Melissa loves learning about history, and also enjoys learning about the people making history today. She is always reading something new.
Hamilton: A Hip Hop History
Hamilton is a musical that follows the life and career of Alexander Hamilton, the founding father who wrote most of the Federalist papers and served as America's first secretary of the treasury. He's that guy on the ten-dollar bill, and tickets to see his musical have caused over 60 million of them to be exchanged. Yes, this musical has grossed over 600 million dollars in total as of 2020. Hamilton's success is due to it blending historical facts with musical theatre drama, stellar choreography, and incredibly catchy rapping. The musical features a mainly minority cast as a way to showcase immigrants and outsiders as a moving force in American history, and provide representation to people who have never seen someone who looked like them on stage in a Broadway production. Hamilton is a show with artistry in every aspect, and it can be streamed on Disney+, so if you have Disney+ I would definitely recommend watching it. Here are ten facts about Hamilton that will blow you all away.
1. What Inspirations Did Lin-Manuel Miranda Draw Upon to Create Hamilton?
Alexander Hamilton first took root in Lin-Manuel Miranda's mind when he read Ron Chernow's biography on Alexander Hamilton while on vacation in 2008. Ron Chernow actually became the historical consultant for the musical after Miranda met him in person at a White House performance of the musical's title song.
In addition to reading this biography, Miranda went on a tour of New York City's historical sites and perused many of Hamilton's letters and papers to get a feel for his personality and beliefs. The Morris-Jumel Mansion, where Washington hung out during the Revolutionary War, was a great place to write Washington's lines. Before the show went live on stage, he and Thomas Kail, the director of the show, went to the site of Hamilton's death in New Jersey to visit Hamilton's memorial. Some other books that Miranda used in his research were The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr by H. W. Brands, and Affairs of Honor by Joanne Freeman, which helped him describe the duels accurately.
As far as musical inspiration goes, Lin-Manuel Miranda took notes from both Broadway musicals and modern rap artists. Stylistically, Hamilton is similar to historically inspired musicals like Les Miserables, with several major recurring themes and concepts that come back again to haunt you in a different light. However, these themes are delivered in a captivating manner through catchy melodies and rapid-fire raps. Many references are made to musicals and rap:
- "My Shot" references Notorious B.I.G.'s "Going Back to Cali" (A-L-E-X-A-N-D-E-R, we are meant to be), Mobb Deep's "Shook Ones Part II" (I'm only 19, but my mind is older), and . . . South Pacific? Burr quotes the musical in his line "I'm with you but the situation is fraught. You've got to be carefully taught."
- "Right Hand Man" contains a reference to Pirates of Penzance when Washington refers to himself as a modern major general.
- "Helpless" takes a page from Beyonce's book, referencing "Countdown" in the line "Down for the count and I'm drowning in 'em." It also refers to the musical Mamma Mia when Eliza sings "I do, I do, I do."
- The "Ten Duel Commandments" is an obvious homage to Biggie's "Ten Crack Commandments."
- "Yorktown" refers to Eminem's "Lose Yourself"; "We only have one shot to live another day" sounds very similar to "You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow."
- "Say No To This" ends with a reference to a similar song from The Last Five Years where a man cheats on his wife, "Nobody Needs To Know."
2. Rapping Helps Hamilton Cover Four to Six Hours of Content
A feature that really helps set Hamilton apart from other musicals is its rapping. In a 2.5 hour span, the actors of Hamilton sing and rap over 20,000 words, which maps out to about 144 words per minute. Lafayette, our favorite fighting Frenchman, has the fastest tongue in the colonies, rapping at 6.3 words per second in "Guns and Ships." Rapping fits the story of Alexander Hamilton because he was a man known for his profuse writing. "Why do you write like you're running out of time?", Burr's lyric in "Nonstop," fits the show's style as well as its theme. If Hamilton went at the pace of a typical Broadway musical it would be four to six hours long, so it crams a lot of life into a short amount of time just like its main character.
3. Hamilton's Set Is Meant to Symbolize the Country
The set of Hamilton is designed to look like a colonial building that is in the middle of construction. This is symbolic of the fact that the country is in construction at the time of this play ("America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me!"). You can see the foundation of the country grow as the show progresses and the building expands higher. Guns are exchanged for quills on the wall as the country goes from wartime to peacetime. The turntables on the stage can represent the hurricane that destroyed Hamilton's Caribbean island, or the winds of change sweeping the nation in a time of revolution. They are revolution, both figuratively and literally.
4. Alexander and Eliza’s Hairstyles
In the world of theatre, a costume change could mean major things are happening with a character. Notice in Act 1, Alexander has his hair up, which is practical for a man going to war. In Act 2, Eliza is the one with her hair up, for she is now the one going to war for her relationship, dealing with her husband’s affair and the loss of their son.
5. Satisfied Was Historically Inaccurate but Thrown in for Drama
"Satisfied" positions Angelica Schuyler as the oldest of three daughters who has a responsibility to marry wealthy, but in reality, Phillip and Catherine Schuyler had a total of 15 children, including three sons who survived to adulthood. At the time that this song would have taken place, Angelica would have already been married to John Church, a wealthy businessman from England, so she would not have been an eligible bachelorette.
