I was a late-latecomer to the awesomeness that is Hamilton. My sister introduced me last summer (her girls knew every word), and my husband obtained* the digital music. I listened. Once through, and I was instantly hooked. I listened to it on a loop every day.
Even though there were some narrative jumps, I figured those represented dialogue. Um. Nope. When we evacuated Florida in October, Sister and I gushed about the music, the story. I complained about the gaps.
“Why does the King just show up the once after Washington resigns? It was funny, but I wish there was more.”
There was more. Turns out, only about half of the songs downloaded, and those randomly. I had not once listened to the full soundtrack. Well, let me tell you, it was a revelation. Hence, several more months of listening. Nonstop.
History Has Its Eyes, Well, You Know
I love-loved the music, the story, the execution. And still, early on I referred to Hamilton as historical fiction. That’s how I presented it to my boys. My sister seemed shocked when I first said this to her. “It’s not a putdown,” I said. “It’s just context.”
For Christmas I received Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton, which you all know inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to begin writing The Hamilton Mixtape, which became Hamilton. I also received Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, but I told myself I would only read it once I finished the biography.
The biography is excellent. I highly recommend it. It took me six weeks to read in snippets between tucking boys into bed and succumbing to sleep every night. So good! The most clear thing: the musical adds, changes, and rearranges history. It’s historical fiction. That’s not a bad thing.
Yesterday, I finally got to read Hamilton: The Revolution. It was a fun, fast, explosive read. Also highly recommended. Don’t quote me, but I don’t think Hamilton: The Revolution ever calls Hamilton historical fiction; however, it does clearly tell you when and why scenes were altered. I love that!
Coming of Age
Three boys (mine) and two girls (nieces) between the ages of 9 and 13. All are American-born kids whose 12th-great-grandfathers – Edward Fuller and William Brewster – both immigrated here on the Mayflower. Two are second-generation Chinese Americans. Bonus! all of them have a great-great-grandmother by the maiden name of Elizabeth Hamilton, no relation to Eliza and Alexander.
None of that is the point. The point is that they have grown up knowing it is absolutely normal for the President of these United States to be black. They live in middle America and their classrooms are full of kids from all kinds of families. They expect and consume media representation that looks like the world around them.
These are just five of the kids who are growing up with fewer constraints on what can be, what must be, what must not. It’s incredible to share Hamilton as a vehicle to show them how radical this country’s founding was, how far we’ve come, and how much further we need to go. That is the goal for every generation.
Wherein I Take Umbrage
To be clear, I am NOT opening a challenge to a duel.
But if I’m honest, there is one time one word in Hamilton chokes me, angers me, stops me in my tracks. Every single time.
I appreciate poetic license. I embrace narrative arc. I adore me some fictionalized history.
It’s just one little word in one song. All the way at the end of the play. Track 22 of disc 2, The World Was Wide Enough, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s compassionate mea culpa on behalf of Aaron Burr. Set aside that the author is exceedingly more sympathetic to Burr than I feel. There is this:
Now I’m the villain in your history
I was too young and blind to see
Wait. What. No. Just. No.
Aaron Burr was born February 6, 1756. He shot Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804. I’m not awesome with the maths, but I think that makes Burr 48 years old at the time of the duel. Forty-freaking-eight. Even by today’s standards, Burr was not young.
There’s a lot we talk about as a mom and three boys when we listen to Hamilton.
pause “Oh, yeah, guys, we don’t devour ladies. Consent is real.”
pause “No, of course they didn’t already know the baby was a boy. But you can do that when you write it some two hundred years after the fact.”
pause “See, this is super simple: No. You just say no to this. Now you try. No. See?”
pause “Well, we don’t really have democratic republicans of any kind anymore, so…”
But then we get to Burr. Burr who has been charismatic and relatable and carried a much richer arc than he probably deserved. Not only do we not hear about his post-duel breakfast with unsuspecting folks who later couldn’t have said Burr had just shot a man, we hear that he’s kinda maybe pretty cut up about the whole thing. And I don’t pause. It’s a story. As far as arcs go, it’s compelling.
Now I’m the villain in your history
I was too young and blind to see
The world was wide enough
The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me
pause “He was 48 years old! Forty-eight! He was plenty old enough to know better and do better. Youth is not an excuse to hurt people, to kill people, or even to lack a depth of understanding deep enough to make such things happen!”
Because we live in a country that boasts not just Hamilton/Hamilton and Obama and Black Panther and Wonder Woman, not just fine healers and advocates and philanthropists, but malevolent tragedies like Parkland, Florida, last week and demonstrations of hatred like Charlottesville, Virginia, last August.
A secondary tragedy in reporting these types of events: white men and boys are frequently youthanized. They are called boys and young men and cast as too young and blind to see the world was wide enough. While men and boys of color are aged. They are cast in terms that make them seem older, scarier, and harder. They are chastised as exactly old enough to see the width and depth of the world, despite their actual youth.
As I’ve said before, one of our family mottoes is: Words matter. The ones we write, say, hear, read. They make a real, tangible difference in life.
I adore Hamilton. And I still regret that Burr excuses his violence because of his youth of forty-eight years.
Mr. Miranda, on the unlikely chance you read this, no duel please. Thanks!
- The brain is a marvelous vessel for extraneous information and abstract connections. Something that struck me pretty early on in listening to the (whole) Hamilton soundtrack: There are two discs and each disc has 23 songs and so the whole thing is like a baby. What? Well, a baby has 23 chromosomes from each of two parents for a total of 23 pairs or 46 chromosomes.
- Reading Hamilton: The Revolution I learned that one of the original cast members shares the same relatively unusual first name as one of my sons. He doesn’t see his name in print too often, except in the Bible, so he was duly enthused.
- There are tons of interesting factoids you’ll love if you read Alexander Hamilton. It only adds to the love of the musical, but oh-so-juicy.
- Complete non sequitur: Johnny Weir is a bit like Loki in disguise. [I’m watching the Olympics.]
- Book camp 2018 will be all about adaptations and guess what example we’re going to use? It’s going to be epic!
*Update after a 1:29 pm text from Sister: Apparently, dear Sister bought the album and gifted it to our family so that I would become an addict just like her [families who sing musical theatre together stick together]. Which worked. Even without all the tracks downloaded. And that’s how a big sister wins at life.