened in New York in 2015, people have been going mad for anything to do with this lesser known Founding Father. Hamilton mania has now of course crossed the Atlantic following the production arriving in the West End in December. Tickets are difficult, if not impossible to come by.

For years Hamilton (the man, not the musical) had what seemed like a side part in American Revolution history – the other Founding Fathers like George Washington – got much more attention. But after Ron Chernow published an 800 page biography on Hamilton in 2004, which Lin-Manuel Miranda subsequently turned into a hip hop musical (with a few ballads and other songs thrown in for good measure) that has rightly changed.

Hamilton’s story is a remarkable one. An orphaned son of a single mother, he left his native Nevis, in the Caribbean, for New York in 1772 after securing a scholarship. George Washington, spotted the distinguished soldier and he became his Right Hand Man.

But it was what happened after the war was won for the Patriots where Hamilton really deserves his place in history. Founding US president Washington appointed him the country’s first Treasury Secretary where he pushed his Federalist agenda (writing the highly influential Federalist Papers in the process). Hamilton argued that individual states must join together as one and that revolutionary debts should be amalgamated.

Not being able to get tickets for Hamilton in London, I managed to pick up one for the Chicago production with just a day’s notice (it features one of four casts currently performing the musical in the US and UK). I found it a fast-paced, energetic show that managed to condense many important points from the Revolution story into the space of just a few hours.

King George III got the most laughs from the audience. Presented as an over-the-top pompous pantomime character, he warned the separatists (who, pre Revolution, were depicted as constantly out boozing, always enjoying one more round) through songs like ‘You’ll Be Back’. His message was that he was in charge – and that they would regret leaving the Motherland.

But then came the final siege of Yorktown (‘The World Turned Upside Down’), which secured America’s independence. Even though by that stage Hamilton was the pen of the Revolution, he fought to return to the battlefield itself and played a prominent role in the victory.

It was however Hamilton’s clashes with Thomas Jefferson in Cabinet that filled much of the action in the musical. The two couldn’t have had more different ideas on fundamental constitutional issues. Jefferson, who became Secretary of State and was amusingly depicted in the musical with an entourage carrying his many suitcases, was from the slave state of Virginia and opposed his rival’s capitalist ideas.

Jefferson favoured a collection of sovereign states, but the Hamilton the Federalist won the argument thanks to a deal struck in a closed door meeting. The ‘Room Where It Happened’ was probably my favourite song of the whole evening, a catchy number depicting the agreement whereby the Federalist model would be adopted in exchange for the capital being in the south. Jefferson later regretted the decisions of that meeting, which shaped the course of US history.

And then came their disagreements over France. Jefferson wanted to ally with the country, but Hamilton favoured neutrality – he wanted America to be a trading nation and worried about mob rule crossing the Atlantic. Hamilton won that argument as well.

After Washington decided not to run for a third term as president (Hamilton wrote his farewell address – ‘One Last Time’), Hamilton’s political career nose-dived. He was sacked by president John Adams (even though they were both Federalists) over an inflammatory critique of the new administration.

Hamilton also got caught up in a sex scandal after admitting to an affair with a women called Maria Reynolds. To expose the fact that he was blackmailed by her husband, he wrote a 100 page document detailing what had happened to him.

But it was the decision to switch his allegiances to Jefferson in the presidential election that would bring about his end. Vice-president Aaron Butt – Hamilton’s one-time friend and an excellent narrator in the musical – shot him dead. Aged just 47 when he was murdered, Hamilton had so much left to do with his life.

Ultimately Hamilton is about legacy and how someone is remembered. “Who lives, who dies,” the cast sing. “Who tells your story?” Thanks to Lin-Manuel’s musical, Hamilton’s story has now been revealed to the masses. And judging by the whooping throughout and standing ovation at the end when I saw it, it’s something that today’s America wants to hear.

Alexander Hamilton’s grave at Trinity Church, New York

Categories: Reviews, United States, World

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