“Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” are powerful lyrics that run throughout the musical Hamilton and it seems that Lin Manuel Miranda has told Alexander Hamilton’s story with award-winning success. Beware! There are spoilers ahead.
With the premiere of Hamilton landing on Disney+ today. I thought that it would be a good chance to ponder why has this particular story has resonated so strongly with the public. It is undoubtedly the catchy hip hop and rap lyrics and diverse cast that has been at the heart of the success, flipping the traditional musical theatre scene on its head and clearly having a blast doing so. I do feel that there is more to it than this though, the story and the man are obviously the other sides of the coin. One side boasts incredible lyrics; the other a gut-wrenching tale of a deeply flawed man.
The story of Alexander Hamilton’s life is one tinged with tragedy right from the start. Abandoned by his father (he later tried to locate him only to learn he had died), his mother died from sickness not a metre from his own bed. He then moved in with a cousin who then committed suicide and then a hurricane ravaged his home town. Any one of these events could destroy a young child’s mind.
There is something impressive about someone who can experience all of these terrors and then use his wit and intelligence to pull himself out of his situation by writing and delivering speeches. I believe one of the reasons why Hamilton resonates so strongly with the public (particularly the American public) is that we can all recognise tragedy and we can all root for the underdog. Hamilton is certainly someone who has clawed his way out of poverty and rises to the very top of society by becoming General Washington’s right-hand man, he instantly becomes someone who you want to see succeed.
While Hamilton does succeed, for a short while, he succumbs to his hubris and his own flaws lead to his downfall. He is the architect of his own destruction and it is this that seals his position in the pantheon of theatre tragedies and writes Hamilton into the hearts and minds of its audiences.
Alexander Hamilton’s flaws are apparent throughout the musical and his life. Though they are tempered by his victories and successes, they still lurk in the background as a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders seeks to forge an America in his own image. A notorious womaniser with a short temper, a major theme that is evident in his life comes from Hamilton himself ‘I have always been dissatisfied, I know that’ (translated in the musical to the excellent song ‘Satisfied’). Hamilton’s desire to always better himself, to fight tooth and nail for how his particular vision of how America should be formed shows a man who lives for the struggle. It is almost the epitome of the American Dream.
His very real flaws both in the musical and in history are written plainly on his sleeve for all to see. When Hamilton is privately accused of fiddling about with taxpayers money he decides to confront the issue head-on, by publishing a ninety-four page pamphlet decrying his innocence by announcing that he was simply cheating on his wife rather than abusing his position of power. Hamilton’s morals are, by any stretch of the imagination, a little warped. The value he places on his honesty and personal integrity over that of his wife and family show a man consumed by his vision of America. This is another reason why people love the story, a man making decisions (arguably the wrong ones) just to ensure that he is seen as a decent lawmaker and politician, at the expense of his family. My personal favourite part of the tale was Eliza Hamilton’s response to the affair. She deleted herself from history by destroying her correspondence with Alexander; little of her opinions and words remain.
It is clear that the reason audiences fell in love with Alexander was that he felt so human. He was idealistic but damaged. He thought large (founding the Bank of America, a newspaper, the Coast Guard, and a political party) and blew up over petty grievances (such as writing to Aaron Burr listing over thirty years worth of disagreements that they had). His life (and his son’s) cruelly ended before his time. This means that Hamilton’s achievements end on a question mark. What could he have been if he had lived? What more could he have done?
The cliffhanger ending to his life will forever allow audiences to imagine what could have been. Could he have reentered political theatre? Could he have made more sweeping changes to American life? could he have settled his long-standing rivalry with Aaron Burr? We will never know and that is one of the many reasons why we love the tale of Alexander Hamilton.
However, it cannot be denied that most of what people know of Alexander and his story is because of the hit musical Hamilton. Lin Manuel Miranda’s creation was the main propellant for thrusting Alexander to the limelight. I had not heard of him before seeing the show and this will be true of so many other people as well (including, I suspect, in the USA where he graces the $10 bill). Hamilton had a fascinating life and we mostly know of his achievements because of the fantastic musical which I will be happily watching today.