Hamilton: A Revolutionary Retelling of a Revolution

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An unlikely founding fathers story with a contemporary twist has taken Broadway by storm. Although face price tickets might be sold out for the next several months, CUNY students have every reason to be excited about Hamilton, the latest smash hit musical for which NYC’s native Lin-Manuel Miranda is responsible. Raised in Inwood, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Miranda graduated from CUNY’s own Hunter College High School and has since kept true to his roots. In 2008, he received critical acclaim for In the Heights, a musical set in the largely Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights (just south of Inwood) which swept the Tony Awards that year.

Now, Miranda has brought a very different kind of story to the stage—but with many striking similarities, including musical style and the demographics of the cast, both of which are thematically significant. On its face, the life of Alexander Hamilton, aka the youngest of the founding fathers and the first Secretary of the Treasury, might not seem particularly worthy of a musical. However, to a history buff like Miranda, who read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton on a whim while on vacation, the story was rich with possibilities. Miranda saw Hamilton’s as a classic immigrant story: the tale of a man who, driven by sheer ambition and raw talent, overcame his circumstances as a Caribbean-born, illegitimate orphan to achieve greatness in America’s founding era.

Image © The Public Theater
Image © The Public Theater

But Miranda didn’t just want to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton. He wanted to take it a step further, and thus, Hamilton was born, a musical with a hip-hop score and a predominantly black and Latino cast (including Miranda himself as the eponymous lead). Such artistic choices were very deliberate. According to Miranda in an interview for The Atlantic, “This is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.” As interviewer Edward Delman wrote, Hamilton “presents an American history in which women and people of color share the spotlight with the founding fathers.” Miranda went on to state in a New York Times feature, “Our cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional. It’s a way of pulling you into the story and allowing you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.”

As for the hip-hop/R&B/rap influences? To Miranda, it seemed like a no-brainer:

By the second chapter, I was like, ‘I know this guy.’ Just the hustle and ambition it took to get him off the island—this is a guy who wrote his way out of his circumstances from the get-go. That is part and parcel with the hip-hop narrative: writing your way out of your circumstances, writing the future you want to see for yourself. This is a guy who wrote at 14, ‘I wish there was a war.’ It doesn’t get more hip-hop than that.

Despite its unusual (naysayers might use the word “unmarketable”) premise, Hamilton is shaping up to be the next big thing this Broadway season, and its unassuming cultural relevance has surely played no small part in its critical and commercial success. According to Rolling Stone, one line in particular is always met with uproarious applause, which has only grown with the prevalence of Donald Trump in the news: “Immigrants–we get the job done!” Miranda probably could not have anticipated Trump’s politics (or what passes for them) to characterize the national conversation on immigration in recent months, especially not when he first wrote the musical’s score. However, as the son of immigrants raised in New York City, he had a clear intention from the beginning of his creative process: to look at history through a modern lens, enriching it with diversity that audiences had never seen or envisioned before.

Since its inception, CUNY has been no stranger to a good underdog story. As the flagship school of the university system, City College in particular has historically been a model for diversity and a defender of immigrant students, nicknamed “the Harvard of the poor” and ranking #1 for diversity in the U.S. News and World Report. In fact, the college itself is located in Hamilton Heights, home to the house where Hamilton spent the last two years of his life.

Regardless, students across all CUNY campuses have ample reason to check out Miranda’s latest work, which shares many of its core values with the university system at its most effective. Plus, it’s pretty catchy–if you can’t shell out the cash to buy a ticket months in advance, do yourself a favor and give the soundtrack a listen on iTunes or Spotify. And experience the era of the American Revolution like you never would have imagined it in your AP U.S. History class.

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