Last week, on my way to the kitchen at work, I passed by a colleague’s office and heard – or thought I heard – a familiar snippet of music. When I walked back by a few minutes later, I stuck my head in the door. “Is that Hamilton?”
My colleague looked up with a grin. “I cannot stop listening to this musical,” he confessed.
I laughed, and made a confession of my own: I downloaded the soundtrack at the end of May. And I can’t stop listening either.
If you’re a Broadway fan – or a hip-hop fan, a Twitter user, or someone who pays attention to trends in pop culture – you don’t need me to tell you about Hamilton, the smash musical about the life of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton that has taken the world by storm. If you (somehow) haven’t heard about it by now, I am both amazed (how?) and here to tell you: it is incredible.
My friend Valerie, she of the impeccable taste in TV shows (and the person responsible for introducing me to Harry Potter), raved about Hamilton when she saw it in New York last summer. I’d heard about it all over the Internet, especially since the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a prolific and highly entertaining Twitter user, and since I have a lot of friends who share my love of Broadway musicals. But I’m not really a hip-hop fan – or I didn’t think I was – and so I shrugged off the show’s popularity for a while, thinking it wasn’t for me.
As you may have guessed, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I’ve been living with Hamilton for three months now, and I mean that literally: I have memorized nearly the entire first act and significant chunks of the second. The songs run through my head from the time I wake up in the morning until I go to bed at night. I listened to it for hours walking around NYC last weekend, and I entered (and lost) the lottery to see the show three times. My consolation prize was the small but fascinating Hamilton exhibit at the New York Public Library.
I’ve spent days listening to the whole cast album and also replaying three- and four-song sets over and over again, marveling at the multiple layers of history, politics, love and ambition that intertwine to form the show’s narrative. My ear has become attuned to the vocal nuances of Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Christopher Jackson, Renée Elise Goldsberry and the rest of the original Broadway cast, who perform on the album. I watched the TV broadcast of the Tonys just so I could see the cast perform live. (I cried.) And I am ridiculously proud that I can rap (almost) as fast as Daveed Diggs, who spits rapid-fire lyrics as the Marquis de Lafayette. (“I never pegged you for a rapper,” my husband said recently. Trust me: I didn’t either.)
Hamilton has generated a lot of ink (online and off) about its origins, its racially diverse cast, its mind-blowingly complex marriage of musical forms, its unflinchingly honest take on the story of a nation that continues to struggle with its own complicated history. My friend Alissa Wilkinson wrote a fantastic piece for Books & Culture about the show, and there are hundreds of other articles out there. I’ve struggled, myself, to explain what keeps me coming back to it – and the answer, like the show, has multiple layers.
Like any great narrative, Hamilton contains multitudes: love, ambition, honor, jealousy, revenge, the bloody founding of a nation and its messy first few years of self-governance. But it’s also a wonderfully particular human story. Miranda’s lyrics bring Hamilton, George Washington, Aaron Burr, the Schuyler sisters and other characters to vivid, precise, colorful life.
Instead of marble busts or engraved portraits on our currency, these are people: flawed, hopeful, impulsive, gloriously brave. They fall in love; they wrestle their own demons (and fight with each other, sometimes fatally). They aim to give their children a better life than the one they had. They grapple with big ideas: independence, friendship, legacy. They do their best to build something that will outlive them. They are towering historical figures, and they are also us. Their story, especially for Americans, is ours.
During these crazy, turbulent months of job changes and moving, I’ve had Hamilton in my earbuds and in my head almost constantly. I haven’t been this obsessed with a musical since I fell in love with Les Misérables back in high school. In addition to asking important questions and sparking much-needed conversations, this show tells a damn good story. And it is so much fun.
Have you listened to Hamilton? (Or read the book about the show, above?) I’m always up for geeking out with fellow Hamilfans.