JULY 18, 2016
RON CHERNOW’S biography Alexander Hamilton begins with aging widow Eliza Schuyler Hamilton showing visitors mementoes of her husband and longing to see his life memorialized in print. Jeremy McCarter, in Hamilton: A Revolution, takes the same kind of reverent, exhaustively detailed approach to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical juggernaut that Eliza wanted for “her Hamilton.” McCarter tells the story of the show’s composition and evolution, from the first public performances of individual pieces to the Broadway premiere. Behind-the-scenes chapters alternate with songs from the show, printed in the order that they are performed. Those songs were, of course, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who annotates them here in a charming and chatty style. Folded in between these parallel narratives, you’ll find pictures of the performers onstage and off, excerpts from Miranda’s notebooks and correspondence, and writings from Hamilton himself. Taken together, they tell a story as canonizing in its way as History of the Republic of the United States of America, as traced in the writings of Alexander Hamilton and of his contemporaries, John C. Hamilton’s seven-volume biography of his father. Hamilton: A Revolution constantly gestures toward a fading subject, one that’s soon to disappear for good: the live show with the original cast.
Only a small percentage of fans will encounter the live original cast at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The book Hamilton: A Revolution, known to fans as the “Hamiltome,” tries to be the next best thing. As media and performance scholars note, Hamilton: An American Musical is a transmedia phenomenon. A Broadway show originally imagined as a mixtape, it has played out in different ways through other media: the Questlove-produced cast album; viral video-ready bits on late night TV talk shows; live video feeds from the White House. The Hamiltome consolidates the fan goodwill generated by these spin-offs and points it back toward the show itself, not just by taking readers behind the scenes but also by highlighting some of the performance choices that may not be audible on the cast album or visible in the promotional stills. It’s a mediated representation that tries to get fans as close as they can get to the immediate experience of the audience member. And it does so through the medium of the moment, print.
The first appeal to authority comes before you open the cover. With its substantial trim-sized and faux-leather binding, Hamilton: A Revolution looks like an encyclopedia volume or a high school history book. (A sweet woman at Starbucks asked me, “What are you studying?”) The old-timeyness has its precedents: an earlier Broadway show book, Wicked: The Grimmerie, was printed to look like a spell book with yellowed pages. Hamilton: A Revolution shoots for an Epcot Center version of the 18th century instead, with fake cut pages and never-ending chapter titles. Chapter V, for instance, is called “Stakes is High; Or, What Happened at Lincoln Center and What Came After, Including Lunch With Jeffrey Seller.” Of course, the name-dropping serves a different purpose than the convoluted syntax: it establishes the bona fides of the authors as theatrical insiders and old-school hip-hop heads.
With its back and forth between narrative and song, the Hamiltome is structured like a conventional musical. A chapter describes how and where a particular song was composed, or profiles the actor playing the role; then we see how that history plays out onstage. In the second act, the relationship between chapter and song gets a little wobblier and more conceptual. The discussion of lighting and sound design gives me a clearer sense of how chaos erupts onstage during the “Hurricane” and “Reynolds Pamphlet” numbers. The dialogue between David Brooks and Chris Hayes is a less-than-revelatory prelude to “The Election of 1800.” “A Grieving Chapter: On Losses Beyond Words” achieves the seemingly impossible task of making “It’s Quiet Uptown” an even more heartbreaking song. We find out that Oskar and Laurie Eustis’s teenage son died in the midst of rehearsals, an awful echo of the Hamiltons’ loss of their firstborn son. Taking a page from the Tristram Shandy playbook, this is the only chapter printed in white text on black paper; the mourning tone continues in the printed song, which is unencumbered by footnotes. Elsewhere, biographical details from people involved in the production layer on to the songs, adding another link to the chain of sympathy that binds Hamilton fans to the show.
While Miranda may observe a moment of silence for “It’s Quiet Uptown,” he annotates every other song in the show extensively. I should take a moment to acknowledge that authors are notoriously unhelpful when discussing their own work. My own favorite example comes from T. S. Eliot’s footnotes to “The Waste Land”: he annotates the line “With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine” with the utterly subjective observation, “A phenomenon that I have often noticed.” So I take Miranda’s notes with a grain of salt, particularly those with a touch of self-justification. Discussing military strategy with George Washington in “Stay Alive,” Hamilton makes an onomatopoeic explosion sound — “Chick-a-plao!” Miranda’s footnote says this is “probably a subconscious nod to all the rigatigatum and crack-jacko in West Side Story, though if I’m being honest, I hear it in Method Man’s voice.” In a book invested in reversing the polarities of show tunes and hip-hop, notes like these fit the thesis a bit too cleanly.
