“I’m just like my country /
I’m young, scrappy and hungry /
and I’m not throwing away my shot.”
“Hamilton” had been so super-hyped up by the time I got to go and see it at Private Bank Theater in downtown Chicago on Saturday that I was worried that it was really going to let me down. But there was no way that I was going to throw away my shot to see it.
It turns out that I shouldn’t have worried. There was a reason for all that hype.
Tony, Grammy and Emmy Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash about the Founding Fathers never had a dull moment. It was so entertaining that I didn’t realize that throughout the whole 2-hour-and-50-minute production that I was actually learning quite a bit about history – history that I was never was taught in traditional history classes.
“Hamilton” is a show that sends you on your way excited and exhilarated and humming the catchy songs sung throughout the production, particularly the line “I’m not going to throw away my shot!” which I still can’t get out of my head. The performances are fantastic and not just by the leads – Miguel Cervantes as Alexander Hamilton and Wayne Brady as Aaron Burr – but of everybody in the cast including the characters of George Washington, Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette, Angelica and Elizabeth Schuyler, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and more. And King George III (played by Alexander Gemignani) was particularly hilarious during his brief appearances. Da da da dat da dat da da da da ya da.
“Hamilton” is the story of America’s Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies who became General George Washington’s right-hand man and led a decisive battle in the Revolutionary War. He passionately advocated for the Constitution’s ratification and served as the young United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury. He had an incredible impact on young America and that story is told using young people from America now.
The characters don’t just sing to each other, they rap. The rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were my favorite. The hip-hop and R&B-inspired music of “Hamilton” and its racially diverse cast are geared specifically towards making history as relatable as possible and pretty much tear up the musical theater rulebook.
I’ve seen plenty of musicals that have had all-white casts, and a piece about the Founding Fathers could have easily followed suit. But they didn’t. The cast is composed mostly of people of color. That diversity reflects America now and definitely what America will be in the future and it gave the show a unique and refreshing perspective. The actor playing this storied figure in American history is of Puerto Rican descent? No problem. Aaron Burr, the narrator of Alexander Hamilton’s story as well as his antagonist, is black? Great. All of the other major players in the story — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Eliza Schuyler – were played by incredibly diverse actors and actresses, too.
That diversity that was on display was important in reflecting the urgency of these young, brash group of rabble rousers who went up against an imposing authority. Historically, the powers that be have always been highly resistant to systemic change. When any movements threaten the status quo, the system will fight to protect itself as King George did back in the day and as the current system does now. In this way, the urgency of the revolutionaries to force change has a very strong resemblance to civil rights movements in the United States – from Martin Luther King to Huey Newton to, most recently, Black Lives Matter. The urgency of the revolutionaries then is the same urgency that young people of color fight against stop and frisk and against police brutality today.
The source material for “Hamilton” may be over 200 years old, but the themes that the production pulls out are still very pertinent today. It’s a neverending fight against a system that is unfair to them. The Founding Fathers were “citizens” of an empire that failed to treat them as equal citizens. Does that sound familiar today? Chris Hayes explains the uncanny similarities between then and now in a recent Nation article here. He says:
Because taxes were ultimately enforced through police actions, the British crackdown essentially inaugurated America’s first tough-on-crime era. More customs officials were granted more expansive powers, while courts were streamlined to produce swift punishment and avoid the maddening jury nullification that had made it so hard to punish smugglers in previous decades. After 1763, customs officials no longer looked the other way in exchange for small bribes. Instead, they began operating in ways that looked a lot like what we now call “stop-and-frisk.” They took to trawling the coast, stopping merchant ships to search and harass them. Authorities had no specific cause for these searches other than their confidence that they’d find illicit goods.
This was the same approach and justification that the New York Police Department infamously used to search for drugs and guns in the pockets of hundreds of thousands of young men, disproportionately black and brown, on the city’s streets in the 2000s. In a landmark ruling, a federal district judge found that stop-and-frisk amounted to wholesale, systematic violation of the Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted search and seizure. “While it is true that any one stop is a limited intrusion in duration and deprivation of liberty, each stop is also a demeaning and humiliating experience,” Judge Shira Scheindlin wrote. “No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life.”
Who is a revolutionary? Who is a thug? Who is a hero? Who is a villain? Both historically and today, it depends on who is writing the narrative and who is telling the HIStory.
That’s the key point of “Hamilton” — Who tells the story is sometimes more important than what actually happened. When you step away and move into the realm of legacy, you have no control over how your story is told. Or what happens to what you have built. “What is a legacy?” Alexander Hamilton asks, rhetorically. “It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to tend.”
Spoiler alert: Alexander Hamilton meets his final fate at the hands of Aaron Burr in a scene that is as powerful as it is sad. I knew this from old history books, but I didn’t know so much about Hamilton’s life and legacy and passion and pain that the production carefully unfolds. Why is that? Because Hamilton didn’t live to really tell his story. He never got to tend to the garden. He died rather young and other people told most of his story.
That made me wonder how many of millions of other stories in history were not told accurately. When I was a boy and a young man growing up in a small town, I was told many different stories over and over about black people, brown people, gay people, women, and more that I would learn later in life were completely and utterly false. These stories were told to me, like it always had been in our history, by old, rich white men or from even older textbooks.
But this is not the case in how we present and pass down stories anymore. “Hamilton,” hopefully, represents the future in how we will tell stories and portray history – diverse casts and diverse perspectives told in non-traditional ways that will change how we think and give us new perspectives that we would have never dreamed of before.
“Hamilton” will continue to delight audiences nation and worldwide with its national tour after it gets done in Chicago. It will undoubtedly land in Madison at some point. I strongly encourage you to not throw away your shot at seeing the incredible way that stories are now told.