Hip Hop Hooray For “Hamilton” And History

2020 has been an awful year with a pandemic shutting down schools, businesses, and even Broadway. Not only has “The World Turned Upside Down,” but lives have been disrupted and lost. One amazingly positive thing has come out of the chaos though. Access to Broadway is now available to the common man–well, at least one who can afford a $6.99 monthly subscription to Disney+. Let’s give a big Hip Hop Hurray for the smash musical “Hamilton” which Disney+ is now streaming.

Timing, as they say (whoever “they” are) is everything. Just in time for the Fourth of July weekend, Disney+ began streaming a production about our country’s beginning and its Founding Fathers on July 3rd. “American history is entertaining?” you may ask incredulously. Yup. Watching “Hamilton” is bound to “Blow Us All Away” because it is nothing like we have ever seen before. Why is that? Because history is told in an innovative manner and presented to us an innovative way.

In case you have been living under a cultural rock, let’s bring you up to speed. “Hamilton” is a musical telling the story of Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father of this country and the very first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Ho, hum, right? WRONG! How this story is told is what is mesmerizing. Non-white actors (black, Latino, and Asian) portray the Founding Fathers and tell history through the use of various musical genres such as hip hop. Only a creative genius such as Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the music and lyrics for “Hamilton” could have envisioned Founding Fathers and hip hop going together. But you’ll be more than “Satisfied,” with his product.

How on earth did Miranda get involved in such a project? It all started when he was on vacation in 2008 and read a biography about Alexander Hamilton written by Ron Chernow. Wow! Do artists take wild vacations or what?? Inspiration struck Miranda, and “Hamilton” was the result.Manuel’s creative baby premiered on January 20, 2015 and was still being performed on Broadway at the time the famed theater district was shuttered due to COVID-19. Broadway  lights will not “Burn” for “Hamilton” through the end of 2020.

The musical became both a critical success and a cultural phenomenon. It has won 11 Tony awards, including Best Musical, and a Pulitzer Prize for drama. The production spawned a best-selling album of musical selections from the show.

Clearly the musical was financially successful and critically acclaimed. How can it be said  the production is a cultural phenomenon? The answer lies in its impact on society. In 2015 the Department of the Treasury announced its plans to replace the image of Alexander Hamilton which appears on the $10 bill; in his place was to appear an undetermined woman from American history. Had he been alive, Hamilton may have felt “Helpless” to prevent his removal from the currency. Nevertheless, due to the enormous popularity of “Hamilton,” the Treasury’s plans were abandoned.

“Hamilton” is also a cultural phenomenon because it has served as a learning tool about American history. The musical’s popularity and the marketing of its songs made American youths and adults alike feel “I Know Him” when it came to Alexander Hamilton. Seeing the production resulted in citizens being more knowledgeable about American history and more likely to retain what they had learned. Who could forget the riveting way in which Hamilton met his death. SPOILER ALERT: He died as the result of a duel with rival and then Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr as dramatically depicted in the play. Well, you knew Hamilton was dead by now some 200+ years later, but you may not have known how he died.

Not only did “Hamilton” portray American history, but it made some history itself when it began streaming on Disney+ on July 3rd. Originally the musical was being turned into a film slated for release in theaters in October 2021. Disney outbid multiple competitors to secure the film rights for a whopping $75 million. Because of COVID-19, Disney changed the game plan. It opted to release the film over a year early streaming it on Disney+. That’s about the only thing we can thank COVID for.

The film is a live recording of the musical as it appeared on stage in the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway. The original cast, which included Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Hamilton, performed.  Because the film aired on Disney+, a couple of naughty four-letter words had to be removed. Disney+ will only allow films rated PG-13 maximum to stream on its channel. so bye bye two “F” words.

Reaction to the “Hamilton” film has been mixed. The public ate it up. “The Room Where It Happened” was people’s living room. Between July 3rd and July 5th, the Disney+ app was downloaded 458,996 times in the U.S. Clearly Americans were watching “Hamilton” in droves around Independence Day. 

Scholars, on the other hand, have pointed out various historical inaccuracies. Well, if they were going to tow the line of being historically accurate, a man of Puerto Rican descent wouldn’t have been playing Alexander Hamilton and a black man would not have been portraying Aaron Burr. But the diverse cast has given credence to the idea that “Hamilton” is a story about America then told by Americans now.

The “musical” has also taken flak for not more directly addressing slavery. Miranda himself has responded that this criticism is “valid.”  Although the topic is mentioned very early in the show, it was not a major theme. In Miranda’s defense, the show is 2 hours and 40 minutes long as it is. He simply can’t cram everything in that could possibly be touched upon. And, let’s not forget, “Hamilton” is a show, not a documentary. It was meant to entertain. Any learning imparted is an added benefit. 

No matter what criticism is lobbed at “Hamilton,” you have to give the show credit. It’s streaming has given Americans something fun to do from home and taken their focus, even if momentarily, off of COVID-19. It’s use of hip hop, the “music of revolution” according to Miranda, has revolutionized history telling. If you watch “Hamilton” once, I’m pretty sure “You’ll Be Back” and want to watch it again  In the meantime,  “What Comes Next” is that you can have some fun and pick out the nine song titles from the musical sprinkled through this post. 

Just WONDER-ing:

Have you seen “Hamilton?” If not, do you intend to watch it? If you’ve seen “Hamilton,” what history did you learn? Would you have been tempted to watch the show if it had been a drama instead of a musical? Were the non-Caucasian actors who played the Founding Fathers believable in those roles? How many songs from “Hamilton” could you find in this post?




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