Hamilton the Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
Lin Manuel Miranda
In the Introduction to Hamilton the Revolution, co-author of the book, Jeremy McCarter, explains that the brilliant, new musical Hamilton is the story of two revolutions. “There's the American Revolution of the 18th century, which flares to life in Lin's libretto, the complete text of which is published here with his annotations There's also the revolution of the show itself; a musical that changes the way that Broadway sounds, that alters who gets to tell the story of our founding, that lets us glimpse the new, more diverse America rushing our way.” (p. 10) McCarter's comment cuts to the heart of what makes this book so important in understanding the impact that Lin Manuel Miranda's show has had on the future of Broadway musicals.
Hamilton the Revolution (referred to affectionately in our home as The Hamil-Tome due to the size and density of the book) is a must have volume for theater aficionados. Co-written by Lin Manuel Miranda, who authored the book, music, and lyrics of Hamilton, and Jeremy McCarter, who wrote cultural criticism for New York and Newsweek magazines before spending five years on the artistic staff of the Public Theater where Hamilton got its start, this extra-ordinary volume delivers not only the complete lyrics of Hamilton, but annotations by Miranda detailing the genesis of the lyrics, his creative process, the historical foundation for what is occurring onstage, and the impact the play has had on all stakeholders. Before each song lyric Miranda and McCarter include fasinating chapters that cover each phase of the show's development.
Aside from the rich prose, exquisite production photos are included to showcase the performers in the show. Miranda's choice to use a heavily multi-cultural cast to play the iconic roles of our founding fathers, allows every audience member to relate to the sacrifices that were made to establish our country. Three of them won Tonys for their performances: Daveed Diggs, Leslie Odom Jr., and Renee Elise Goldsberry. Lin Manuel Miranda won the Tony for Best Book, Best Music and Lyrics, and, of course, the show won Best New Musical honors as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.
Back in May my daughter, Shauna, who majored in theater at Montclair State University, began talking about Hamilton. She had purchased the double disc set of the musical and within days had committed to memory most of the songs, including some snappy rap pieces that have broken Broadway records for speed of delivery onstage as heard in the song “Guns and Ships.” Shauna convinced me to buy the album and start listening for myself.
From the opening song, “Alexander Hamilton,” I was hooked by the memorable music and the power of the lyrics. I played the album repeatedly and my husband started listening. Every time we get into the car he puts the album on, and my husband, who has never sung a note in his life, goes around our house singing, “I want to be in the room where it happened, the room where it happened.”
My family has become obsessed with Hamilton; we can't stop talking about it, even though we haven't seen the show yet. (For my birthday my daughter presented me with four tickets for March 26, 2017.) We have dissected the lyrics, discussed the characters, analyzed Miranda's powerful use of internal rhyme, and reveled in the depiction of our American forefathers with all of their raw flaws and revolutionary ideas for creating a new nation. Being able to access Lin Manuel Miranda's analysis of his work has assisted us greatly in deconstructing the lyrics and examining American history from a different perspective. If you intend to see the play, you will be doing yourself a huge favor to become familiar with the lyrics as presented in Hamilton the Revolution.
Miranda's first show, In the Heights, premiered in 2007 and combined salsa, hip-hop, and traditional Broadway ballads in a bold effort to change the sound and look of contemporary theater. Miranda's bold experiment was successful enough to garner four Tony awards, including Best Musical. Although In the Heights was a hit, Hamilton is clearly Miranda's masterpiece. It should be noted that not only did he write the show, he portrayed Alexander Hamilton until recently.
By allowing the reader into the mystery of his creative process, Miranda provides a rare opportunity to explore the synthesis of his knowledge of theater, history, and music in creating Hamilton. For example, Miranda pays homage to the greatest dramatist of all time, William Shakespeare in the song “Take a Break.” In a letter to his sister-in-law Hamilton writes:
My dearest Angelica,
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.”
I trust you'll understand the reference to another
Without my having to name the play.
Aside from using Shakespeare as his inspiration, Miranda mentions artists including The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Rogers and Hammerstein, other plays such as “Wicked,” “West Side Story,” and “South Pacific.” These are merely a sampling of the music world references that Miranda notes.
Another treasure of the volume is the inclusion of original historical documents, including the Federalist Papers, the tally of the Presidential election of 1800, arrangements for the duel between Hamilton and Burr, and letters from many of the key players in the story. It should be noted that Lin Manuel Miranda spent a lot of time collaborating with Ron Chernow, the author of the quintessential biography of Alexander Hamilton as well.
The final address that George Washington delivered to the public upon making the decision not to run for a third term of office is included not only in the volume as it was printed in the newspapers at the time, but in one of the show's most poignant numbers, where Miranda inserted the speech into “One Last Time.” Of the song Miranda writes, “Reading Washington's Farewell Address, this section jumped out at me. In it, Washington seeks to do exactly what we aim to do with this musical: paint himself as human and capable of mistakes.” (p.210) This particular piece is so magnificently written, the speech showcased to perfection, that it reiterates to us the greatness of our first president. And certainly, before too long, most school children will have memorized this speech just by listening to the score of Hamilton.
This review began with a quote from the final scene of the play, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” because it brings home the essence of what Hamilton is really about. Sung by Hamilton's widow, Eliza, who tells of her efforts to keep Hamilton's memory alive; for the massive amount of writing that he did in the earliest days of the foundation of America, “I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writing,” (p.280), for his abolitionist views, “I speak out against slavery, You could have done so much more if you only had ---Time,” (p.280), and his love of orphan children, “I establish the first private orphanage in New York City.” (p.281) The show ends with the company joining Eliza in the gripping final words, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story … Time. ..
Will they tell your story? Who tells your story.” (p. 281)
And in these concluding words of a powerful tome, the irony is clear. Eliza worked for fifty years to preserve the legacy of one of our country's most ambitious, sincere, flawed, young heroes. And now, 212 years after his death, Alexander Hamilton, whose face we see every day on the ten dollar bill, is making history again thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda, all of those associated with the production, and the great historical author, Ron Chernow.
A final word on the beautiful book, Hamilton the Revolution. The book is a $40 investment, but it is worth every penny because you will not read it once. It is a reference book that readers will return to again and again to gaze at the pictures, to study the lyrics, and to be reminded of how the mind of a literary genius works. Fascinating to read, stunning to look at, Hamilton the Revolution will bring tears to your eyes and pride for being an American to your heart. And, if in fact, you are not yet an American citizen, Hamilton's story is that of the struggles of an immigrant to carve his way in a new society. His life and times remain an inspiration to all.