America isn’t defined by its political process — at least not in the long run. It’s defined by what it does, and while that comes back to its political atmosphere at times, it also relies on people independently of the government.
As the increasingly toxic presidential campaign dominates news feeds and private conversations, it’s easy to lose sight of this fact. For that reason, I thank God for Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Thanks to NPR’s First Listen series, Mo Rocca of the CBS Sunday Morning show and iTunes’ handy pre-order offer, I’ve immersed myself in the soundtrack for Miranda’s newest show, Hamilton. In 2008 he won a Tony for his hip-hop and Latin-music filled In the Heights, set in a modern-day Washington Heights barrio on the brink of disintegration.
That was the story of immigrants living in an establish America. Hamilton is the story of immigrants establishing that America.
After all, as the Pope said this week in his address to Congress, “As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.”
Alexander Hamilton and ilk were part of the group to which Pope Francis referred. He was born in the Caribbean to a Scotsman and prostitute, and he came to New York after proving his literary merit. From there he fought in the Revolutionary War and became George Washington’s right-hand man. But his real battle scars would come from his political war over the Constitution. The author of more than 50 Federalist Papers, he believed in strong, centralized government while much of the country, including Thomas Jefferson, favored sovereign states’ rights. Add to that an unfortunate sex and blackmail scandal, and Hamilton was doomed — or perhaps lucky — to never have a chance at being president.
He was also the one to die in a duel against Aaron Burr, who was angry that he didn’t support him in the 1800 election against Thomas Jefferson.
Miranda’s musical covers all of these plot points with a soundtrack influenced by hip-hop, R&B and British pop (King George’s interludes are hilariously devious and toe-tapping, a la “Herod’s Song” in Jesus Christ Superstar). Cabinet and campaign debates are rap battles, and Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, accompanies her sister in Destiny’s Child-style female empowerment anthems.
It’s not just the sound that updates the story. Almost every cast member is a minority. As Miranda told CBS Sunday Morning, it’s “the story of America then told by America now. It looks like America now.”
This is why Hamilton makes me proud to be an American more than any other pop culture, political or sociological phenomenon of the past year — perhaps five years.
To those who have listened as closely to the soundtrack as I have, it seems counter-intuitive. Like its historical musical predecessor, 1776, it thrives on showing just how little has changed in our political game (it even references “Sit Down, John” during Hamilton’s reaction to Adams firing him). A sex scandal ruins an otherwise genius man’s reputation. Deals are made in backrooms between a select few. Voters get jaded during elections and resign themselves to candidates based on who’s the most approachable, not what stance they take. In that vein, politicians like Aaron Burr are successful for following the mantra “Talk less. Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
And yet, I’m inspired by the show — not just for the story it tells, but how it inserts itself into our current turbulence.
In an environment of political extremism, immigration disputes, disenfranchised and dehumanized races and genders, adult name-calling and click bait relying on irrelevant faux pas, Miranda’s work shows that even though many use their platforms to spread toxic messages that breed hate, our culture still has room for stories of hope. As much as presidential candidates dip themselves head-to-toe in a vat of rah-rah-America, Hamilton’s strength as a narrative rests in its ability to accept that not one of the founding fathers was perfect or perfectly vile.
They were human. They were immigrants. They were experimenting under extreme pressure, and they did as good a job as could be expected of them.
Miranda, however? He nailed it.
I’ll probably never see Miranda and his Broadway cast-mates perform this show unless they decide to tour it in Chicago (please!). For now, I’ll plug in my earbuds and use their phenomenal performance as an on-demand barrier against the discouraging political environment. Thank you, Hamilton, for making it easier to love my country, “young, scrappy and hungry” beginnings and all.