April 20, 2016


Hamilton's Pulitzer (David O. Stewart, April 20, 2016, Washington Independent Review of Books)

A bemused neighbor recently explained that her middle-school-aged children are obsessed with "Hamilton." This is a show about a Treasury secretary who died two centuries ago, a show the kids know only from Internet snippets and the double-CD version (which recently nestled in the top 20 on the Billboard chart, ahead of Taylor Swift, Drake, and a range of pop icons).

Yet these young people in suburban Maryland, my neighbor related, sing the songs to each other and in groups. "You be Jefferson," they call out, "you be Burr, and I'll be Hamilton."

I was dazed. I write history and speak about it to groups with median ages that hover in the low 70s. Is Miranda's mix of rap, blues, and torch songs making history hip in 2016?

And make no mistake: Miranda's version of the early republic's history is remarkably accurate. Not perfect, but compared to a Hollywood production, it's astonishing how close he hews to the events -- major, minor, and mundane -- of Hamilton's tumultuous life.

Credit Miranda with knowing dramatic gold when he opened Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton. A poor immigrant orphan from the West Indies who succeeded by sheer brilliance, Hamilton was good at everything he tried -- law, politics, war, finance.

Yet perhaps inevitably for a man with such a trajectory, Hamilton had glaring weaknesses. How many national leaders publish a lengthy pamphlet detailing their extra-marital affair? Or die in a quarrel over intemperate words that they might easily have withdrawn?

The key to the show's power is that Miranda doesn't confine himself to depicting this smorgasbord of one man's powers and flaws, but finds the universal in it.

Start with his insights into politics. When Aaron Burr, Hamilton's mirror image, advises the bumptious immigrant to "talk less, smile more," political consultants can only smile and nod. When Burr sings that he wants to "be in the room where it happens," he reveals the underside of ambition: the desire to do good often twins with the lust to be at the center, to know the secrets.

A rueful moment arises when James Madison and Thomas Jefferson share their dismay over Hamilton's dominance in George Washington's government. It sure would be nice, they sing in the lament of those who lack a key ally, to have "Washington on your side."

But Miranda also finds in Hamilton's story the thrills and pain of every life. "Helpless," sung by the Schuyler sisters when they meet Hamilton, is a cheery celebration of young love. According to my informant, the middle-school set favors it. Miranda explores the nature of sisterhood through the two women's lives, both enamored with Hamilton yet always loyal to each other.

Posted by at April 20, 2016 7:38 PM