Deconstructing Hamilton, I: The American Dream

By Tara Dalton

Via The Broadway Blog

“How to account for his rise to the top? Maaaan, the man is non-stop.”

If you’ve grown up in the United States, the sentiment is drilled from childhood. Work hard, and you too can make your destiny. No matter your last name. Even beyond U.S. borders, the American Dream is likely somewhat familiar; jokes abound on Tumblr about zealous ‘murica pride. Insert cawing bald eagle.

This so-called nation upon a hill has its mascot in Alexander Hamilton, as depicted in the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” An ambitious immigrant, intent on building a life and legacy, is propelled by little more than sheer will to succeed. Cue rapping, pop ballads, and heart racing show-stoppers.

On CBS Sunday Morning, Lin Manuel Miranda, the writer behind “Hamilton,” unveils some of his musical reasoning in the show. “The hip hop narrative is writing your way out of your circumstance.” Hamilton’s life certainly speaks to this. Over the course of discussion, parallels arose between Miranda’s background and Hamilton’s.

A Puerto Rican immigrant, Miranda’s father at 18 learned English while earning his post doctorate degree at NYU. Referencing his dad, Miranda exclaimed, “I can’t begin to aspire to that level of ambition.” At 18, Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the Caribbean, also moved to New York to pursue his education.

That’s the story of Hamilton: “another immigrant coming up from the bottom.”

Well, one aspect.

I’m Gonna Build Me a Wall

It’s easy to approach the show from a certain American exceptionalist perspective, often lauded in the Republican platform. In this distinctive society, Alexander Hamilton rises from the humblest of beginnings, and manages to become, by nearly any metric, a success. The story on stage however is far from a clean-cut success narrative.

The obstacles Hamilton and several of the main characters grapple with demonstrate the complex forces at work when the US burgeoned into being. The relationship presented between hard work and success is hardly linear.

The intensity in Alexander’s cry “I’m not throwing away my shot“ radiates self- determination, but just as easily harkens to the uniqueness of his position. Lines such as “I shoulder every burden, every disadvantage” demonstrate how Hamilton is hindered. Aaron Burr notes that in Hamilton’s situation, “there would have been nothing left to do for someone less astute.” The song “Meet Me Inside” gives a clear glimpse into the state of social mobility when in a tense moment Hamilton retorts to Washington, “Well I don’t have your name. I don’t have your titles. I don’t have your land, but if you gave me command of a battalion… I could rise above my station after the war.”

There are few issues this show sugar coats. Slavery is thrown in the faces of the founding fathers via rap battle. Angelica Schuyler reasons that she’s ”a girl in a world in which her only job is to marry rich.” Characters are consistently constrained by the society in which they live; some break these barriers, while others abide by paths paved for them. Judgment is left to the audience.

“Hamilton” alludes to the opportunities the United States provides as “a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up,” but in the context of women’s rights, class, and other social limitations the show ensures that another aspect of early American society is not lost.

Listening to this music in 2015, we can reflect on the progress we’ve made, but also on the nuances we must strive to have when considering historical figures and events. After all, as Aaron Burr concludes in “The World Was Wide Enough,” “History obliterates in every picture it paints.”

Tara Dalton is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email her at theater@nyunews.com

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