However, the flirtation between Hamilton and Angelica was real. The part where Hamilton puts his comma in the wrong spot really happened, but it was Angelica who misplaced the comma and he called her out on it. The part in "Helpless" where Angelica says "If you really loved me you would share him" also comes from a real letter.
There is no conclusive evidence that anything happened between Angelica and Hamilton, but flirtation in letters between friends of the opposite sex was common at this time in history. Lin-Manuel Miranda ramped up the sexual tension between the two and altered some details to create more drama in his musical.
6. "Dear Theodosia" Was Lost at Sea at the Age of 29
Aaron Burr's relationship with his daughter Theodosia was just as close in real life as it is portrayed in the musical. Burr raised his daughter like most men in that era would raise their son and heir. She was taught politics, arithmetic, and composition in English, Latin, and Greek, as well as normal things that women would learn such as sewing and music. Theodosia was his hope “to convince the world what neither sex seems to believe, that women have soul!”
When her mother died, 11-year-old Theodosia began running Burr's household with a capable hand. She was in charge of her father's domestic affairs until she met Joseph Alston, a planter from South Carolina. They married, honeymooned at Niagara Falls, and then went to live in South Carolina. Burr fled there, to his daughter's side, after he killed Hamilton in a duel. Theodosia came to his trial when he was caught, and after he fled further to Europe, she campaigned for his return from exile.
It was on a trip to visit her father in New York, after he came back from exile and resumed his place as a lawyer, when Theodosia Burr Alston disappeared. Theodosia boarded a schooner called the Patriot, and she and the ship were never seen again. Most likely, the ship sunk, although rumors flew around about pirate attacks, several people falsely confessed to her murder, and there was a portrait found in the North Carolina Outer Banks of a woman who greatly resembled Theodosia, suggesting that she somehow survived. Nothing has been confirmed. Her fate will likely remain unknown for all of time.
7. What Happened to Peggy?
Angelica! Eliza! And . . . wait, where did Peggy go after the first act? She disappears from the play, but in reality, Peggy Schuyler eloped with her 19-year-old distant cousin, Stephen Van Rensselaer III, when she was 24. They settled down in Albany, NY at his family estate, which he inherited young due to his father’s death. They had 3 children, but only Stephen Van Rensselaer IV survived to adulthood. Despite this, Peggy and her rich husband had a loving and happy marriage.
Alexander Hamilton was close to Peggy throughout her life (“Peggy confides in me.”). He actually wanted her to be a main character in a theatrical piece he was writing, once! Peggy was 42 when she died of an unknown illness, speculated to be the common cold. Hamilton was present at her death, since he happened to be in Albany at the time, and sent Eliza a note saying “On Saturday, my dear Eliza, your sister took leave of her sufferings and friends, I trust to find repose and happiness in a better country.” Peggy is buried at the Albany Rural Cemetery, among her husband's family members.
8. Burning That Piece of Paper in "Burn" Took Some Experimentation
One of the most iconic songs in the musical is "Burn," where Eliza agonizes on her husband's infidelity and burns all the letters he sent her throughout their relationship. Throughout the song, she burns a piece of paper, adding to the realism of the show. It turns out that the prop makers for Hamilton spent a whole day in a paper shop trying to find a piece of paper that would burn exactly for the duration of the song. You can see this for yourself in an episode of Tested below.
9. A Character Named "The Bullet" Symbolizes Death
During the show, you may notice one member of the ensemble (Ariana Debose in the Hamilfilm) appearing repeatedly, starting with her death at the hands of one of George III’s soldiers for espionage. Her name is “The Bullet," and she is an omen of death. Some of her other appearances include:
- Carrying a shot that barely misses Hamilton at the start of Stay Alive.
- In Yorktown, she shakes Laurens’s hand after helping him kill a redcoat. Laurens becomes the next character to die, having been killed offscreen in Georgia while fighting against some British remnants.
- In Blow Us All Away, she tells Phillip where to find George Eacker, who kills him in a duel.
- During Hamilton’s duel with Burr, notice how she slowly moves closer and closer to Hamilton while he’s giving his final speech. She stops when Eliza appears, his life, or rather a wife, flashing before his eyes, and then resumes her movement to kill him.
10. Why Does Eliza Gasp at the End of the Show?
After her husband’s death, the real Eliza Hamilton worked for the rest of her life (she lived to be 97, and almost lived to the start of the Civil War!) to keep his legacy alive. When Lin Manuel Miranda brings Eliza to the front of the stage, he as the creator of the show is showing Eliza that she was successful, because the audience is there to watch her tell her family’s story. She gasps because she can’t believe she did it.
What are your thoughts on "Hamilton"? Rate it here, and discuss in the comments below!
© 2020 Melissa Clason
Liz Westwood from UK on October 08, 2020:
I have heard about Hamilton and wondered what it was about, but never seen it. Your article gives an excellent insight into it and the historical backgound.