Why is Hamilton so captivating?
Like much of America, I was captivated by Hamilton on this holiday weekend, and I am currently captivated by its marvelous soundtrack. The musical itself is an amazing demonstration of human ingenuity and creativity—not to mention Lin-Manuel Miranda’s absolute genius. I know I am gushing, but this musical really is that good.
Why was it so good? Colonial history is a little bit of a bore. The idea that dialogue between a federalist like Hamilton and a democrat like Jefferson would be a riveting display of talent and entertainment seems to be a hard sell. Sure, Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton is one of the most memorable and notable things in American history, but even then, it doesn’t justify, alone, the nearly three-hour run time of the music. But my eyes were glued to the screen during the whole show. Why did it work?
Miranda wrote a musical that reminded Americans everywhere what this country could be about, using clever songwriting, in the style of hip-hop, which draws a modern audience into colonial drama seamlessly. But really what worked is that Miranda is retelling and rewriting a story for a new audience.
Every writer, journalist, and historian does this. They tell a story for an audience. And every time a story is told its main purpose is not to recount a story “objectively,” but rather to speak to a new audience (sometimes that audience desires the appearance of “objectivity,” which explains a lot of how the news media operates).
So I find the critics of Hamilton who knock it for being historically inaccurate to be missing the point. Its purpose isn’t to be accurate, but to tell a story that is relevant to its current audience, not simply recount facts. And if you were to criticize the musical, it should be for the story it tells, and not its accuracy.
Hamilton offers a story of hope to a hopeless world
What story is Miranda in Hamilton trying to tell in this time and place and to what end?
Miranda let’s you know the thesis of his musical in the opening number: “In New York, you can be a new man.” This story is about being a new person, being a new nation, having a new hope. It’s a hip-hop retelling of the story of America, one that has new relevance today. It consistently brings women and people of color, two groups of people systematically excluded from the social contract that formed this nation, into the forefront. It is including them and considering them.
Miranda is retelling the story of America in order to offer hope for possibility. Written during the time where the country was bitterly divided between a charismatic black president and a recalcitrant Tea Party-led Congress, Miranda is showcasing a time where dialogue, compromise, and winsome political persuasion won the day. A time where it wasn’t totally out of the realm of possibility that one’s honor would save him even in the event of a duel. Hamilton’s thesis that honor would save him, proved faulty (much like King George’s thought that his good service to his subjects would save him from a revolution)—both he and his son die when they shoot their pistols into the sky instead of at their opponent. But their story lives on. And Miranda is writing that story that lived on in a new, and incredibly catchy, way.
My quibbles with the storytelling here lie in the fact that Miranda is rehabilitating the American civil religion as the hope of the country. He is rehabilitating political discourse as a way toward progress. I have theological problems with this restitution. And even though I have questions about why Miranda didn’t write a more critical musical, I understand that he simply chose to tell a story in a certain way, with a goal of convicting and nourishing people in a time of despair. We have no shortage of cynicism, and the hope that he tries to build by telling this old story in a new way seems to be needed.
And that hope-filled message lands particularly well again, in 2020, during a continuation of the partisan bitterness that contextualized the Broadway musical in its inception. Yes, having a wannabe-tyrant as president makes a wannabe-monarch like Hamilton, who is also erudite and convicted, appealing. And leaders like Washington, a steadfast general that voluntarily gives up power instead of being king (so that the nation can live on), and Jefferson, the democrat who wanted to fight for freedom worldwide (despite having slaves of his own) add to the inspiration.
So I am inspired by the storytelling, the art, and even the hope the story offers. It’s helpful for me to see it as a story with a purpose. The story that it doesn’t share might inspire me to write my own counter-narrative, too. I can understand if you are so disappointed with the romanticizing of colonial American mythology that you can’t tolerate a note of Hamilton. But I appreciated it when I put it into its context: trying to give hope to Americans in a hopeless, divided time.
How Hamilton teaches us to read the Bible (and newspapers) better
Perhaps the reason I picked up on the storytelling, or better yet, why it was meaningful to me, is because I have studied storytellers for a long time. I studied both journalism and history in college. I love newspapers exactly because they are trying to tell the day’s stories—not just report the facts. I love considering historiography a sort of primary source unto itself because how we tell stories matters. And finally, even as I study the holy scriptures, I find a new appreciation for them when I see them as examples of the art of storytelling—as opposed to a sort of “objective” expression of history. Seeing the scripture as stories told in a certain way to certain people allows us to reconcile the differences between the first telling of Israel’s history (Joshua through Kings a.k.a the Deuternomistic History), for example, with the Chronicler’s account of Israel’s History. It helps us to read the four accounts of Jesus’ life without their apparent contradictions messing us up. It even allows us to read Jesus’ commentary on the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount, or Stephen’s commentary on temple theology in Acts 7, or even Paul’s new telling of Abraham’s relationship with the law. All of these accounts are stories, not unlike Hamilton, that help us to meet people where they are. They are retellings that bring a new kind of truth to the fold now.
In storytelling, you can become a new person
That line in the opening number of Hamilton resonates with me: “In New York, you can be a new man.” Miranda is retelling the story of Hamilton and certainly casting him in a new light. Most people aren’t going to go away from this musical with a new opinion on American colonial politics—but rather, they might see an ambitious man who tried to remake himself after his own tragic choices, whose charisma couldn’t overcome the bitter political rivalries he developed. Hamilton was a man, according to Miranda’s account, who couldn’t remake himself with a new story during his life. But he was also a man who had so much impact on the world around him—and died in such dramatic fashion—that we have the opportunity to remake him in our stories.
Once again, the storytelling is masterful, even if the subject itself brings his own problems. But it is inspiring to me in this moment. What it tells me is that I don’t have to believe the stories that I hear about myself. That I can be free of the tape of condemnation that plays in my head every day. That I can rewrite my story and believe something new about myself. And better yet, that I can allow God to rewrite my story as God’s beloved, and then share that message with everyone else who is listening.
Here’s the thing: if Alexander Hamilton’s story can be rehabilitated, if the American project can be rehabilitated, why do I keep condemning myself with the same story? It’s time to tell another story about myself. And it may be time for you to do the same.
Hamilton taught me that I can receive a rewritten version of myself. That I don’t have to be condemned. That something new can be said about me. And even if Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t write it, I have some help from a great community and from Jesus, too.