The annotations are valuable because Hamilton has an unusually diverse cross-section of audiences; a listener who recognizes the Macbeth quotation won’t necessarily know the musical theater of Jason Robert Brown or the raps of Big Pun. At first, Lin-Manuel Miranda was somewhat coy about his sources. In an interview with American Theatre from July 2015, he said “I don’t want to give them away, because I feel like Rap Genius [a lyrics annotation website] is going to have a field day finding them.” Miranda has a clear sense of who his readers and listeners are as well as where they are — mostly online. “This whole section is basically Harry Potter meeting Draco Malfoy before meeting his real friends,” notes Miranda of the song “Aaron Burr, Sir.” A student in my spring semester drama class read this note as specifically written to a Tumblring millennial audience. Much of the meaning in this book is built up through simile and analogy, though it’s not always clear to what end, other than having readers bask in the warm glow of shared references.
Miranda’s annotations bring us into all stages of his writing process. (I wouldn’t be surprised if one of his myriad projects is a book on creativity. He’s the only other person whose name is sometimes substituted in the motivational internet cudgel, “You have the same number of hours in the day as Beyoncé.”) He gives readers a clear sense of where he diverged from the Chernow biography and why it made narrative sense to do so. Like the “damsel upon whom nothing is lost” in Henry James’s “The Art of Fiction,” Miranda seems to have brought every useful scrap of his life into his work. “The Story Of Tonight” uses the melody of a doo-wop song he wrote as a teenager; “You’ll Be Back” takes its title from a joke about King George that Hugh Laurie made when he and Miranda were having lunch. The notes highlight the theme of citation within the show as well: Hamilton borrows and revises other characters’ language at several points, most memorably in “Farmer Refuted”; Washington’s farewell speech and song cite a Bible verse used earlier in his letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. These characters communicate through their references, just like we do.
Hamilton: A Revolution shows the complicated relationship between the historical figures in the play and the actor who play them. We get a sense of the processes of empathy and distancing that are at work. The chapter on Phillipa Soo discusses the “powerful identification” that Ron Chernow’s wife Valerie felt with Eliza Hamilton. Valerie died in 2006, so Soo’s performance takes on overtones of two women-behind-the-men. Chris Jackson talks about the impossibility of reconciling Washington’s ideals with his lived reality as a slave owner. Because there’s no room to articulate this conflict in the script, he’s had to display it physically. In the last song of the show, Jackson “bows his head in shame” when Eliza discusses abolition: “It’s his way of having Washington accept responsibility for what he did and didn’t do.” Where some of the other performers see their cross-cast roles in purely liberatory terms, Jackson shows how sympathizing with slaveholding founding fathers is a demanding form of emotional labor. His profile made me see the work of Hamilton in relation to a more politically charged drama that’s more explicitly about chattel slavery, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon. That play features actors of color playing slave owners and overseers, it jokes, because white actors don’t want to play racist characters and have the privilege to pick and choose their roles.
The chapters and annotations repeatedly invoke the nonverbal choices made by cast members in performance of the live show. Some of these emphasize biographical connections to the action: how Miranda’s feelings as a new father inform his choices as an actor, for example. But many of these discussions seem crafted to refute criticisms of the play by historians. The staging of “What’d I Miss” establishes Jefferson’s hypocrisy: Daveed Diggs sings about liberty as Jefferson while the ensemble labors around him. Miranda feels catharsis telling off Jefferson in the first rap battle, he writes, and he feels the audience processes the moment in the same way. The content of the play may engage in Great Man history and Founders’ Chic, the book seems to say, but the onstage reality talks back to some of that myth-making.
McCarter and Miranda have a sense of the gap between the optimistic, multiracial origin story that the play presents and the political reality on the ground. Hamilton: A Musical is a play of our era, which is to say the Obama administration. It begins with Miranda singing the first song of the show at the White House, and it ends with President Obama’s appearance on the Richard Rodgers Theatre performance in November 2015. Jeremy McCarter seems to like these kind of chiastic structures: “The black first president exited; the first black president appeared.” If you want to know what kind of legacy a president is claiming, look at his library. If you want to know what kind of legacy a Broadway musical is claiming, look at its book.