Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Who lives, who dies, who gets to tell your story?

Lin-Manuel Miranda /
Writer, composer, star, genius of "Hamilton".
It's been said that works of art have long informed how people understand the past, and Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton is no exception.

As the writer, composer, and star of the Broadway smash-hit Hamilton, Miranda is changing the way that people consider one of the Founding Fathers and the era he lived in. It puts him in lofty territory, alongside how Shakespeare transformed Richard III, and how the author Leon Uris romanticized the founding of Israel in his novel Exodus.

The recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" grant, the 36-year-old Miranda relies on the core elements of hip-hop and R & B-inspired music as well as jazz, pop and Tin Pan Alley – plus a racially-diverse cast – to make history as relatable as possible. Hamilton has become a certifiable Broadway box office hit – tickets are sold out into early 2017 – and the musical is centered around a story arc that related Hamilton's life story, from his orphaned upbringing in the West Indies to his death in a duel at the hands of Aaron Burr.

"This is a story about America then, told by America now," said Miranda, a native New Yorker, in an interview with The Atlantic, "and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story."

The real Alexander Hamilton (L) and Lin-Manuel Miranda,
who portrays the First U.S. Treasury Secretary in "Hamilton".
"Hamilton, then, has the potential to strongly influence the way Americans think about the early republic. For one thing ... it understands Thomas Jefferson to be a deeply flawed individual. It presents an American history in which women and people of color share the spotlight with the founding fathers. The primarily black and Hispanic cast reminds audiences that American history is not just the history of white people, and frequent allusions to slavery serve as constant reminders that just as the revolutionaries were fighting for their freedom, slaves were held in bondage," wrote Edward Delman in a September 29, 2015 essay for The Atlantic. 

"Perhaps the most significant lesson the show might teach audiences, and one particular relevance today, is the outsized role immigrants have played in the nation's history. Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant – a fact that Miranda repeatedly emphasizes throughout the show – and the musical also prominently features the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman who played a crucial role during the revolutionary war."

Lin-Manuel Miranda / The artist at work.
The process which Miranda translated the history of the unlikely rise and untimely fall of the first U.S. Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, onto the stage is a fascinating one. The origin of
Hamilton dates back to May 12, 2009, when Miranda performed "The Hamilton Mixtape" before an audience that included President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken World, accompanied by pianist Alex Lacamoire.

Lin-Manuel Miranda (center) translated the history of the
unlikely rise and untimely fall of the first U.S. Treasury
Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, in "Hamilton". 
In a February 2015 feature about Hamilton, Rebecca Meade of The New Yorker wrote: "It does not seem accidental that Hamilton was created during the tenure of the first African-American President. The musical presents the birth of the nation in an unfamiliar but necessary light: not solely as a work of élite white men but as the foundational story of all Americans. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington are all played by African-Americans. Miranda also gives prominent roles to women, including Hamilton's wife, Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), and sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry). When they are joined by a third sister, their zigzagging harmonies sound rather like those of Destiny's Child. Miranda portrays the Founding Fathers not as exalted statesmen but as orphaned sons, reckless revolutionaries, and sometimes petty rivals, living at a moment of extreme volatility, opportunity, and risk. The achievements and the dangers of America's current moment – under the Presidency of a fatherless son of an immigrant, born in the country's island margins – are never far from view."

The original cast recording, produced by The Roots' Questlove and Black Thought – which has been a constant companion of mine in my car stereo the past couple of weeks – recently garnered a Grammy Award, and Hamilton most assuredly and deservedly will clean up at this summer's Tony Awards.

"I don't know how many really good ideas you get in a lifetime," Miranda recalled in a December 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, "But the idea of telling Hamilton as a hip-hop story was definitely one because you get to do everything: love and death and a war and duels and revenge and affairs and sex scandals."

One thing's certain: thanks to Miranda's genius, Hamilton is having a positive influence in altering our perception of American history, and the role in which artists are helping shape the historical narrative.

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