Hamilton has it all. The extraordinarily popular musical about Alexander Hamilton’s life, based on Ron Chernow’s masterful 2004 biography, has ingenious writing, riveting lighting, polished staging, seamless ensemble acting, a catchy score, and energetic movement. However, who would have predicted that a hip-hop musical based on the life of an author of The Federalist Papers would become the hottest ticket in New York, Chicago, London, and the forty-four American cities hosting a touring production?
The extensive media commentary on the Hamilton phenomena includes discussions of its historical accuracy, political resonances in first the Obama and then the Trump eras, inventive musical mashups, and diverse casting. The show’s depiction of the Founding Fathers as young, impetuous, swaggering, and ambitious men highlights their humanity and blows a fresh breeze into fusty American history. Hamilton’s scrappy story of transformation from an “immigrant bastard” to brilliant writer, debater, and government architect is the classic American rags-to-riches narrative. Yet Hamilton is also a tale of sacrifice, love, sin, suffering, confession, grace, and forgiveness, with a resonant theological subtext that is often overlooked.
Writer, composer, and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rendition of the story, for the most part, follows Chernow’s interpretation of the events of Hamilton’s improbable life given in his best-selling biography. The young, orphaned Hamilton emigrates to North America from the Caribbean, patches together an education, develops into a powerful writer and orator, and serves as General George Washington’s right hand aide during the Revolutionary War. He and the young men that surround him—Aaron Burr, Marquis De Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens—hang out in New York taverns and “raise a glass to freedom” while debating political issues and keeping their eyes out for attractive young women. Hamilton meets the Schuyler sisters, Angelica and Eliza, and, while fascinated with both of them, marries Eliza. When the war is won, Hamilton writes fifty-one of the eighty-five essays defending the new United States Constitution entitled The Federalist Papers, becomes the first Secretary of the Treasury, and designs a financial system for the fledgling country that takes the country from bankruptcy to prosperity. His persistent drive, in Miranda’s brilliant book and score, becomes a symbol of the American spirit: “Immigrants, we get the job done!”
Hamilton depicts its protagonist as a deeply principled man who fiercely advocates for his positions against numerous doubters, including several heated exchanges with his staunchest political enemy, Thomas Jefferson. In two gripping Cabinet meetings performed as rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson, Hamilton highlights Jefferson’s often self-serving agenda on behalf of the southern states. Hamilton repeatedly refuses to back down from defending his beliefs, despite Burr’s advice to “talk less, and smile more.” However, Burr evinces a disturbing moral flexibility which, along with his wounded pride, eventually leads to the fatal duel that took Hamilton’s life at the age of forty-seven. When Washington decides not to stand for reelection, Hamilton takes the moral high road by endorsing Jefferson over Burr for president, explaining, “When all is said and all is done, / Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.”
However, despite his brilliance and principles, Hamilton is a flawed hero; one hot summer in the city (a subtle homage to the Lovin’ Spoonful), with his family upstate, Hamilton is seduced by a married woman who croons, “Staaaay with me.” Soon he receives a letter from her husband suggesting that the affair can continue as long as Hamilton pays him blackmail. When his political enemies uncover the payments and accuse Hamilton of embezzling government funds, Hamilton takes the unprecedented step of publishing what was dubbed “The Reynolds Papers,” in which he confesses to the affair and the payments, but also documents that the funds came from his personal accounts, not the country’s treasury. However, this public confession sinks his political career and deeply wounds Eliza. Burning his letters, she plaintively sings: “You told the whole world how you brought / this girl into our bed, / In clearing your name, you have ruined our lives. /. . . You have torn it all apart.” Paradoxically, public confession damages private relationships.
However, when Alexander and Eliza’s oldest son, Philip, is killed in a duel defending his father’s honor, the Hamiltons reconcile and move to a quiet part of New York, where Alexander works in the garden and takes solitary walks. He reveals, “I take the children to church on Sunday, / a sign of the cross at the door, / and I pray. / That never used to happen before.” The lyrics thus quietly reflect Chernow’s account of Hamilton’s “genuine religiosity in later years,” which included daily prayer and Bible reading. In a show previously dominated with razor-sharp, whip-fast repartee, Angelica now simply sings, “There are moments that the words don’t reach. / There’s a grace that’s too powerful to name,” and the company replies, “Forgiveness. Can you imagine?” Eliza’s generous spirit grants Hamilton peace.
Such self sacrificial giving also characterizes Angelica, who, in Miranda’s version of events, meets Hamilton at a party and is immediately taken with his intelligent eyes, sharp wit, and electric personality. However, when she sees Eliza’s face across the room, she knows that her sister has fallen for Hamilton. Angelica confides, “I know my sister like I know my own mind, / you will never find anyone as trusting or as kind / If I tell her that I love him she’d be silently resigned / he’d be mine. / She would say, ‘I’m fine.’ / She’d be lying.” So Angelica introduces Hamilton to her sister, whom she loves more than him.
Chernow’s description of the final days before the duel with Burr emphasizes Hamilton’s personal and spiritual preparation. The night before the encounter, Hamilton wrote Elizathat he could not bear to kill another human being and that the “scruples of a Christian” had convinced him to expose his life to Burr: “This must increase my hazards and redoubles my pangs for you. But you had rather I should die innocent than live guilty.” This final state of grace unmistakably emerges during the spectacularly staged climax of the musical. The honorable Hamilton points his gun to the sky, but as Burr’s bullet speeds toward him, time stops and the rest of the company are frozen in place as Hamilton sings of his death and wonders about his legacy. As his “time’s up,” he receives a glimpse of “the other side,” where his mother, Philip, Laurens, and Washington are waiting.
The palimpsest of Christian themes of love, sacrifice, and redemption is echoed in the playbill from the current Chicago production, which I saw in September. Many actors make religious references in their biographical notes, thanking God and citing a variety of scriptural verses. Chris De’Sean Lee, an incredibly talented junior from Belmont University, a Christian college in Nashville, plays the dual role of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, and his entry concludes, “he gives every bit of glory to his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Such humble self-effacement was also manifested during the final curtain call, which aptly included the entire cast in masse, without singling out any one performer for individual applause.
Although the show is about a uniquely gifted, wildly creative individual, the role of Hamilton is not that of a solitary star; it’s part of a complex ensemble of voices, bodies, and faces that captures the diversity in unity that is one of America’s distinctive strengths. Encountering Hamilton’s and the country’s story through Miranda’s powerful lyrics and music is a soul-stirring experience. It almost makes one proud to be an American: an immigrant, an intellect, a reader, a writer, a striver, a sinner, a friend, a lover, a parent, and a humble petitioner for forgiveness and grace.