I just got done watching the documentary on PBS about the journey of the musical Hamilton, which if you weren’t aware, is a phenomenal musical about the life of our first Secretary of the Treasury in the United States, Alexander Hamilton. It’s not the sleep-inducing history lesson that led you to doodle in your notebook in order to stay awake. It makes history personal by incorporating the modern sounds of rap and hip-hop, as well as some jazz, in order to bring a founding father’s story into relevant conversation.
I know how the story ends, both in terms of the musical and the history it was based on. However, the ending always gets me. I knew that the last couple of songs of Act 2 would be featured in the documentary. I have made the mistake many times of listening through it on public transit, which prompts me to attempt withholding tears.
Some people might think it’s weird that I’m crying over a man who died in a duel in 1847. As you may be able to tell, I don’t think so. There is more than one reason I cry when I reach the end of the musical, and I hope to make those reasons clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, in order to help you understand where I’m coming from.
In the very first song of the show, entitled “Alexander Hamilton,” the actor playing Aaron Burr says that Hamilton’s enemies destroyed his rep, that America forgot him. This musical serves to tell the story of a founding father that hasn’t gotten as much attention as the others. I by no means intend to claim he was a saint, because like every human being, he balanced his faults alongside his accomplishments (although sometimes the faults seemed to overtake him). When I first heard that there was going to be a musical about Alexander Hamilton, set to music genres you wouldn’t normally find on my MP3 player, I was skeptical. How was the early history of America going to mesh with hip-hop and rap? I wasn’t sure it would.
I was proved wrong when I finally listened to the album in its entirety. I was persuaded by the musical’s rise to fame, reasoning that if it was performing in front of sold-out crowds, there had to be something there. Lo and behold, there was a story, there was the music, there was the history, and it worked.
Throughout the musical, you see Alexander Hamilton speak, fight, love, cry, and most of all write through his life. You see him meeting other figureheads of history, sometimes getting into heated arguments with some. You see his relationships begin, flourish, dissolve, evolve, and end. You see one of those relationships culminate in his death.
I cry because this is the first time I’ve been given the chance to consider a human being whose accomplishments shaped our nation at its most malleable and vulnerable. Since elementary school, I’ve looked at men like Alexander Hamilton as their birth-to-death dates, their portraits, their legislation. It’s boring, it’s bulky, and it was irrelevant. Now that I see that people—capable of emotion and change and fault—, were behind these moves, I see the history of my country differently. The numbers and legislation are still there, but they are the results of people with lives, people I can relate better to when they aren’t just portraits and numbers. I see the people before I see what they did, which enables me to reframe what they did, and therefore see history as so much more exciting than I ever thought possible. I’ve added several historical biographies to my Amazon wishlist that I never thought I’d be interested in, because of the new zeal I have for learning about the foundations of the United States.
I can picture Alexander Hamilton looking at the musical about his life in America, at the man who first thought of his story as hip-hop, at the people who portray him, as well as his friends and enemies. I can picture him seeing the effect that the musical has had in making people more interested about the beginning of the United States, and all of the institutions we may often taken for granted. It may not be how he may have pictured his story being told, as so much has changed since he was alive. However, I can see him, can hear him putting a spin on lyrics from the show:
“I may not have had control over who lived or died, nor who told my story. But in the end, my story was told.”
Alexander Hamilton’s hope of leaving a legacy has been realized in the modern age. The unprecedented success of this musical may yet open the door to another way of learning about history, one that engages us in the lesson that people—in all of their faults—can leave—and have left—their mark.