Books · Theater

Hamilton on Stage vs. Hamilton on the Page: a Great American Debate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Beyond thorough, the acclaimed biography is more than 700 pages (and have your reading glasses close by; the type is tiny). It begins with Hamilton’s early days as a poor and illegitimate child in the Virgin Islands, and ends after his fatal encounter with Aaron Burr. To give you some sense of the detail and level of scholarship involved, Chernow devotes an additional 85 pages to acknowledgements and notes, including nearly 3,000 source citations. (Modern mythology has Miranda picking the book up at an airport, heading off on a well-deserved break from his earlier Broadway hit In The Heights. Suffice it to say, Mr. Miranda and I have different ideas about vacation reading.)

The New York Times described Chernow’s book as “moving and masterly”; it is truly excellent, and surprisingly readable. Without the need to boil a prodigiously productive life into 2 hours and 45 minutes, Chernow is able to deliver a more accurate and complex portrait. Hamilton’s relatively short career (he was killed before he reached the age of 50) is punctuated by his central role in most of the definitive moments of this country’s foundation, from the American Revolution itself to the Continental Congress, the Federalist Papers, the establishment of the U.S. Bank, Mint, Coast Guard, and Armed Forces, the Jay Treaty, the Whiskey Rebellion, the emergence of a two-party system, and more. Even his detractors (and he had many) would have to agree that no one has a better claim on being the master architect of our government. He was a dramatic—and polarizing—figure, but also, despite undeniable genius, a flawed man whose own life and convictions were wracked with contradiction.

In the Caribbean, Hamilton had grown up surrounded by the most brutal examples of eighteenth-century slavery, and he spoke out against it as a statesman. Yet he certainly reaped the benefits of the slave system once he was established as a gentleman; his wealthy father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, had slaves, as did his commander, George Washington. And Hamilton himself was charged with purchasing slaves for his sister-in-law when she moved back to New York from England. In Hamilton the musical, the lines are more definitively drawn. Hamilton is an abolitionist; his Southern rivals Thomas Jefferson and James Madison own slaves. North vs. South. Neat and tidy, and not exactly accurate.

Hamilton was an immigrant, a fact that rankled John Adams (and later inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda). Yet he was wary of immigrants, and attempted on more than one occasion to limit their right to vote and to increase the years they would have to reside here before being granted citizenship (issues that are still addressed by candidates and voters today). He also saw his own background as shameful, and could easily be baited with it. Miranda, himself the son of immigrants, celebrates it. In the heat of battle, his Hamilton, along with General Lafayette, exults, “Immigrants. We get the job done.” Similarly, although Hamilton was a revolutionary hero and prolific champion of the Constitution, he was less a believer in democracy than in meritocracy. In truth, he had a great fear of the common masses, and many of his official missions were orchestrated to put down perceived rebellion. Miranda doesn’t address this interesting nuance.

Historians have noted many other inaccuracies in the musical Hamilton, in terms of character and chronology. But one of its strengths is how pared down it is. Miranda homed in on certain aspects of the statesman’s life and changed the story for dramatic effect. For example, there was a commonly held belief in, and many letters that document, some sort of love triangle between Hamilton; his wife, Eliza; and her sister Angelica. Miranda changed when and how the three-way relationship began, writing side-by-side contrasting memory songs for the two sisters. A fictional tavern scene introduces Hamilton and his revolutionary posse, the Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, and Hercules Mulligan. The meeting never happened, but it sets up a group of good guys for us to root for. In the second act, Miranda does the same thing by focusing on just two of Hamilton’s adversaries, Jefferson and Madison, when in real life he had many more. The motives of Aaron Burr, who serves as the musical’s narrator, have also been simplified. Chernow states that Burr “only once betrayed any misgivings about killing Hamilton.” The offhand quote “Had I read Sterns more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me” is given greater authority as one of Burr’s last lines onstage.

Perhaps Hamilton’s greatest weakness was his inability to see another side or to change his mind once he had made a decision. Onstage, Miranda dramatizes one great mistake the founding father made, publishing “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” an attempt to quell accusations of fiscal misconduct by exposing salacious and exhaustive details about an extramarital affair. (“Well, he’s never gon’ be president now,” Jefferson celebrates.) Hamilton actually made several mistakes and miscalculations over the years, within and without the administration. But the musical, in highlighting just the one, makes the man simultaneously more heroic and more tragic.

So which Hamilton is the real Hamilton?

Both.

In his preface, Ron Chernow describes Alexander Hamilton as “the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once a thinker and a doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive.” In his musical masterpiece, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a little more succinct: “The man is non-stop!” On the page and on stage, Chernow and Miranda have brought our most forgotten founding father to life. He was, in fact, bigger than life, and we owe much of our life in America today to his tireless pursuit of an ideal federal government.

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  • Alex July 4, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    Louisa, I completely agree with you. I actually heard/saw the story on CNN, not on an Internet blog. But, it sounds like we should take every media story and opinion with a grain of salt.

    Reply
  • Louisa July 4, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    Nice intro, but Mr. Rosenberg was well aware he was quoting the character named Alexander Hamilton in the Broadway hit – hence, he used the present tense “says” rather than past tense “said.”

    A snarky click-hungry blog writer promulgated the false story that Mr. Rosenberg, a university graduate, thought our first Treasury Secretary was a rapper.

    I hope you know better than to believe everything you read on the Internet.

    Reply
  • Julia July 4, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    A long, meaty biography on vacation–absolutely! I just finished reading Chernow’s book because we’re going to see the musical in a few days.

    Reply