In my best of 2015, part 1 post, I mentioned that one of my favorite albums of the year was the original Broadway cast recording of the musical Hamilton. I became obsessed with Hamilton pretty much as soon as I listened to it, and of course once I become obsessed with something, I want to write about it. I'm certainly not the only person who had this experience with Hamilton over the past few months, nor am I by any means the only person to write about it. This is the musical that has launched a thousand thinkpieces, appreciations, and glowing reviews. I have not actually seen the show yet (I HAVE TICKETS FOR MARCH, AAAAHHH!!!), but after many, many, many, many times through the cast album, I think I feel okay putting down a few ideas.
One of the most striking things about the structure and storytelling of Hamilton is that the primary reoccurring narrator is Aaron Burr, who is in many ways also the antagonist of the story. He opens the play with a meta-narrative evaluation of Alexander Hamilton: "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence impoverished in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?" His understanding of the story is almost omniscient; he knows what is to come. This is underlined by Burr and the rest of the company (minus Hamilton himself, who in a way seems to be the only one existing in real-time throughout the story) at the end of the opening number when they do a kind of role-call, outlining the part each will play in Hamilton's story—who "fought with him," who "died for him," who "trusted him," who "loved him"—and Burr, as he labels himself, "the damn fool that shot him." Of course, those of us with even a limited, hazy knowledge of American history will probably recall that crucial detail, so leading with it is a canny move on the part of Lin-Manuel Miranda (who wrote the book and lyrics, and who is currently playing Alexander Hamilton himself). It's hard to build up suspense when the majority of your audience already knows how your story has to end, but giving the bad guy both the power of being a likable narrative and the plain, self-aware revelation of his own coming misdeeds is a smart choice in the face of that baseline historical spoiler.
This narrative form is by no means unique to Hamilton, and in fact the resonances it has with other works of theater and literature are one of the things I've thought about most while listening to the music. The most obvious parallels for me have been to other plays and musicals, including Jesus Christ Superstar and Amadeus,* both of which are largely narrated by the primary antagonists in those stories. As in the case of Burr and Hamilton, the stories of Judas and Jesus (in JCS) and Salieri and Mozart (in Amadeus) play with ideas of camaraderie, trust, jealousy, rivalry, and guilt. In each story, the arguably more famous, more historically mythological figure is seen refracted through the prism of someone very close to and yet very far away from them, someone who knows them intimately and shares some of their traits and yet feels wildly alienated from them. Burr, Judas, and Salieri are all painted as men whose not inconsiderable talents and strong ambitions might have made them great, but for the fact that they found themselves up against the immeasurably greater geniuses and prophets of their time, and of course limited by their own fatal flaws (although interestingly those flaws are fatal not for them, in the Classical sense of hamartia, but for their brighter-burning counterparts). In all three of these stories, this narrative device gives us a unique angle of accessibility when it comes to the title character and ostensible hero of the story, a person who might otherwise be a little hard to get into, since they come with so many layers of history and legend attached.
The echoes of these two particular pieces of theater are especially resonant with Hamilton. Like JCS, we can read Hamilton as presenting a view of a canonized mythological figure as in fact a flawed but inspired savior who is destined to be a sacrifice for the good of the whole (Jesus in Christian mythology, Hamilton in LMM's revisionist American history). There are even minor textual allusions to a kind of Christ-like status for Hamilton: Burr refers to him as being "seated at the right-hand of the father," the father in this case being George Washington—the canonical father of our country and a troubled paternal figure for Hamilton, but also a godlike figure in our country's history. Hamilton's genius and his incredibly prolific writing and thinking is also a recurring theme in the musical, emphasized by the repeated line "why do you write like you're running out of time" (and variations thereof) in a pattern that perfectly mirrors the way Mozart's remarkable fluency with writing music becomes a scene of him literally composing himself to death in Amadeus.
Of course these resemblances are not accidental: Lin-Manuel Miranda has even explicitly cited the narrator-subject dynamic from JCS as an influence in the way he structured Hamilton (I didn't find as much discussion about the Amadeus parallels, but I'm sure they're out there—LMM is basically a walking, talking, rapping encyclopedia of musical and theater history.) But it does inspire more general thoughts about why this structure is so compelling and how/why it works for certain stories. Another such story that has come to mind for me upon further repeated (and repeated, and repeated) listenings is Othello. Burr's repeated personal slogan "talk less, smile more" has some uneasy and uncanny resonances with Iago's "that one may smile and smile and be a villain." Although Iago is not, technically speaking, the narrator of Othello, his long recurring soliloquies give us fascinating access to his internal processes and the rivalry and jealousy he feels. I'm not quite done thinking through how to map the racial politics of Shakespeare's tragedy of the moor of Venice onto either Hamilton's innovative casting or the actual complexities of the historical Alexander Hamilton's racial heritage, but I'm definitely intrigued by it. Of course, once I get to Othello, it's just a short jump to Paradise Lost. While again, Lucifer/Satan is not properly the narrator in that poem, he is one of the models in the literary canon of the charismatic, troubled, obsessive, jealous but loving adversary who seeks to destroy that which he loves and fears and in doing so reinscribes the mythology of his other and assures his own (literal) damnation. I mean, come ON! The kinship between this set of antagonists—Lucifer, Iago, Salieri, Judas, and Burr—it's delicious! (I'm actually much more interested in these resonances than the God-Othello-Mozart-Jesus-Hamilton grouping. Relatedly, LMM has said, in jest but absolutely accurately, that it's super annoying that the two best pieces he wrote for Hamilton, the showstoppers "Wait for It" and "The Room Where It Happens," are both Burr numbers, not Hamilton numbers.)
AAALLLLLL this basically to say that Hamilton is incredible and very, very thought-provoking, and I'm in awe of how the musical and dramatic structure support so much of the emotional and even philosophical content of the show. I would love to hear what you think about any of this, as I know there's much more to say in terms of specific lines and scenes alongside these larger themes. Or just to geek out about it all. Thanks for reading!
* For the purposes of this piece, I'm thinking of the 1973 film of Jesus Christ Superstar and the 1984 film of Amadeus. I know that for real authority I should be talking about the texts of the original plays or perhaps stage versions, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. These are what I'm most familiar with (and what you probably think of when you envision these two works, too). Plus they're GREAT. Seriously, Amadeus is streaming on Netflix right now, do yourself a favor and go watch it. So great. *ridiculous Mozart laugh*